Not that many years ago, I was in a relationship that I thought would last. Even though I never took the man I dated “home” to meet my family, I wanted to at the time. I wasn’t sure how comfortable he would feel in my family home or how comfortable my family would feel with him there, so I asked a family member if they would allow/welcome this man. That family member said,
“Does he sag his pants?”
I blinked a few times, trying to process the implications of what I was being asked before I responded.
“No, he doesn’t…” I replied, knowing exactly why I was being asked this, but wishing I weren’t.
“Then I don’t have a problem with it!”
For this family member – whom I love and respect – that was a stamp of approval, assurance that, yes, the black man I was dating would be welcome.
Thankfully, my relationship with that man ended. There was a list of reasons why we weren’t compatible, and none of them had to do with his blackness or my whiteness. However, that conversation about him, those words, have remained with me even now. What I heard was this: As long as a man dresses like me and acts like me, he is welcome in my home.
For me, this question was problematic. It was indicative of racial bias, though I did not feel comfortable labeling my family member as racist, as they were – to the best of their ability – expressing their acceptance of my relationship. I didn’t know what to call it until this weekend when I read the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.
Jason Reynolds is an author of young adult literature; his name has been on my radar for a while, but I have only recently read his work for myself. I recommended his books to a former student of mine who couldn’t stop talking about them, so I finally picked up the books for myself so that I could understand what was so moving about his writing. At the time, Dr. Kendi’s name meant nothing to me, though now I have great interest in his work. This version of Stamped is Reynolds’ adaptation for younger audiences of Kendi’s book written for adults.
Jason Reynolds’ writing is moving because it “tells the truth in a way that is empowering,” something he called us educators to do in a live discussion I participated in as a member of the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE). He and Dr. Kendi allowed themselves to be interviewed by educator and author Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul in a free, live Zoom session open to all NCTE members.
(Side note: This is precisely the kind of activity I would have never made time for before the Age of COVID-19, but I am thankful that times like these have forced me to make time for moments like these.)
In preparation for the discussion, I read the book over the weekend, finishing the first half in one setting because I couldn’t put it down.
This book begins with and is built around the categorizing of people into three categories:
- Segregationists – “I don’t like you because you don’t look like me.” These are the blatantly, obviously racist people so many of us do not want to be like. Segregationists birthed Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, and most of the presidents in American history.
- Assimilationists – “I like you as long as you act like me. You deserve to live as long as you live like me.” Or, “I’m okay with this man being in my house, as long as he doesn’t sag his pants.” These are the people who further the racist agenda oftentimes unknowingly and unintentionally. Reynolds and Kendi argue that so many of the civil rights activists of the last hundred years – men and women of color – were assimilationists. People like W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King, Jr. have been guilty of promoting assimilationist ideas. Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t see race. I am colorblind. I don’t see the color of someone’s skin because I love all people”? That is an assimilationist thought that requires separating a person of color from part of their identity in order to love them.
- Anti-racist – “I love you because you are you.” This is where we should all find ourselves. This is a journey of thought, not a destination, of which we should all be part. This is what Dr. Kendi and Mr. Reynolds are fighting for, and this is what we should be fighting for as well.
There is so much to learn from that book and from these two men, and I can’t wait to present the book to my students and ask them what they think. Young people these days have a stunning way of respecting one another’s ideas and talking about controversial topics very openly and respectfully.
In the meantime, here are a few things I would like for you to know about Stamped:
- This book will make you uncomfortable, especially if you grew up in a (white) conservative home. It tells history the way you’ve never heard it told before, the way I never learned it as a student nor have seen it taught as a teacher.
- Uncomfortable ideas allow for growth, and we must embrace exposing ourself to those ideas, examining our own identities and biases as educators and humans, and educating ourselves and those around us on all sides of the facts.
- You might learn something about yourself or people you dearly love and respect, that you or they aren’t antiracists but assimilationists. This might sting, you might be angry or hurt or disappointed, but the true test of character lies in how you respond.
So many passages in the book struck a chord with me because they articulated my own experiences. I often struggle with the memories I have of talking about race with loved ones because the ones I love hold very complex views that often are different from mine. In recent years, I’ve learned that we do, in fact, often want the same thing: racial equality. The difference is this: so many want it at the cost of assimilation, while others want it at the cost of unconditional love and with the deep-rooted belief that we are all equally human.
In last night’s live discussion, Dr. Kendi said two things about teachers with which I strongly agree: one, “A teacher cannot assume that he/she is not racist,” and two, “Either teachers are teaching their kids to be racist or to be anti-racist.” Jason Reynolds said that we must teach racial literacy with confidence, even those of us who are white. “The confidence has to be couched in humility… approach this – not gingerly – lay yourself bare in front of your students,” Reynolds said.
These directives to teachers in the classroom can also apply to our personal lives. Do not assume that you are not racist. Realize you are either promoting racism (either as a segregationist or an assimilationist) or antiracism. Be confident in your antiracism, but be humble. Lay yourself bare in front of your students and also in front of your loved ones.
I challenge you to teach racial literacy to your students, and that begins with learning about racial literacy for yourself. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You is a good place to start.
Suggested (by me) further reading:
Stamped: An Educator’s Guide (for teaching the book in the classroom)
Suggested (by Reynolds and Kendi) for further reading: