TMC16, Race, and What We’re Not Talking About

Twitter Math Camp was awesome. Julie just wrote a great guide to catching up if you weren’t there. It was inspiring to reconnect with so many incredible educators, and it has left me even more excited for the coming school year. Lots to think about, lots to process. But of all the ideas that I have spinning around in my head right now, I keep coming back to Jose Vilson’s keynote (click through for the video).

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“So why did I choose race? Well, I mean, look at me. And then look at y’all. Then look at me again… I had to choose race because that was the one space I didn’t think we talked about enough.”

Jose talked about how, as math teachers, we ask critical questions, we prepare for teachable moments, we expect non-closure, we stand on inquiry and openness, and we allow for multiple pathways. We do all of those things to help our students learn math. To become critical race thinkers, we need to apply those same types of thinking to our conversations and our actions around race.

I don’t write often about issues of equity or racial justice, and Jose’s talk was an important reminder that my silence is actually a pretty loud message. It’s time to change that.

It’s also important to look at our community as a whole. Two years ago at my first Twitter Math Camp, the three keynote speakers were white men who were not classroom teachers. They were all great speakers, but we also sent a message about the voices our community chooses to value. The last two years have featured three women and three men, voices of color and elementary voices, half classroom teachers. By my rough count, in 2014, male presenters outnumbered female presenters almost 3:2. This year there were more women presenting than men, though only barely. We had a number of sessions around social justice and equity, compared to (maybe) one two years ago.

This is progress. But it’s important not to mistake progress for success. We have a long way to go to get the voices we need into the conversations we’re having.  And this is an iterative process. We need to be more inclusive to improve our collective critical consciousness, and we need to be more critically conscious in order for more folks to feel included.

It’s worth noting that I helped to perpetuate the problem. When I was asked to give a keynote, I had a lot of ideas running through my head, and lots of questions. One question I didn’t ask was who the other two keynotes would be, and whether a range of perspectives would be represented. As a white man from a background of privilege, it’s something I need to say. And I didn’t say it.

I’m not sure where this goes next. Writing about racial justice and social justice is not my strong suit. And my voice and my perspective will always be limited. But these are conversations that we need have, because they’re essential to the work that we do. Lani Horn has a great metaphor here, borrowing from John Dewey (around 42:00 in the linked video). It’s easy to stay up in the realm of theory and not navigate the uncertainty of working in classrooms with complex power dynamics and students who are forming their identities. But it’s like teaching someone to swim without ever actually getting into the water. And this uncertainty is the water the teachers swim in, and the water that can make us drown. If we pretend it isn’t there, we’re ignoring the exact power dynamics that have created the problems we face today, and creating new challenges for tomorrow’s students.

This post doesn’t have a clever ending. I don’t have any answers. What I do have is a drive to follow the advice of Jose, of Rochelle Gutierrez, of Kaneka Turner, and turn it into action in my classroom and conversations in the community.

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