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On Being Comfortable with Discomfort: Tiffany Jewell Explains What It Means To Be Anti-Racist

Author and Anti-Racist Montessori educator and consultant Tiffany Jewell discusses what it means to be anti-racist in a racialized society, how everyone can disrupt and defy racism, and how educators and teachers can decolonize their bookshelves.

Tiffany Jewell's recently published anti-racist primer, This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How To Wake Up, Take Action, and Do The Work (Quarto/Frances Lincoln; Gr 5 Up), aims to provide everyone, especially young readers, with ways to combat racism. 

Jewell discussed her book, its message, and the importance of educators and teachers decolonizing their bookshelves with SLJ.


How can educators, teachers, and librarians decolonize not only their bookshelves but their minds? How can people in positions of power use their privilege to fight racism?

We can decolonize our minds by doing the work for ourselves. We’ve got to not just understand personal biases and prejudice, we need to go further and understand how our institutions are working to uphold white supremacy culture and colonial mentality.

One of the ways that I try to continually decolonize classroom spaces...is by really bringing my students’ whole selves into the space and to give it up to them. This can be done by inviting them to bring their families, their culture, artifacts, etc. into the classroom so they can really make it their own. They help to organize the physical space by moving shelves around, taking care of plants, helping me choose the artwork, deciding what is needed in the classroom and how to make it accessible to everyone. It really is their space and not just a place I am imparting on them.

Co-creating and collaborating with students and other educators allows me to decolonize my classroom and what I’ve been taught to believe about the role of the educator in the classroom and in schools. (Which was to be at the center of the classroom and give direction and manage bodies. My Montessori training helped me to have concrete tools to actively undo what I learned from my own teachers and in education classes throughout college.)

Decolonizing myself as an educator and mama is recognizing that I am not the only one with all the answers and to have some humility, to honor my humanity, nod to the past and look towards the future.

People in positions of power need to use that power to disrupt racism every day. And oftentimes what that can look like in education...is to purposefully work against reinforcing the narrative of the status quo. This can begin with bringing in marginalized voices and people into our spaces every day in any way possible.

We have a lot of power and it’s important to use it to empower our students and their families in this inequitable system that we are working in every single day. We can choose to do nothing and fit in along with the racist system, which will continue to do harm to all of our students and their families, but I’m going to choose the path of anti-racism and hope many folks will join me.

Illus. by Aurélia Durand

In your introduction, you write, “Some may tell you you’re too young to talk about race.” Why do some adults believe that there’s an age requirement to talk about or even acknowledge race? How does this viewpoint contribute to the oppression of marginalized people and feed into systems of oppression?

I’ve been conversing with my children about race before they could even talk. It’s taken a lot of practice and recognizing that I am going to get it wrong from time to time and that’s okay because we’re growing together.

Talking about race, racism, injustice, and oppression is uncomfortable for many adults. We have been trained to believe we don’t see race (we do), to not talk about it, to blindly believe racist stereotypes, and support racist policies. Talking about race with children requires us, the adults, to know who we are. We need to know how our identities are understood by others, how we have been influenced by the media and the institutions we were brought up in, and where our privilege and immunity exists.

Many white adults are just now coming to terms that racism harms EVERYONE. They’re dealing with the fact that to undo a system that strips us of our humanity, they’ll have to relearn who they can be and how to redistribute resources, privilege, and wealth so our children may live in a more equitable and just world.

Because the adults are scared and uncomfortable, we immediately assume the children will be too—and that they cannot handle the truth. They can. Talking with children about race, their identities, and sharing truths with them is very developmentally appropriate. Keeping children innocent reinforces white supremacy culture. BIPoC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) children are not afforded the same innocence white children are allowed to have.

