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UnLearning and Learning

In February we celebrated the life of my 89-year-old father who recently died and in March we celebrated the thirteenth anniversary of my mother’s death. These two elders were complicated people with complicated personal histories. As Black Americans, they showed the perseverance and dignity of many of their contemporaries while also showing some of the racism, colorism, and sexism that is embedded in American society. As their offspring I am grateful for the love of reading, questioning, and reflecting that they gave me while I am abundantly aware of my need to unlearn some of the racist and classist perspectives they also gifted me.

In my work as an educator I am very aware that my elders are always with me. An incident early in my career as a teacher brought this to my attention. After teaching in Los Angeles for three years, I found myself relocating to the community where I grew up and teaching at the neighborhood public school close to my parents' home. The young scholars at the school predominantly identified as Hispanic/Latine, Black, and Asian. Many lived in the nearby public housing referred to as the apartments by community members. When I was growing up, my parents always cautioned me not to go to the apartments because it was dangerous. Why this area was dangerous was never explained to me; it was simply transmitted. Early in that school year, I had decided to visit each student and I found my anxiety level rising as it came time to visit the apartments. When I drove up I parked on the street and triple checked to make sure my car was locked. Then I began visiting the scholars' homes and meeting their adults. My anxiety eased as I met the caring adults in these scholars' lives. I reached the final apartment and knocked on the door. This scholar was particularly difficult for me to build a relationship with and I expected to enter a home that was chaotic and unmanaged. For the first time in our short relationship, this child actually looked happy to see me and ushered me inside. They went to get their mom who was with three younger siblings in a back bedroom. Mom came out and sent my scholar to the back of the apartment to help the younger siblings with homework.

Mom shared her reality. She was the sole adult provider for her four children and often asked the child in my first grade class to help with the younger children. The scholar in my class was exceptionally kind and gentle with the younger children and had been labeled by adults at school as a troublemaker in kindergarten. I explained that I didn’t see her six-year old as a troublemaker and that I was struggling to gain her child’s trust. She looked at me and said, “Of course you are because you think you are better than us.” I wanted to say that this wasn’t true, but I couldn’t because that is exactly what I had been thinking. I saw this space as dangerous and assumed that people that lived here were lesser than my family with our single-family home with modest furnishings and a manicured lawn. My classism was showing up. The only thing I could say to that truthteller was, “Thank you for pointing that out. I am wrong to think that way.”

I replayed the afternoon uncovering all the assumptions I had made. Then, I considered how my biases were showing up in my classroom; my constant references to college implying that college was the only post-secondary option and my read-a-loud choices that centered middle class families also said you are lesser.

The next day, I began again with new awareness of some of my biases. I continue to learn about my assumptions and biases and to unlearn. I choose to be grateful to my parents for cultivating the tools that help me in unlearning ——- reading, questioning, and reflecting. Thanks, Mom and Dad.

Some reflection questions for you:

How are your biases showing up in your practice?

What is something you need to unlearn?

How will you unlearn it?

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