That’s an understatement. There is no way that I can truly empathize and understand the experiences and struggles of people of color. To be denied service at a lunch counter because of my skin color is inconceivable to me. I can’t wrap my head around being rounded up and sent to an internment camp because of Japanese ancestry. Or currently, being separated from my parents and locked up simply because we were attempting to find a better life by crossing into the U.S. via its southern border. I understand these to be true experiences and my heart aches to acknowledge them.
But, I can’t know.
I can’t know because I am a privileged American white male. Not privileged because of being born with a silver spoon in my mouth. That definitely wasn’t my experience. My white privilege goes back a long way on this continent. An ancestor on my father’s side of the family tree, Samuel Fuller, was the 21st signer of the Mayflower compact in 1620. But the true reason for my privilege is because our societal and political systems have been intentionally designed throughout our history to support my opportunity to realize “life, liberty and the pursuit happiness,” often on the backs of non-white citizens.
While I can’t really imagine the experience of my brothers and sisters of color, I want to. I want to hold a glimpse of their experience in my heart. I want to understand, if only a little bit, the pain of their struggle. I want to gain a dollop of wisdom based on their journey to assure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated in the future.
I want to imagine what it may be like to walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins. So, I’m going to try to comprehend some the circumstances surrounding the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth in 1620. I’m not relying on the perspective of the Pilgrims, the subject of many stories from my family’s tracings and the white lore of our nation.
We teach what we know.
Rather, I want to come closer to understanding the experience of a young native who may have observed the vessel coming to shore and begin to disgorge its inhabitants on his land.
What my ancestor and his companions did not know was that the indigenous people were there long before their arrival. In fact, they had lived in the region for over 12,000 years. They fished its waters, hunted along the shoreline and farmed their crops in the fertile soil. Something else that Fuller did not understand was that the area to be known as Plymouth had been visited previously by European explorers. They brought with them illnesses that the indigenous people did not have immunity to combat. 1616-1618 brought plague to the Wampanoag tribe. By 1620, none of the Wampanoag people remained. The evidence of recent farming activity and their abandoned villages was not the “sign from God” that the new arrivals interpreted it to be. Rather, it was a sad testament to the peril indigenous people would experience with the arrival of European explorers and settlers. Though the other native tribes were generally thought to be hospitable (perhaps a foundation of the lore surrounding the first Thanksgiving feast, attended by 90 indigenous people in 1621), they would be understandably wary of strange people arriving on ships with unusual customs, afraid that they were bringing more calamity to their traditional ways of life and their very survival.
Fast forward four hundred years. A young child is sitting in class being taught the traditional story about the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth. What if that child is native American? Perhaps he/she is a descendent of the Wampanoag people. What is being taught in class, the “truth,” doesn’t square with what he has been taught through the storytelling tradition of the tribal elders. Who is to be believed? What are the facts, the accurate story? The teacher is certainly enthusiastic and engaging in her delivery of the curriculum, or her understanding of it: teaching what she knows. But, the child knows, too, what he has been taught. He can’t see himself in her story.
Unless this child is fortunate enough to have a native American teacher, he will predictably be taught by a white person. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (nces.org.gov,) about 79 percent of public school teachers were White in 2017-18, 9 percent were Hispanic, 7 percent were Black, 2 percent were Asian, 2 percent were of Two or more races, and 1 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native; additionally, those who were Pacific Islander made up less than 1 percent of public school teachers.
If we do, indeed, teach what we know, what we teach and how we teach will inevitably be informed by our personal and cultural experiences, our perspective. If what we teach fails to resonate with the personal and cultural experiences of the learner, we are confronted with a large and looming reality in our traditional public schools. For three years, I have been writing about this issue, including in my 2018 book, The Education Kids Deserve. In a word, it is relevance (or the lack of it). If a student’s interest is not piqued through the learning process, if the experience of school does not feel genuine and personal or, in this case, if children do not see themselves in the stories being told, they may regrettably fall into a pattern of irrelevance. This is exacerbated by our over reliance on topics, curricula and instructional approaches from previous eras: strategies that are failing to keep up with the demands of our rapidly changing would. What we teach, and how we teach it, must occur in that sweet spot of relevance where the activities and content align with the interests, curiosities and aspirations of our students. Otherwise, they will deem the experience as irrelevant and disengage. We cannot afford to let this happen.
In last week’s post, The Education Kids Deserve Must Include the Truth, I touched on the complex issue of racism and the need to move from “not racist” toward anti-racist. This post is really about the same thing. If we teach solely through the lens of our perspective, doing our best to inform with what we believe to be the truth, is not necessarily racist. But, it certainly falls short of being race sensitive. The typical denial response to criticism of this approach may even feel appropriate: I’m not being racist. An anti-racist stance (from my emerging understanding) might involve going further by asking: “What is your story? I’ve given you my understanding of this issue from my perspective. Now, tell me yours.” Or: “You know, as a white person, there’s a lot I don’t know about the native American experience. So, I’ve invited tribal members from a nearby Indian nation to share their stories with us.”
Walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins is the beginning of understanding and empathy. The Walk a Mile in His Moccasins quote is often attributed to various Indian tribes, but it actually comes from a poem written by Mary T. Lathrap in 1895: an American poet, preacher, suffragist, and temperance reformer. The original title of her poem was Judge Softly. Here’s an excerpt:
Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.
I believe you'd be surprised to see
That you've been blind and narrow minded, even unkind.
There are people on reservations and in the ghettos
Who have so little hope, and too much worry on their minds.
Brother, there but for the grace of God go you and I.
Just for a moment, slip into his mind and traditions
And see the world through his spirit and eyes
Before you cast a stone or falsely judge his conditions.
Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins
And remember the lessons of humanity taught to you by your elders.
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave
In other people's lives, our kindnesses and generosity.
Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.
Isn’t that being anti-racist?
I can’t begin to imagine or truly understand. But, I must try.