Hello Captain Awkward!
I love your blog. I love it so much that I’ve read through your archives and found a few questions that are cousins to, but not quite the same as mine, so here goes:
I am in my mid twenties and work at a nonprofit in a large, diverse (racially/ethnically, economically, politically) city. My organization trains and places volunteers to tutor children in Title I elementary schools. All of our volunteers are hardworking people who are very generous with their time and resources. Most of our volunteers are kind and thoughtful about the challenges many of our students face, and about the differences that may exist between their backgrounds and their students’ backgrounds. Some are not.
Some people say terrible things, usually privately to staff (if volunteers say racist things to students, we ALWAYS step in. It also doesn’t happen too frequently, thank goodness. The questions is more about one-on-one interactions with staff members.)
“I like working with Joe. At least he has a brain in his head, unlike Rose.” [not their real names]
“When I went to Ethiopia I expected to feel sorry for them, but I just felt like ‘get up off ground, stop pissing in the street, and clean up your city!'” [many of our students are Ethiopian]
“So are these poor kids?”
“It’s just too bad his parents don’t really care about his education.” [not true]
“I just don’t feel comfortable in this neighborhood. You know, since I’m a white lady.” [yes, someone said this]
There are semi-frequently comments from volunteers assuming that of course our students don’t have fathers in their lives, how their parents probably don’t care about how they’re doing in school, and how their students must have a terrible home life. Of course, some of our students may be in these circumstances – the problem is jumping to these conclusions after having spent 0-5 minutes with a student.
The comments range from foot-in-mouth to super racist, and those of us on staff struggle to know how to handle them. Some complicating factors:
1. In a perfect world, we’d have so many volunteers that we could dismiss the racist ones and replace them. Unfortunately, we need every volunteer we’ve got, and usually these volunteers are at least capable of not spewing this stuff in front of students, which is really the only way to get rid of a volunteer.
2. Part of the organization’s mission is to help educate people who don’t know much about urban education so they can become better advocates for our students and their schools. Therefore, though our first priority is our students, our second priority is providing excellent “customer service” to our volunteers.
3. Most of the offending volunteers are white, wealthy, and middle-aged/seniors who have raised children. The staff is in their 20-30s, mostly not white, definitely not wealthy, mostly childless.
Most of your scripts for dealing with racist behavior tends toward the more confrontational side. Though often wish I could employ them, I’m not in a position where I can straight up tell people that they are being racist. Do you have some scripts to help us make it clear to volunteers that certain comments are not acceptable, while still maintaining a good working relationship? Or do we have to pick between standing up to racist comments and making sure volunteers stick around?
Thank you for your help! I know this is a little long, so feel free to edit as needed.
Please Don’t Volunteer Like That
Dear Please Don’t Volunteer Like That:
This is a delicate conversation, like so many conversations about race are, because of the very real power differentials at play. Your organization needs these volunteers. You need your job. You could become the Emperor of Comebacks, who just says “That’s pretty racist, so, maybe, don’t?” and the volunteers saying these sorts of things would deserve it, like, if they don’t want a salty, uncomfortable response then don’t say racist things, and if they can’t handle being corrected maybe they should fuck off. You knowing that doesn’t put food on your table, and it doesn’t get volunteers for the kids who need them, but maybe it’s mentally helpful to you as a reminder that engaging the volunteers “politely” and “positively” is a gift you are choosing to give to your organization and the volunteers themselves.
If I’m about to write a piece on how to take care of the feelings of old rich white people around race, to keep us all from barfing let’s just agree at the outset: This is work. Those tongues, sore from biting, and those neutral expressions are emotional labor. They are some of of the costs of living in a racist society, and the costs are being disproportionately borne by you and your fellow staffers. That is fucking unfair and you don’t have to be perfect politeness robots in the face of people who casually say horrible, ignorant things around you all day. If you snap at times, or roll your eyes, or need to walk away from certain conversations, be very gentle with yourselves and with each other.
One question I have is what kind of training do your volunteers receive before they go to the kids, and is there a way to work some of this out there? I taught ESL and adult literacy at a night school in Washington, D.C. for a while, and we had some very intense and comprehensive training, some of which was about pedagogy and some of it was a way to get some of the preconceptions the overwhelmingly white (college educated, white-collar, able-bodied, etc.) volunteers might have about the population we served.
