My parents taught me to be aware and proud of my African ancestry. Although we did not know the specific African nations our ancestors had been taken from, I knew that Black History did not begin with enslavement, but with the brilliance, strength, and beauty of African empires and communities. As I continued learning about the racial history of the United States, I wondered about the failed promise of 40 Acres and a Mule as reparations to those who were formerly enslaved. Over the past few years, however, as I reflected on the Indigenous Land Acknowledgements that I began hearing in education conference spaces, I started to wonder, “40 of whose acres?”
I realized that I had been focusing so much on how people who looked like me have been historically excluded, marginalized, and treated in unjust and oppressive ways that I hadn’t really paid attention to the oppression and injustices other groups of people have experienced. As much as I fought against my own history being erased, how had I been complicit in erasing the history of others? I didn’t know that race was a social construct that was intentionally created to separate and subjugate. I hadn’t noticed the false narratives I had accepted, and how oppressive and unjust ways crept into my own thinking as a result of breathing in the smog of racialization.
In order to truly build a better world, we all need to engage in the work of racial awareness, healing, deconstructing oppressive systems, and building and sustaining liberatory systems where all of us can enjoy freedom. We have examples of what cross-racial work looked like in the abolitionist and civil rights movements. This work wasn’t done perfectly. Paternalism and patriarchy were definitely mixed into these movements. A question I’ve been grappling with is what does it look like to work together in true solidarity across racial, ethnic, and cultural differences now?
I learned about one of the most compelling recent examples of interracial partnership when reading Bettina Love’s We Want to Do More Than Survive. She recounts the story of Bree Newsome, a Black woman, removing the confederate flag from the South Carolina State House in 2015. James Tyson, a White man who was part of the same group of activists, placed his body against the flagpole so that if the police chose to tase the pole, his body would absorb the shock and keep Bree Newsome from being harmed. He knew that it was highly unlikely that a White man would be tased while the news cameras were rolling, and he chose to use his privilege to work in solidarity with Bree Newsome to remove a harmful, oppressive symbol. This brings to mind the solidarity dividend that Heather McGhee explores in The Sum of Us. The solidarity dividend refers to the gains made when people come together across race.
I don’t believe that any of us are truly woke. Those of us in our human family who are truly invested in healing, wholeness, and the beloved community are, and will continue to be, in the process of awakening. There will always be more to learn and room for growth. I wrote Open Windows, Open Minds: Developing Antiracist, Pro-Human Students (Corwin, June, 2022) as an extension of the awakening process – to support teachers as they engage in their own racial identity development, healing and growth so that they can have what’s needed to help students to see beyond their own reflections through windows into the world – the hard things, the beautiful things, as well as the possibilities.
Here is what my journey of awakening looks like:
- I’m learning to let go of individualism so that we can experience collective liberation and freedom.
- I’m learning to move away from the defensiveness that comes from ego in favor of vulnerability at the foundation of the growth mindset we encourage in students.
- I’m learning to move away from a sense of urgency, and give racial identity development, racial healing and solidarity work the time it needs to be effective and holistic.
- I am learning to let go of my fear of open conflict and my desire for perpetual comfort, knowing that discomfort is part of any true transformation process. Ask a butterfly.
- I’m learning to recognize when I experience internal resistance, and to develop the tools, practices, and to nurture relationships with those who are also doing this work to help me to continue the process of becoming.
There is a quote from the Aboriginal Activists Group in Queensland, Australia from the 1970s that states, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, let us work together.” This is a beautiful invitation to freedom-dream in community with those who truly want to build a better world. We are all far more connected than we often realize. We have all been harmed by racialization, and have the opportunity to help one another heal from this harm. This is an invitation I joyfully accept. Come along with me!
Afrika Afeni Mills is an author, an Education Consultant, and Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. In addition to authoring Open Windows, Open Minds: Developing Antiracist, Pro-Human Students (Corwin, June 2022), she works with colleagues, teachers, coaches, and administrators to develop and sustain student-centered learning experiences that are diverse, inclusive, and equitable. Afrika has been featured on podcasts, blogs, delivered keynote addresses, and facilitated sessions at conferences across the United States. She will also be publishing a book with Corwin Press in 2022.
Afrika believes that all educators can be motivated, engaged, dynamic practitioners and leaders when provided with the support needed to create student-centered, antibias, antiracist, pro-human, culturally responsive learning environments that inspire wonder and creativity and nurture authentic diversity, belonging, equity, and inclusion.
Learn more about and from Afrika at links below.
Instagram: Open Windows, Open Minds
LinkedIn: Afrika Afeni Mills
Personal Blog: Continental Drift