There Is Work to Be Done!

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Friends — The mood in our country during the last weeks has varied from anxiety to outrage to anger to solidarity, from hate to support, depending on who and where you are. One month ago today George Floyd died. I find that interest peaks right after horrific events like these, but then many people move on with their lives, so I specifically waited to create this post.

This post is dedicated to all those readers who feel unsure of how they can make a difference. I have friends who are afraid to ask: “What can I do?” They are afraid to ask: “Why do people say Black Lives Matter?” They are confused about the term “white privilege” because they didn’t grow up wealthy. They are taken aback when they are told that being “colorblind” is not a good thing – or even a thing at all. They are people who do not consider themselves racist but worry, “What if I am?” If I had to guess, they are people who probably identify as white and probably grew up in a setting where most people were just like them.

People – believe me when I say: we have work to do.

We have work to do to understand white privilege – what it is and how it has affected us and others. We have work to do to understand institutional racism and also implicit bias. We have work to do to understand how we can create a difference and work towards equity and inclusion. Know that it’s okay to say “I don’t know” or even “I used to think differently”. As a white cisgender middle class woman I can tell you that my experience has been that the more I learn, the more that I find out I don’t know!

For this post I wanted to share books that I read that made a difference for me in educating myself and growing my awareness of white privilege, racism, hidden biases, and how these relate to my job as a teacher (and as a white teacher of children of color). THIS IS NOT AN EXHAUSTIVE LIST! I’m sure there are many other wonderful books out there and please feel free to share them in the comments.

This list is dedicated to those who don’t know, but want to try to do better.

Peggy McIntosh’s article on the “invisible knapsack” of white privilege was eye-opening for me when I first read it in the 1990’s. Here is an excerpt based on it:

Debby Irving’s Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race was a book that I really related to. When your world is white, you sometimes don’t even think of yourself as having a race. I read this two years ago but I’m listening to it again on audio with my teenage daughter.

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin Banaji is a fascinating read, focusing on “good people” who can have biases hidden deep within themselves, and Banaji’s research on this. I love this title and focus on the fact that these are people who would say “I’m not a racist”. We tend to think of “racists” as loud-mouthed, cruel, and ignorant. Banaji shows that even the best of us can carry biases within.

So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo is our faculty read this year. The focus is on open and honest conversations and race and racism. I’m reading it now.

Whistling Vivaldi: How Sterotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude M. Steele is all about understanding stereotypes, especially in America. I read this last summer for our faculty read and will never forget where this title comes from. The author found that some people reacted to him with fear as they passed him on the street, especially at night, for no other reason than he was a Black male. So he started whistling Vivaldi.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin Di Angelo and Michael Eric Dyson. I read this several years ago. Again, eye opening and easy to read and informative.

So, if you read me, I’m guessing you’re a reader, but maybe you like TED talks, too. I know I do! Here’s a whole list of TED talks that they have compiled to inform about racism:

If you teach, you may like:

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniels Tatum. It’s a classic and I believe it has a new foreward to it.

The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys by Ali Michael, Eddie Moore, et al. I received this book after attending a diversity conference. I’ve spent 30 years teaching in independent schools and can say that, in my opinion and experience (which is shared by many), Black boys are our most at-risk students.

If you are on Facebook, I follow former colleague Jenna Chandler Ward’s Teaching While White. I believe it is also a podcast.

This summer my kids, who are both in high school, have summer reading of Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. My own students are reading (as they always do) The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I look foward to reading her newer books as well.

So — these are a sampling of books for those of us who know that we don’t know everything about racism and white privilege. It’s a start. But it’s also a start that has no ending in sight. We owe it to our Black and Brown friends, to all our friends, to educate ourselves and to strive to make a better tomorrow.

If you have resources to share, please do so in the comments. Please also know that every comment has to be vetted and approved by me before it will show publicly.

Happy Reading!

My thoughts on GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee


Well, I managed to avoid all the hype surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s GO SET A WATCHMAN. I didn’t want to know about it in advance. All I knew was that this manuscript had been kept by Alice (Lee’s sister) in a safety deposit box and was an early draft of writing that pre-dated TKAM. It had the same characters. Considering that I have read TKAM 20 times (seriously) and it is one of my favorite books ever, I pre-ordered it months ago and waited to read it.

(As I write about my reading experience, I will note where there are SPOILERS).

WATCHMAN starts with Jean Louise heading home to Maycomb to visit her family. She lives in NYC now and is in her early twenties. I have to say, that once I started reading, I just felt enveloped by Harper Lee’s writing. It was like a warm bath. Her voice and style is so distinctive (yes, I never believed Truman Capote wrote TKAM. Sacrilege!). I nestled in to the book with the thought, “Nelle Harper, you’ve come home to your readers.” The first 100 pages not too much happened beyond Jean Louise returning home. Familiar characters became familiar once again. (SPOILER ALERT) Most notably, though, Atticus is aging and infirm from arthritis; and dear Jem is dead (passed away before the start of the book from a congenital heart issue). I have to say I was a bit startled by these changes. A new character (or at least one I don’t remember from my many reads of TKAM) is Hank, a neighbor and friend of Jean Louise. He wants to marry her and the two of them seem set for each other. Hank is taking over Atticus’ law practice.

Then a pivotal event occurs (SPOILER!!!!). Jean Louise visits the courthouse to see what the Citizens’ Council is up to and finds a speaker there who is working hard to keep segregation in the South. He spews forth some evil, racist remarks. Jean Louise is shocked but most shocking of all is that her father sits on one side of him and her intended on the other. Atticus Finch is a racist?? Well, I was as shocked as Jean Louise. I was disgusted. I felt tricked. What happened to that pillar of righteous justice from TKAM?? Jean Louise felt that same way.

The next part of the book is her trying to come to grips with this. There are flashbacks. There is a passing mention to the Tom Robinson trial – which is different from the Tom Robinson trial of TKAM but definitely based on the same trial. Jean Louise struggles and fights and rails. Her uncle plays a big role in this part of the book – but to be honest, I found him confusing. His words to her were almost all allegory and “riddles”. I was confused – but maybe that was just me. All the time Jean Louise is seeing racism and prejudice everywhere she looks.

At the end (SPOILER!!) I thought there might be a different wrap-up. I don’t know what I expected – maybe Atticus to slap her on the back and say, “I’m only fooling with you, Scout! And with your readers!” However, I think the ending is important in that Atticus doesn’t change. Scout has seen him for what he is. She accepts him though she doesn’t agree with him. And this is the point where the story becomes a true coming of age story — Atticus is proud of her because she thinks differently from him and stands by her convictions. In her mind, she “welcomes him to the human race”. Atticus has been a demigod for Jean Louise (and for many of us readers). He’s not. He’s human – and imperfect.

So let’s think about the title here. Jean Louise hears them say it in church so I googled it and it’s a Biblical reference from Isaiah. Go set a watchman. Go set a person who will watch over us all. I am guessing Nelle Harper considered Atticus the watchman, as this was a book that pre-dated and was reworked into TKAM. To read this one, you could consider Jean Louise to be the watchman, as she has entered the fight against racism and injustice.

However, shouldn’t and couldn’t we all be the watchmen?

You can see this book at your local indie or on Amazon It’s where I preordered mine ages ago. It is less than 300 pages.

Just a note. I did find the blatant racist language and diatribes in this book hard to read. You might, too.