As a child of the Reagan years who came of age in the Clinton “welfare reform” period, growing up middle class in an almost all-white small town in Massachusetts, fresh out of Georgetown, I am 100% positive I had some dumbass received ideas about what caused poverty and how people could climb out of it with the help of bootstraps and a well-intentioned white 23-year old teaching them verb tenses. The training I had addressed some of this head-on, asking the volunteers to describe what they imagined the students we served were like and challenging us about where those ideas came from by asking questions – “Why do you think that? Where did you get that impression? What did you hear or read or see that made you think that?” Some of the lessons in the training were:
a) If you’ve lived a somewhat privileged life until now and don’t have direct exposure to, say, immigrant communities or working class people, you’ve been fed a very consistent, racist, crafted narrative about them from conventional media sources who have agendas in portraying certain populations the way they do. It’s so pervasive that no one, not even people from those communities, are immune from the message or the portrayals.You, the volunteer, are not necessarily a stupid or uncaring person for not knowing this stuff before now, but now that you know, you need to do the work and act right. If you don’t, you can really harm people and their learning progress. (I try to do some of that same thing now in media classes I teach, especially delivering the message that, hey, young person who is here to learn, you’re not stupid or evil for replicating what you see in media, just, sit with those uncomfortable feelings you feel and think about how you want to proceed now that you have thought about it.)
b) Sometimes you will meet people who seem, on the surface, to mimic some of the stereotypes you’ve received from media and other sources about (poor people)(immigrants)(adults who need literacy teaching). The plural of anecdote is not data, don’t extrapolate. By living a privileged life to date, we volunteers were ignorant of a large section of how the world works, and it would be a mistake to assume anything about our students. Teaching and learning has to take place in an atmosphere of mutual respect for others and their experiences. Every person is an expert on their own life story.
c) Be aware of possible limits such as students working multiple jobs on top of taking care of children when you assign homework, don’t assume people have a television or a dedicated telephone or an internet access (this was 1997-98, by way of reference), don’t do or assign anything that costs money, be thoughtful about how you discuss money.
This specific, gentle, and nuanced training opened my eyes like, whoa, to the point that I can recall it more than 15 years later, the way I remember the students who worked all day and then took two buses to take my class before taking two buses back to take care of their children, the way I remember what an utterly humbling and amazing privilege it was to be their teacher.
I’m sure your organization already has excellent training, but one thing we know is that not talking about race doesn’t lessen or combat racism. The “polite’ thing American white people tried to do for the last several decades where we “didn’t see race” is a failed experiment. I realize that it’s a very big picture sort of suggestion rather than the scripts you asked for, but if you make a safe place where your volunteers can get some of this stuff out at the beginning, where you can collect and anonymize some of the statements that come up over and over again and gently start to challenge racist assumptions you might head some of this off at the pass. You might also identify people who can be worked with and people who bear a little more supervision early on.
Okay, now for scripts.
I think some comments are to be ignored, with a “hrmmm, that’s an interesting way to look at it” at most, and maybe chalked up to “This volunteer uncomfortable and not thinking before they speak. If they say it once, I will ignore it, but if they keep expanding or repeating it, I will intervene.”
Good news: The fact that they know not to say this stuff in front of the students shows that they are capable of self-editing. You can work with that. I think some comments are to be addressed swiftly, with:
- “You’re not alone, many of our volunteers express opinions like that when they first start coming here, but the students are such a diverse group that it doesn’t really hold up over time.“
- “(Fact) is true for a few of our students, unfortunately, but I think as you get to know them you’ll find that’s actually pretty rare.“
- “(Fact) may be true for some of our students, but I find it helpful to not assume anything about their family lives at the start. One of the best parts of doing this work is getting to know all the students and their families.”
- “That’s the story that most people know about our students and students like them. I hope as you get to know all of us you’ll learn a different story.“
- For “Unsafe neighborhood” lady: “Segregation is very awkward and uncomfortable, and you’re not the first volunteer to express something like that to me. Sometimes the students talk about how they don’t feel safe either (if that’s true), however, it really distresses the students when they find out that volunteers don’t like their neighborhood. I’d love to have this conversation again with you in a month or so, maybe we can document how your experience changed in a way that will help other volunteers.”
- “Well, that’s one of the perceptions we’re here to work on, right?”
- “Sadly, the students and their families watch the same news and shows we do, and that message trickles down here in ways that are really damaging to them. I understand why you might think that, but I hope you’ll join me in debunking it whenever you can, especially around the students.“
One helpful construction for this sort of conversation, if and only if it is in fact true of you, is “I used to think something like that, too/I was raised to believe that, too/I had a lot of the same preconceptions before I started working here/I heard a lot of similar things growing up, but then I (read x article) (read this author or book) (spent a lot of time with the students and their families) (realized how that story gets recycled by media and politicians for their own purposes)(realized how little the news reports any story besides the dominant one about this place) and it really changed my mind. And that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” The volunteers are saying this stuff in front of you because they think that you are like them, so affirming some of that “alikeness” while correcting them might reach some of them. You can also refer them to more experienced volunteers, and train more experienced volunteers to do some of this work for you. “Fredna said almost that exact thing to me when she started, you should talk with her now, I think it would be very valuable for you.”
To be clear, I think that saying something back isn’t just for the volunteers and their “learning” or their feelings or whatever. When you have the energy and the ability, I think that challenging racist statements is good for you. It’s good for you to return some awkwardness to sender. It’s good for you to not just take it into yourself silently, or recreate the scenario over and over again in your head to wonder if you should have done something differently. When you don’t have the energy, say, “Hrmm, that’s one opinion” and go hide in the bathroom for a minute where you can don your purple shorts in peace. When you do have it, try speaking up and see what happens. The rich old white people will be just fine if their asses aren’t kissed every second of every day.