Taking It Personally: Racism in the Classroom from Kindergarten to College
reviewed by Tamara Beauboeuf-LaFontant - 2002
Title: Taking It Personally: Racism in the Classroom from Kindergarten to College
Author(s): Ann Berlak & Sekani Moyenda
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1566398762, Pages: 204, Year: 2001
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While the need for discussions and analyses of racism are well documented in the educational literature, few studies unite theory and practice, intellect and emotion, professors of education and classroom teachers, learning and personal change. Taking it Personally: Racism in the Classroom from Kindergarten to College , by Ann Berlak and Sekani Moyenda, is a bold and nontraditional approach to bringing these together, and it accomplishes such unions through its focus on racism as a visceral experience. As the title suggests, the authors – a white adjunct professor of elementary education and a black elementary school teacher, respectively -- expose the messy, irrational, and uncomfortable aspects of race – aspects which they powerfully argue do not disappear among teachers when avoided, but which emerge in the very troubling and harmful interactions of such educators with children and adults of color.
Taking it Personally is divided into three parts. The first section details each author’s racial autobiography, revealing some of the formative educational experiences that have created Moyenda’s “Black attitude problem” and Berlak’s “Obduracy of tone.” In Part 2, the focus turns to “the classroom encounter,” or the role play designed by Moyenda, a former student of Berlak. Upon completing Berlak’s Cultural and Linguistic Diversity class for in- and pre-service teachers, Moyenda believed that most credentialed teachers, the majority of whom are White and middle-class with little real or sustained contact with people of color and poverty, are ill-equipped to confront their fears and racism with regard to teaching poor, urban, and Black students. Thus, upon Berlak’s invitation, Moyenda constructed “the classroom encounter” for a subsequent class. Processing this encounter is the center of and impetus for Taking it Personally, a joint effort to have current and potential teachers “get a feel for what would be the result of trying to apply their abstract, liberal, Eurocentric, often unconsciously racist ideologies in the classroom” (p. 9). Part 3, entitled, “What’s going on here?” includes Berlak’s two-chapter analysis of her students’ written and oral responses to the role play, and Moyenda’s “love letter” in which she responds to the many questions from Berlak’s students that emerged in the “aftermath” of her lesson.
The “encounter,” also called “Boot Camp for Teachers” by Moyenda, consisted of a seven-minute role play in which a teacher is assigned the task of managing a classroom of twelve children whose behaviors are the result both of upbringings in drug-dominated households and of enduring the chaotic classroom environments of inept and often racist teachers. Frustrated by his failure to successfully teach a lesson, the White male who volunteered for the teacher role and several other students were quick to dismiss the role play as “totally unrealistic,” even though Moyenda informed them that it was based on her experiences of taking over several such classrooms. The students’ unacknowledged, yet very real, notions of “racial arrogance” surface in their resistance to the idea that Moyenda’s experiences as a Black woman and a teacher are real and have potential value to them as educators.
Another key reason for the graduate students’ discomfort with “the encounter” is that Moyenda rejected politeness as the discursive tool for racism. She clearly has a philosophy of teaching that begins from the vantage point that racism is real and intentional, and that all teachers need to examine their motivations for teaching in a poor and/or minority dominant school. As she notes in her “love letter” to Berlak’s students:
Think about your reasons for working in a community of color…. What do you have that we can use everyday?…. The fact that you can read and write is not sufficient. The fact that a white university gave you a piece of paper that said you had a legal right to work in our school is not sufficient either. Why should we allow you into our community?…. What specifically can you contribute?… . Can you work anywhere else? If not, why would we want you?…. Why should we trust you? (pp. 154-155)
Moyenda’s exercise and her “love letter” are powerful critiques of the dominant discourse of race, pervasive in education, which privileges a detached and therefore ineffective engagement with the feelings, personal experiences, rationalizations, and contradictions that constitute our racist society. As the authors note, it is precisely the claim to “politeness” in race-related discussions that widens rather than narrows the socially induced gulfs between thought and action, self and other, dominant and subordinate. Moyenda’s transgression of this social norm was perhaps as, if not more, shocking to the students than the content of the exercise.
Berlak, particularly in Part 3, offers important analyses of her students’ responses to and processing of Moyenda’s presence in their classroom. Challenging the notion that all emotion, including anger, is negative and counterproductive, Berlak is able to distinguish between Moyenda’s “moral anger” which is based in feeling outrage from personal victimization and the suffering of the people (poor, Black children) with whom she closely identifies, and her own students’ “defensive anger,” which allows them to discredit Moyenda and distance themselves from her charges of their racism. Drawing on the work of M.M. Bakhtin and the concept of heteroglossia – that our words and thoughts draw from many and often competing conversations – Berlak provides an engaging analysis of how the unlearning of racism needs to occur at both intellectual and emotional levels. While academic, her language is not unnecessarily dense, and her analysis is grounded in the actual student journal entries which describe processes of progression and regression that often characterize anti-racist and multicultural education efforts.
Taking it Personally is a powerful and engaging analysis of racism that does not water down or sugarcoat the tensions, socially unacceptable thoughts, and deep feelings that emerge when teachers and professors have the honesty and courage to discuss racism, particularly from different social vantage points. Educators at all levels, undergraduate and graduate students, administrators, and parents will find the frank thoughtfulness of the authors refreshing and enlightening. Moreover, the opportunity to hear Moyenda’s pedagogy as a Black educator who sees teaching as an identity rather than a profession should inspire readers to recognize that ‘good teaching’ has always existed in many forms, embodied by many people.