Not speaking the truth reinforces racism. It allows us to believe it’s our normal. If we don’t talk with our children about injustice and systemic oppression, they’ll still have their questions and form their own answers, which can be inaccurate and confusing. Listening to my children’s questions, listening to other BIPoC share what they want white people to know, and letting go of the traditional adult role where I am supposed to be the one with all the answers has really helped me to talk about race openly and honestly with young folks.

In the third chapter of your book, you write, “Race and ethnicity are social constructions.” If they are social constructs, how is the idea that someone can “transcend race” not only a lie but a product of racist ideology?

Racial and ethnic categorization is not found in the natural world. These were created to support racist ideas and laws that placed white folks at the top of the social hierarchy ladder. Because race and ethnicity are things created by people, people can dismantle this construction too.

Anti-racism allows us to deconstruct history and the way things have always been done. For me, it’s an active way of being where I can continually interrogate the world around me and my role within it.

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi writes of this well in Stamped From the Beginning. Assimilationists believe in the superiority of one race (typically, white people) and that BIPoC are possibly, but rarely, able to reach the same status as the superior folks.

They can do this only if they abandon their own heritage, culture, [and] selves. If we assimilate, we just might be able to do the impossible: to transcend our race and then we’ll become exceptional. This is a racist idea. It reinforces racial hierarchy.

No one is exceptional. As I tell my own children and my students, no one person is more important, more special, more amazing than any other person. White supremacy capitalistic culture has us believing we’re either worth more than most folks or less and that’s not okay.
 


 

Recently, a viral video documented an incident that happened during a Q&A session with playwright Jeremy O. Harris. Harris's play is a divisive and critically acclaimed work that uses the interpersonal issues within three interracial relationships to examine the larger topic of racism and power. During the Q&A, a white woman accused Harris of being “racist against white people.” Many people on social media cited this incident as an example of “white fragility." How does this incident reflect the country’s response to racial discourse, especially when liberal white people are asked to honestly confront their own prejudice and racial bias? How is “reverse racism” a fallacy? Can marginalized groups be complicit in sustaining and maintaining white supremacy? 

Lately, I have been ruminating on the term white immunity (Nolan Cabrera), which I recently heard from a colleague who attended a talk with Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum. White immunity really goes beyond white privilege and fragility. It has us looking at history that has led us into this moment in which racism is the air we breathe, rather than just looking at our personal positionality in society.

As I shared in my book, reverse racism isn’t real; personal prejudice is very real. It’s something many folks have experienced in life—from Black trans men to white middle-class cisgender women. Institutions (which are made up of people) continue to misuse and abuse power and uphold the racist foundation we all walk upon.

In a racist society (which is the one we live in), white folks are the ones who collectively benefit. We all uphold racism when we reside in it passively. We have to actively understand our roles (whether we like them or not) and work to undo centuries of systematic white supremacy in our institutions. Anti-racism is a constant consciousness and actively undoing the ease of complicity.

How does emotional labor factor into actively teaching anti-racism? When the responsibility of teaching and advocating anti-racism falls on the shoulders of the oppressed, how can emotional labor lead to activist burnout?

It’s really important that we learn from and listen to Folx of the Global Majority [an empowering people-centered term that reminds folx that Black, Brown, and Indigenous people are, numerically, the majority of the people in the world. Folx, as used by the author throughout her book, is a gender neutral term created by activist communities]. We need to really take in what they’re saying and do the work to understand what we’re learning.

It is not the job of the oppressed to focus on teaching white folks about anti-racism. We may share our experiences, our dreams for liberation, stories, and resources we’ve cultivated as a community, but it really is not the work of Folx of the Global Majority and those who are oppressed to lead white folks and people in the dominant culture every step of the way. It’s exhausting, especially when many BIPoC are trying to survive in our racist society on a daily basis.

Over the past few years, I’ve had amazing opportunities to share time and space with Black and Indigenous anti-racist educators. One of the things I’ve learned and continue to work on is center liberation.

