Not just hard conversations

If you’re a white person trying to do anti racist work in your classroom, or your school, you better be willing to take criticism, confront your own failings, and humble yourself to the hard lived experiences of those you aim to champion. You better be prepared to interact with the marginalized with a level of humility and compassion that acknowledges their lived experiences and resist the urge to take things personally.

I felt it, and it was hard. It hurt and I was tempted to flee to the confines of comfort. I had to suck it up and realize that sometimes a response has nothing to do with me personally and everything to do with a larger social and historical context.

I called her and the conversation arranging her visit to speak to our students did not go well. She was coming to speak to my students about surviving the 60s Scoop, being involved with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. She was bringing her son, the hoop dancer. We were both worried about students and their responses.

Our conversation chugged awkwardly with me trying to back up, explaining and reassuring while she advanced thrusting retorts. She said that she knows the policy of the school board and would take action if needed. I told her that I would make sure my students were respectful. She said, “I don’t need you to protect me.”

We agreed to a reduced schedule of visits, and I hung up the phone feeling guilty. I traversed the conversation over and over in the mind, that night, the next day, shared it with others whose outrage matched mine, until I finally reached an understanding within.

“I don’t need you to protect me.”

“You” isn’t really me. “You” is white people, settlers, the colonizers, the one’s who created the Indian Act of 1876. She has survived and now thrived because of her own strength and the strength of her Indigenous community. She wasn’t really speaking to me; she was responding viscerally to an ancient wound.

She spoke to the students with encouragement and dignity. We heard her story of separation, addiction, loss and the hard work of regaining her culture. Her son showed the students some hoop dance moves, involved them in the presentation and a window on a world was cracked open.

As an anti racist educator, I’ve realized that hard conversations are not enough. I must journey within and reframe my entire understanding of the world with humility and compassion. I have to do more than just have hard conversations.


7 thoughts on “Not just hard conversations

  1. Beautifully written, powerful piece. In my experience, the hardest part of doing this work is confronting our own internal biases and beliefs, and sitting in our discomfort. It’s difficult, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s necessary.


  2. There are many details behind the scenes which I purposely left out and will not chronicle here. What mattered in those moments was my understanding. Perhaps that is not clear in this slice and I’ll be conscious of this next time. Thanks for your feedback, Emily.


    1. Thank you for taking the time/effort to respond. I had a look at your exchange with Sheri as well, and I realize that there are, of course, many details to every story and I know I don’t need to be privy to every detail and that is okay.
      I appreciate the clarification on your intention in writing this piece.
      I hope you take my questions as suggestions for further introspection, and not as criticism. We are all learning about communication in this public medium, and I do appreciate that you are posting about your thoughts. It is brave of you.


  3. These lines “hard conversations are not enough. I must journey within and reframe my entire understanding of the world with humility and compassion” really hit the mark for me. Truly engaging in this work, especially as you are teaching this class, is about reframing our understanding. This is both hard and necessary. You write beautifully about this situation, especially by focusing on your own change in understanding “her” – from “hostile and demanding” to “encouragement and dignity.” Thank you for documenting how you moved from one space to the other by facing this moment.


  4. Thanks for sharing your new understanding and how you reached it. I’m a little stuck on Emily’s questions which strike me as valid and I appreciate your response in acknowledging that there’s more to the story than we can see here. And that’s always the case, isn’t it? A good chunk of a story can reside precisely in so much that is not described, not said, not elaborated on. To say the least, I am glad to hear your acknowledgement that anti racist teaching requires more than hard conversations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond, Sheri. You are a model educator and I value your opinion.

      The reader’s perspective is important for me to consider whenever I write, and this writing is what I felt in a difficult series of moments and the reckoning that came with travelling down a path alongside the marginalized. It is an admission of my learning rather than a judgement on my presenter. I had hoped it would be received as a judgement of myself.


  5. I read the post, as well as all of the responses, and I have to say that it makes me proud of the SOL community. These are hard and vulnerable conversations, for sure. The questions and reflections Emily brought up are important since the post does present an Indigenous woman as “hostile and demanding.” And this entire set of interactions has inspired me to again take a look at my own biases and second-guess my own awareness and responsiveness to words that have the potential to hurt or misrepresent, even without an underlying intention, as is the case here. Thank you to all of you for your vulnerability and commitment to knowing better and doing better.

    Liked by 1 person

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