Luke Michener and Terry Jess are both white, male educators who teach at Bellevue High School in Washington state. They feel they have little to add to conversations about race with students and colleagues of color that those students and colleagues don’t already know themselves, based upon their own experiences in the classroom, and, more broadly, living in the United States.
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On the other hand, Terry and Luke feel they do have a lot to offer other white educators who are committed to racial equity in education, but may not know where to begin, how to plug in with existing efforts, nor how to best participate in sometimes difficult discussions about race in their own schools.
“Starting off small is perfectly fine. That’s where we all start,” says Terry. “One small act of kindness or small action to stand up for a student or a colleague. But don’t let yourself get comfortable in that. Always push yourself to be doing more. Because I guarantee there is no lack of work to be done.”
“It is not the responsibility of people of color to educate us. We have to take ownership of that. We can’t rely on colleagues or friends who are people of color to make up for our ignorance.”– Terry Jess, Social Studies Teacher
Bellevue (WA) High School
Inspired by their own experiences working with students trying to reconcile their own identities with the realities of the world around them, as well as conversations they had at the 2017 NEA Conference on Racial and Social Justice , Terry and Luke set about creating a series of YouTube videos they hoped could provide other white educators with ideas, insights and tools to better engage in racial equity work in their own schools and communities.
Terry now has more than 80 short videos on his YouTube channel, addressing topics that range from “What’s on your classroom wall?” to “Why am I wearing #blacklivesmatter every day?” to “Charlottesville in the classroom.”
The collection is now anchored around a 10-part series co-hosted by Terry and Luke, titled “Primer for anti-racist white educators.” In the videos, which are between three and eight minutes long, Terry and Luke walk through focused topics such as “Listen,” “Learn,” “Space,” “Accountability” and “Act.”
“We talk about this through the lens of some national discussions,” says Luke in the “Listen,” video. “But ultimately our goal is for white educators to think about this in their daily practices, primarily with students. Hear what your students have to say about their experiences at your schools. And take it to heart. Try not to be dismissive. Try not to respond even. Just take in what they have to say. Reflect on it a bit. And then move forward with that as a truth that is honest in coming from those students”
In the “Learn,” video, Terry and Luke both underscore that white people need to take ownership for learning about different racial perspectives and experiences. “It is not the responsibility of people of color to educate us,” says Terry. “We have to take ownership of that. We can’t rely on colleagues or friends who are people of color to make up for our ignorance.”
“So wherever you’re at,” he adds, “pick up a book or watch a documentary or listen to a podcast and start informing yourself and rely less on people of color to always tell you what is happening or what it means.”
In “Acknowledge,” Terry and Luke emphasize the importance of acknowledging where some of your ideas and insights come from, especially if they are from people of color who may not be in the room, or have access to decision-makers, where a conversation is happening.
In “Follow,” they discuss the value of taking guidance from people of color who have been doing anti-racist work for a long time. “Find the people of color who are doing this work and then follow their lead,” says Terry. “Don’t try to reinvent it yourself, what you think people want. The work is already being done. We just need to follow.”
“It’s all about providing space for voices of color to be heard, and people of color to be seen. [As white educators] it’s really easy to occupy all the air in the room in these conversations. And it’s really important not to.”– Luke Michener, Social Studies Teacher
Bellevue (WA) High School
“This also applies to how we engage with students on a day-to-day basis,” says Luke. “Let them lead too. They are the ones experiencing school and they know that differently than we do and they have things to say about that experience. Especially students of color….It can’t be about us. It can’t be about what we’re bringing to the table. It’s got to come from the people most affected by this.”
In their video titled “Space,” Terry and Luke touch on the importance of ensuring that people who are most affected by an issue have space to be heard, especially when historic precedent has seen white male voices too often crowd out voices and perspectives of women and people of color.
“It’s is all about providing space for voices of color to be heard, and people of color to be seen,” says Luke. “[As white educators] it’s really easy to occupy all the air in the room in these conversations. And it’s really important not to.”
In the “Act” and “Grow” videos, they focus on the importance of getting involved, in whatever way you can, being OK with sometimes being uncomfortable, and taking some lumps along the way in a continuous process of engagement, growth and learning.
“There will be moments where you fail,” says Terry. “In doing this work, you will say something that is centered in whiteness and really upsets people of color or colleagues of color. And you will get called to the floor. How do you respond to those lumps, to those obstacles?”
“Sometimes you have to be the student,” adds Luke. For educators who are used to being the authority in the room, it can be difficult to accept what they don’t know and step outside of a teaching role. But for white educators and conversations about race, says Luke, some growth and learning is simply impossible if you don’t accept what you don’t know, and commit to learning about it from people or color who have first-hand experience.
“If you are white and doing this work,” says Terry, “there is no arriving. You will never get to a point where you are just gonna be such a racial justice superstar that you are never going to fall back into your white frame of reference. It’s really about continuing to strive, always forward, always upward, and trying to grow into this.”
Terry & Luke’s Video Primers for Anti-Racist, White Educators: