According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a total of 202 hate crimes were reported on the day following the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
A close friend and cohort—a Latinx educator whose name is changed due to the harassment she has faced in recent weeks—has granted an interview regarding the immediate backlash she received when, following the election, she retweeted a quote by an American poet and civil rights activist on her personal page. Her institution and community in Missouri responded with threats, intimidation and coercion.
CMO: How are you today? En serio.
EVA: It’s hard to say. I get this question a lot lately, and I’m not sure how to answer. I’m still trying to understand how to function as an educator in this climate. To be honest, the impact of the kind of racism I’ve dealt with lately becomes heavier and murkier each day, but I feel grateful for the support from friends, family, and colleagues. I have learned I have true allies and friends where I work, and that is incredibly valuable. It has helped me from feeling completely isolated or from falling into utter despair.
CMO: Describe your current situation as a Latinx educator in the state of Missouri, and your engagement with social media platforms. How did all of this start?
EVA: This is a difficult question because for me it is still ongoing. I work in a school located in one of Missouri’s most affluent communities. A little before the election I learned from a trusted source that students were “stalking” me on my social media platforms. I have strict rules about what goes online and who has access to it, but I did have some platforms that were public for networking purposes. As an educator, one of the most useful aspects of my professional development has been my social media networks. I was never worried about the content of my social media, because I felt what I said was honest, scholarly, and thoughtful, and it wasn’t anything that I would feel ashamed of or ever find reason to retract. In my school, there are other educators who voice their opinions in social media, some much more than I do. However, I work in a school whose educators of color make up less than 10% of the faculty. Since I have strived to be a leader at my school and in education, beinga vocal and visible woman of color in my job played a role in why I was singled out.
When a group of students brought concerns of liberal bias of teachers to the administration, they cited examples in the school, and those instances involved white teachers. Those teachers were not mentioned by name. There were no examples of me or any of my behavior that would suggest I was perpetuating inappropriate biased practices at school, so they had to Google me and see what they could find on me. I was the only one singled out by students, parents, and alumni of the school who found content they felt was inflammatory against whites. The subtext of the talks I had with school administrators as a result of the accusations was that I had engaged in hate speech against white people, which is frustrating to me but not at all surprising.
I have lived on both coasts, and there’s something rather unique about the Midwest, in particular Missouri. I have found that Missouri functions historically and culturally like the South, though it thinks itself separate and above the racial tensions the South tends to be known for. The insidiousness of the racism in Missouri has cultivated the intense racial divisions that made Ferguson the fulcrum of unrest in the last few years. The worst part is the polite denial that my targeting is racially motivated. My stalkers and accusers can say my opinions are racially divisive and aggressive, but they can’t see how they’re simply projecting their own fears and prejudices onto me.
CMO: Advocacy for educators is in rapid decline, in the U.S. and worldwide—there is now a website through which students are encouraged to report professors who espouse “un-American” world views, either via curricula or classroom discussions. How do you manage the rhetoric of political correctness, from either side of the spectrum, while upholding your values as an educator?
EVA: Educators have a moral responsibility to engage students in worldviews that are ideologically different and that may make students uncomfortable. This is part of the learning process. But what I have learned in my experience is that well-meaning liberal educators sometimes grow impatient and try to corral students into views they deem morally correct. Instead, they should be critically engaging those students in an exploration of their values and beliefs. It takes a lot of training, finesse, and professional support to accomplish this. But when your faculty does not know how to do this well enough, vocal educators of color like me get blamed for things I haven’t done in my own classroom. Any efforts of inclusion and diversity in the school are then seen as a threat to the established order. To me, the best way to approach these difficult conversations is not to present yourself as the authority but to present yourself as a biased individual like everyone else--to be a model for what a biased individual must do, and how a person must critically engage with other experiences and perspectives. Through this process, we can help students reflect on personal views and their sources. It’s a difficult pedagogical endeavor, which I have been striving to accomplish. I aim to design lessons that ensure that every student, no matter the amount or lack of privilege, can find a way to engage in the content. I haven’t always succeeded, but I have always framed my best practices with this in mind. To be a bit sardonic, that’s what makes my situation right now feel so ironic. I have worked incredibly hard to check my own biases and make students in my classroom feel like they can challenge me with the right process of argumentation and evidence.
CMO: How can your experience be described beyond the framework of the 2016 election?
EVA: I don’t know how to answer the question other than to say that Missouri is a state that has around 4% foreign-born population, and that factors in the kind of negative experiences I have in the larger community. I have always felt foreign in some way.
CMO: What are the most significant challenges you face?
EVA: I don’t feel safe or wanted where I live. I feel there’s a whole community that wants me gone. While there’s another subset of that same community that supports me, I can’t help but feel how much my presence in a room or a meeting changes the tone. I feel like I am walking around on fire, and everyone knows it, and I know it, but no one knows how to put the fire out. I certainly don’t. I feel that my leadership and joy in teaching has been stripped away by people who have no sense of what I do in the classroom.
CMO: Do you have a support system? What are ways in which academics in communities like your school can create support systems and venues for mental health and self care?
EVA: I do have a support system. Thankfully, I have a group of colleagues who have helped me as I go through all this pain. I would strongly recommend professional mentorship programs that go beyond pedagogical work. Women of color in the same educational institution should form a network that meets monthly with a social and professional component to it. Additionally, people who consider themselves allies should not be afraid to ask and seek to listen to what people of color are experiencing. Allies may hesitate out of fear of saying the wrong. However, if allies do not frame their questions through their own assumptions and seek to listen and absorb, they will have a better chance at someone opening up to them. The most incredible allies have been the ones who simply sit and listen, not trying to give suggestions or advice or positive angles. These allies do their best to empathize while recognizing the limitations in their ability to do so. Allies cannot wait until students and colleagues of color reach out. They need to build their half of their bridge first, and we can then build the second half. It won’t always work because the level of trauma varies from person to person. Trust has been frayed, so unless someone comes up to me to ask, I don’t approach them. Feeling targeted has meant feeling like every person I don’t know all that well is a potential source of pain and trauma.
CMO: What advice/wisdom would you offer to students and teachers as we move into the next four years?
EVA: Check your optimism. I mean that kind of optimism that leads to a denial of tensions and animosity. My situation was unnecessarily shocking to people who knew very well the community in which we worked. Sometimes optimism creates this false mirage of the school community. Many administrators and colleagues saw our school as a mirror of their ideals and dreams rather than a window of the true reality—our own microcosm of the larger national conflicts. This is dangerous. I entreat educational institutions to understand the tensions, history, and demographics of their constituency. Understand the powerful players and their desires. Think strategically in order to look out for our most vulnerable populations—students of color, LGBGQTIA, students with disabilities, immigrant families, etc. I have found that instead of strategies that have action plans and specific goals, I’m bombarded with a lot of platitudes and abstractions about our American ideals and values. Collect both quantitative and qualitative data to inform how your school community is functioning in this new world in which the person holding the highest office can say, legitimize, and act in a way we would never accept in our schools from adults or children. That’s a stark reality, and one which we must face with strength and determination.