As a graduate student at USF, I have the privilege of attending some amazing talks on campus. Last month I went to a presentation by Dr. Bettina Love that was so powerful, I know it will forever color my practice as an educator and activist.
I think it’s important to share this information when I receive it. Granted, I don’t want to share all her work—we need to be paid for our intellectual labor! But I will share a few takeaways that I found particularly salient, + encourage you to buy her book, We Want To Do More Than Survive.
1. Students of color were never meant to thrive (let alone survive) in schools.
In her book, Dr. Love coins the term “Educational Survival Complex.” Similar in nature to the Prison Industrial Complex, this is defined as our country’s system of profiting from the narrative that Black and brown students cannot succeed in schools.
Her book was written to address the reality that we have never been given an education allowing us to thrive, not just survive. “Black students are never weaponized with the tools to liberate themselves,” she says. “We are taught to survive and maintain the status quo in school, and it is called character.”
“Character education” serves the purpose of maintaining the status quo and a system of white hegemony. Therefore,
2. Character education is inherently racist.
I loved her detailed analysis of this one. Yes, yes, YES
Dr. Love dissects the history of character education beautifully with dates, legislation, the whole nine yard. But in short:
American schools used to offer civics education. Civics education is “the cultivation of informed, responsible participation in political life by competent citizens committed to the fundamental values and principles of representative democracy.”
Civics education covers things like voting, taxes, engaged citizenship…the things we grow up and make memes about wishing we’d learned in school lol.
But those ideals of citizenship have since been twisted into new ideals that actively harm students of color: character education. Dr. Love describes this as “the bait and switch.”
Suddenly, the new way to prove “good citizenship” in schools is by keeping your head down, doing service learning (usually meaningless and for show), and failing to challenge established rules or call out patterns of injustice. This is a distinctly politicized narrative that actively harms Black and brown students.
Frankly, many students of color attend schools that leave them woefully under-supported and lack culturally responsive pedagogies. Disrupting the status quo is a necessity if they wish to receive an equitable education and maintain their human dignity in the classroom. But when “character” is a graded requirement, punitive by disciplinary action if you don’t acquiesce, students are unfairly set up to fail.
Meanwhile, when opportunities for real character education arise we see actions like that of the Edwardsville, Illinois School District: “School district bans classroom discussion on Michael Brown, Ferguson.”
If engaging in discussions about community issues and students’ lived experiences isn’t engaged citizenship, what is?
Dr. Love points also to KIPP’s’ “Character Counts” work, which “focuses on seven highly predictive character strengths that are correlated to leading engaged, happy and successful lives.”
If you’re looking at these traits critically, it isn’t difficult to imagine how they work against students who don’t demonstrate them in expected ways. She insists that students of color do exhibit these traits consistently, and often impeccably, but teachers fail to see it because:
3. We approach Black and brown students from a deficit perspective.
Dr. Love points out that there is a distinctly troubling narrative around Black and Latinx students, constantly suggesting that they inherently lack the ability to thrive in school. She urges us instead to look critically at the system overall, to examine our own assumptions and language—and, to recognize that even educators of color have been indoctrinated into this belief system.
I reflected on my own practice and can attest to using terms like “at-risk youth” and “achievement gap.” Dr. Love reminds us that such language misdirects the responsibility for classroom achievement onto the students while failing to address the structural, political, and historical reasons for those gaps.
“Is there an achievement gap, or an opportunity gap?”
“Are they first generation college students, or is this the first group you let in?”
4. We need abolitionists, not allies.
At this point, I just started transcribing her words directly because everything was too good!
The message: we don’t need allies. We need abolitionists. Bring that same 1800 energy to 2019. Lol. Allyship is too hands-off.
“Education can’t save us,” Dr. Love said. “We have to save education. When the system starts to mimic society, and is not better than society, then we need to tear it down. I’m not talking about reimagining schools…I’m talking about tear it down.”
“We need to think outside. We have to be abolitionists.”
“Can you imagine the level of trust it required to be abolitionist back then? Before social media? You built ditches, offered your home, put your life on the line. You decided ‘we will not take this any longer.’ These were everyday people who put something on the line for other people. They dreamed of a world they may never see.”
“Start to take risks for other people’s children. Dream of a world so beautiful you will never see it…and still work for that. This is what abolitionists did. This is what you need to do.”
Dr. Love refers to this concept as abolitionist teaching.
“But, you cannot engage in abolitionism if you still see black students through White Vision Glasses. Question your whiteness ALL the time—do the deep work of questioning your whiteness.”
“It’s not about ‘understanding where your students are coming from’…focus on understanding WHY they are there. Go deeper.”
To drive this point home, Dr. Love shared the moving backstory of Bree Newsome’s courageous removal of the Confederate flag from a South Carolina statehouse. What many of us didn’t know (at least I didn’t), was that this act of protest was organized by a grassroots organization who knew that, for symbolic reasons, the remover of the flag needed to be Black. They also knew that white privilege would need to be injected to realistically achieve this feat.
Sure enough, authorities arrived to the scene and quickly threatened to electrocute the pole as a means of stopping Newsome. James Tyson, a white man, stood at the foot of the pole and simply held onto it while Newsome continued the mission.
Obviously, the organizers had wagered ahead of time that as long as a white man was attached to that pole, there would be no electrocution. They were right: Bree Newsome was able to remove the flag and scale back down the pole, and was then arrested (but unharmed!) along with James Tyson.
Perhaps most notably, we did not hear much from Tyson after that, nor did he seek accolades for his actions.
This is a co-conspirator. This is a modern abolitionist. An ally might have kept watch and warned her that police were coming. Abolitionists join on the front lines, willing to put something at stake themselves.
Dr. Bettina Love, while being a dynamic speaker and thorough researcher, displayed an awesome sense of humor in her talk as well. She bluntly and cheekily called out white people throughout her talk, urging them to take action in ways that are uncomfortable, but necessary.
Toward the end, she referenced the “bank account” of privilege white people are able to draw from. While one might be inclined to hoard that money, she reminds us that white privilege never depletes. Thus, it needs to be shared!
“Some of you have a 400 year interest sitting in your bank account. And guess what? If you spend a little bit, it’ll come right back!” 😉 “Use some of it for other folks so they can win for justice movements.”
Amen Dr. Love! Amen.