To speak to the BIPoC in the room, to create a space where we are able to be our authentic selves, to honor our ancestors and our futures, and to not focus on the gaze and comfort of the dominant culture. This has really allowed me to bring joy, hope, and optimism into anti-racism.

In recent years, we’ve seen the term “cancel culture” gain popularity. Some people argue cancel culture doesn’t exist, while other people argue that it’s the result of “PC culture.” Do you think cancel culture is real? How does it help or impede the goal of anti-racist work?

Cancel culture is real for the folks who are directly affected by it. Someone who has been canceled…they’ve been almost excommunicated from their community in a way. It feels very real.

I often prefer call-outs. It feels safer, and there’s a level of public accountability we don’t get from private call-ins. (It is possible to have a gentle public call-in and that’s something to do with individuals. Call-outs, for me, are for institutions and those who deeply represent those institutions.)

I recognize call-outs also put people on the defense, and there comes a point where if folks who deeply represent the institutions are not being accountable to their people and their communities then (I believe) we have to call them out.

I’ll share a moment with you. There was an organization I thought I was working with. I did create some resources for them, consulted multiple times for free, and generally uplifted them when I could. The relationship wasn’t reciprocal though. They weren’t working in solidarity with Folx of the Global Majority, and it came to the point where I was very exhausted. I felt totally done with working with them. Whether you call it me canceling them or being done—it helped me to move forward in the anti-racist work I’m doing.

So, I guess cancel culture can help. Me being done has given me more energy and time for my community, for other organizations who are more in alignment with my vision for liberation, for my own work, and for my family. That feeds my soul and my community. There are moments in history where folks did collectively cancel institutions that perpetuate racism, oppression, and harm and it’s important to know this history as we move forth.

People have a great capacity for growth and learning. Institutions can be very slow-moving. Call-out institutions, call-in individual people. Cancel institutions, not people.

Illus. by Aurélia Durand

What is the difference between solidarity and allyship? Is one more beneficial or effective than the other?

It honestly really depends on the definition you use. In the book, I use allyship and accomplice and co-conspirator kind of synonymously because I understand those terms can mean different things to different people.

For a long time, I looked at the word allyship as being totally performative—like people changing their Facebook photos to reflect “solidarity” with the most recent justice issue. Now I understand it’s dependent on who you are, where you are, who you work with, how old you are, and how you understand the words.

Solidarity is really standing alongside someone and working with them. Sometimes allyship can mean donating money or time. I’m beginning to see how they can be more similar than I once thought they were, and I wouldn’t say one is more beneficial or effective than the other. For me, I prefer the term solidarity and that’s what I strive for, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want any allyship either or that I don’t want to be a practicing ally.

What does being “woke” mean to you? How has social media and influencer culture co-opted the idea of wokeness as a status symbol, rather than an educational and self-reflective journey?

The first time I heard the phrase “stay woke” was after Mike Brown’s police-sanctioned murder. I felt like the world was waking up to injustice, the systemic misuse and abuse of the police, criminal justice system, the government, media, and all institutions.

Staying woke means waking up and staying awake—not just passively taking in information and putting it aside. It means to consciously grow into your awakeness, which will change as you change. The more you know and reflect and respond, the different your awakeness will be.

I love social media as it has allowed me to learn from folx all over the country and the world. I’ve been able to connect with people who are doing anti-racist work everywhere. It allows me to stay connected with “my people” and for us to have open conversations and for others to join in.

Social media has helped me to stay accountable to my community. The idea of wokeness doesn’t belong to just one person, it belongs to all of us. It can be used as a status symbol and it is. Whoever takes it on as their emblem varies and changes depending on who has the loudest voice, the most media coverage, etc.

We can also move beyond “woke” as a status system. It’s possible when we commit ourselves to anti-racism. How we choose to use “wokeness” and who uses it can be helpful...In the book, every chapter is [about] opening up even more...of who you are, history, what’s become before you, activists, things you can do, possibilities to affect change.

