By Matthew R. Kay, author of Not Light, But Fire
Over this past year, I’ve delivered many professional developments designed to help teachers lead meaningful race conversations. During this time, I have met passionate educators that continually inspire me with both their humility and their willingness to develop their practice. This is hard work, and it says something about an educator’s character when they choose to engage it earnestly—when they could just as well be grading papers. After each session, I love to speak informally with fellow teachers—answering questions, joking around, sharing my contact info. This is when someone often pulls me aside and asks what to do with colleagues that “don’t see race,” or don’t think that school is the proper place for race conversations. Even now, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the incredible worldwide response, many teachers still approach me concerned about the indifference of their colleagues, wondering how to convince them to care.
I do not take this question lightly. I am fortunate to work in a school community that, while far from being perfect, is committed to anti-racism. This is evident not only in the various systems and structures that organize our school but also in our culturally responsive, student-centered approach. We have room for growth, but I never feel like my anti-racism swims against a particularly powerful current. But many educators do feel this way and find it exhausting. Many of us teach in places where declaring that Black Lives Matter is somehow still banned partisan speech. I’ve spoken to women educators that have been reprimanded for wearing earrings that declare “Black Girl Magic.” I’ve spoken to teachers who have overcome constant discouragement when trying to start a Black Student Union or Latinx club. All of this on top of the stresses that any teacher faces when trying to best serve their students.
When I consider this challenge, my memory flashes back to my childhood. I was raised in Zion Baptist Church, one of the pillars of Philadelphia’s Black community. When I was born, the church was still pastored by the great Leon H. Sullivan. During a tenure that coincided with much of the Civil Rights Movement, Sullivan led multiple boycotts, convincing companies like Tastykake to integrate their operations. He organized the city’s first Black-owned and developed shopping center. Sullivan lobbied large corporations to withdrawal from doing business in South Africa during Apartheid. His achievements are cemented into Philadelphia’s memory—but what I remember most, especially since he retired in 1988 (when I was only five), was a certain habit that I couldn’t pull my youthful eyes away from. I can actually still see it: Rev. Sullivan would back gingerly out of the pulpit and into plain view. There would be a great buzz of anticipation. He’d then pick up his leg, and to the delight of the congregation, shout, “Sometimes you've just gotta step over them!” And then he would, with sweeping, great drama, kick his heel out and step forward. I was too young to understand the scripture from Nehemiah (a temple-building prophet who had to bypass death threats from people aiming to distract him from his task), but even as a little kid, I understood Rev. Sullivan’s sentiment. When you encounter a naysayer, don’t spend time arguing with them, or trying to convince them. Just step over them. Find a team that’s willing to work with you and get the job done. In many ways, that dramatic leg kick still informs how I engage those who refuse to accept the obvious.
It certainly informed my writing of Not Light, But Fire—probably as much as the 1852 Frederick Douglass speech that inspired its title. In it, I spent no effort defending the book’s premise—that all students benefit from meaningful race conversations. I did not waste a drop of ink arguing that White Privilege exists, or that all students, from all racial backgrounds and cultures, bring something worthwhile to the table. My book operates from a frank understanding—that at a certain point, a teacher’s refusal to acknowledge how race impacts our students’ lives is willful. Educators, administrators, and policymakers who remain steadfast in their “color-blindness” have chosen myopia. Especially when this pandemic has shut most distractions down, and forced us all into a public national reckoning on racial justice. It takes more effort now than in recent memory to not “see race.” So the real question becomes: How should we, the not-perfect-but-at-least-awake educators that Not Light But Fire was written for, engage colleagues that wield their purposeful ignorance to blunt our attempts to engage race and racism with our students?
Sometimes you’ve just gotta step over them.
This takes many forms. First, we must recognize the intractability of individual colleagues’ racism and stop letting them bait us—and instead spend our limited energy dismantling specific racist systems (high-stakes testing, natural hair bans, draconian discipline) that are allowed to flourish in so many of our schools. We must also refuse to be derailed by the characterization of anti-racist, student-driven pedagogy as inferior, “snowflake” learning—when we know it to be the most rigorous, powerful way to prepare students for the uncertain world they’ll inherit. Lastly, we must admit when it’s time to run with new cliques—forge new alliances with colleagues, be they in our building or around the country, who share our commitment to getting better at classroom race conversations. This, instead of trying to befriend our way into the good graces of those who would intentionally impede our progress. In all, we must try to not be dragged into the inconsequential skirmishes that burn out so many well-meaning teachers. Even if, in a worst-case scenario, we have to keep our resumes updated, with half an eye searching for a school community that will better facilitate our growth.
And when we find (or create) this community, as I have, it’s important that we tell our truth. So many colleagues are out there are feeling isolated, tempted to waste energy on inconsequential distractions, and might need the encouragement of our story. Not Light, But Fire is mine. In it, I’ve described embarrassing disasters and giddy triumphs. I try to unpack the decisions that caused both, without taking comfort in vagueness or relying on magical thinking. And when I am fortunate enough to be invited to schools around the country, I am encouraged to find colleagues doing the same. Partly because building with these educators helps to expand my own supportive squad, but also because it signals a movement away from letting, “Why should we have classroom race conversations?” dominate the discourse. It signals that we are ready to take the big step of discovering How to get better at them. And hopefully, as we improve, our classroom conversations can not only richly educate our students—always our most important goal—but inspire a few of our more stubborn colleagues to climb aboard before this moment passes them by.
About the Author
Matthew R. Kay is a proud product of Philadelphia’s public schools and a founding teacher at Science Leadership Academy (SLA). He is a graduate of West Chester University and holds a Masters in Educational Leadership with a Principals’ Certificate from California University of Pennsylvania