In one activity section, you say, “You can write the history we should have all been told.” How does family history shape our personal history and our sense of self? How can collective history reinforce the narratives we tell about ourselves?

I am a first-generation American who knows some history from my maternal side and very little of the history on my paternal side. I keep grasping for these histories and keep returning to them. The history I do know grounds me and helps me to feel connected to what came before me.

I think of my grandmother who lived in England during World War II and was sent to the countryside and separated from her family. As a kid, I wanted to know everything I possibly could about that time period, which led me to read a lot of books and gain a lot of information/knowledge (for a young person) about what was happening in the world during World War II. Our own personal histories allow us to place ourselves on the time line of humans, to relate to history, to see ourselves, and to know we are not the last humans to exist, that others will come after us.

The goals of anti-bias education are not just goals for me in my role as an educator. They’re life goals. The first one is to love yourself and to know who you are. While those goals were created with very young children in mind, as an educator and a mama I keep going back to them and use them in daily guidance. There are also goals for adults with the first being to understand your own social identities. These are inescapable constructions of society, and there’s so much more to each of us. 

 

Illus. by Aurélia Durand

For me, history can offer personal affirmations. We get to gain an understanding of who we are and why we are. We get to ask questions about ourselves, about the histories we do not know.

There are parts of my history I don’t know. I have no idea who came before my father. I have no connection to generations of my name, and it leaves me wanting to know a lot more...not just about the individuals who are a part of me but what was happening in our society at the time to bring them here. I don’t know, but I can guess that some of my family came here by way of enslavement.

The unknown parts of my history have me working hard to ensure that students and young people can know the collective history because that shapes us too. History is truth. It can lead to deep research and help me to work on carving out space for myself in this history now so future generations of my family will know and feel affirmed and hopefully see themselves in me and my story.

Personal history can ground us; it can disrupt us. Family histories can have parts that are unsettling and parts that are beautiful. Collective history can reinforce the narratives that we’ve been told about ourselves and about our people. Knowing the truth can help to undo that. It can liberate us from the false narratives of who we are. It can really shape and reshape who we are.

When is love a radical act? When is self-love a revolutionary act? What advice would you impart to youth who are struggling with dismantling internalized racism and negative self-image?

Love is a radical act when we’re not supposed to love. And we [BIPoC] never were. Our bodies were thought of as objects. They’re policed by institutions. They don’t fit into the small box of desirable beauty standards.

When we pause, for even a small moment to rest, to love ourselves and others, it becomes a revolutionary act. We’re actually doing something for ourselves and not for the state that imposes on us constantly. Anytime we take care of ourselves, our loved ones, express joy for ourselves, it becomes a way of resistance because it’s something we’re not supposed to do.

When I feel completely stressed out it is moments of joy that bring me relief. These moments ground me and make me feel whole again. Moments when I can feel like a human and can breathe are so important as I’ve been conditioned to not take part in any of that [joy] and keep working and to strive to be as good as I can possibly be (which is never quite good enough).

Our educational system is extremely oppressive, and there are moments and pockets when anti-bias, anti-racist (ABAR) education can shine through. Those moments, those teachers, those classrooms, and those students can feel very revolutionary in our racist schools. They do exist and students need them; they need them to feel whole. Young Folx are our greatness. They will move us forward even when we’re too tired to continue onward. I truly believe young folx are the hope that will get us all free. (It’s why I love working with children and young adults so much!)


Photo by James Azar Salem

Tiffany Jewell is a Black biracial writer and Anti-Racist Montessori educator and consultant. She spends her time baking bread and macarons, building LEGOS, watching British detective shows, and dreaming up how she can dismantle white supremacy. Tiffany currently lives in Western Massachusetts (on the occupied land of the Wabanaki and the Nipmuck) with her two young activists, her partner, and a turtle she's had since she was nine. This is her first book for children and young adults. Find her on Instagram: @tiffanymjewell.

 

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