Voices of #PhysEd: Common Ground

I’ve always told my college students the most profound divider of people is gender, then comes religion, then social class, and finally race.  The greatest source of conflict between my husband and me comes from the fact that he is a man and I am a woman, not because he’s white and I’m black.  Race is simply the most obvious divider between us.  In spite of the difference in our races, we’ve found enough similarities to sustain a relationship. Now consider this:  When a black male and a white male approach each other on the street, their difference is obvious.  But after one of them draws a gun, it’s too late to explore their similarities.  This is one of the sources of our nation’s racial divide–the unwillingness to consider our similarities when our differences are so obvious.

How often do you approach a person of another race and immediately begin thinking of all the things you have in common:  hometown, educational background, number of siblings, favorite restaurant, favorite TV show.  How often do you think of your differences (perceived or real) first, and then say or do something that makes your difference even more obvious?  I’m a black American in a predominantly white school, church, neighborhood, city, state, and nation.  I’m constantly reminded of the differences between me and the people around me.  For example:

Some people think I speak a different language:  A young woman I’ve known for years insists on greeting me with, “What up, girl?” even though I’ve never used that vernacular.

Some assume they know my tastes and interests:  A dear colleague insists I should see the movie 42 about Jackie Robinson because he knows I’ll love it.  I don’t even like baseball.

Some make assumptions about my lineage:  “Are you related to Martin Luther King?”  Or consider my former landlord who kept asking me questions about my origins (my home country? my parents’ home country?) presumably because I was different from the black Americans he knew.

Because I’m black and they’re not, some think that I’m an expert on all things black—“C’mon Susan, what’s that singer’s name with the high voice?  He’s black.  You know his name.”

No one would ever consider this behavior as racism.  A more appropriate label is microaggression, a term coined by Dr. Chester Pierce in 1970.  Microaggressions are totally dysconscious, meaning that there is no malicious intent by the perpetrator.  Still, they can have the same effect as conscious racism.  These little annoyances take place almost daily, and it’s bad enough when it comes from people you know and respect.  It’s worse when it comes from a stranger.  Witness the elderly woman who clutches her handbag and moves to the opposite edge of the sidewalk as she passes my friends and me (in our parochial school uniforms) waiting for the bus.  Sit by me on the way to school or work because the last empty seat on the bus or train is always next to me.  Jog along with me as I go to a nearby park for track practice and hear the occupant of a passing car greet me with, “Hey nigga!”  My husband doesn’t understand how I can deal with it.  I tell him, this is what it’s like to be me–I’m black in America.

Because I have always been, and will always be black in America, I have a choice.  Am I going to focus on the differences between me and the people around me, or am I going to do the work of discovering our similarities, finding common ground, and building bridges?  I must confess that microaggressions have taken their toll on me.  I notice I often look on white people with suspicion, just waiting for them to say something annoying or racist.  Over 20 years ago, I wrote an article (King, 1994) in which I illustrated overt, institutional, and dysconscious racism with current examples of behaviors that unfortunately still exist today.  I have served on task force after committee after focus group after commission, all charged with generating recommendations for increasing diversity in my school or community.  It would be so easy for me to throw up my hands and disengage from these fruitless processes.  I could so easily let anger and utter frustration overtake me and become part of the problem.  But if I want to be part of the solution, my task is to avoid quick judgment of non-African Americans and seek out our similarities, not focus on our differences.  I should think before I speak and hold my tongue when necessary.  I must approach others with curiosity and not suspicion.  I will engage with a smile and an eye toward a common future, informed by a difficult past, but not burdened by it.

common_groundWhat are you willing to do to find common ground between you and a student or colleague of another race?  Before you form an opinion, will you pause and consider the possibility that you share the same spiritual beliefs, the same level of education, the same respect for authority, the same love of family, the same dreams and aspirations?  There!  Look down at your feet.  You are now standing on the edge of common ground.  Take a step, start the conversation, and explore your similarities together.

King, S. (1994). Winning the race against racism. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 65(9), 69-74.

7 Comments on “Voices of #PhysEd: Common Ground

  1. This blog really made me look in the mirror and think. Do I use any microaggressions? I hope not but truth is I am probably not aware if I did. These blogs make me cognizant of how I think and act. Thanks so much for the candid words.

    • Thanks, slowchatpe. Self-examination is the first step. I had to examine myself and found some things that I needed to change within. It’s a daily battle to keep from falling back into old patterns. But the struggle is worth it.

  2. Thank you, Susan for this insightful post and also @phyedagogy for inviting this dialogue. I feel like I’ve been in the bridge-builder camp for a long time, since childhood even, as a black person in majority white spaces. I grew up as the kid who was able to get along with just about everybody. This has served me well in my career as a teacher.
    Particularly in the phys ed arena where physical differences in appearance, movement skill and ability are so readily on display, I believe that my natural inclination to build bridges has helped me reach students who might easily feel marginalized and at the same time, model strategies of inclusion for students to practice.
    Inclusion and bridge building have been survival and coping strategies I have used to move past microaggressions and resentments to create environments which accept and welcome my strengths and those of others. Helping light bulbs go on in others is one joy of teaching. Once, years ago when I taught a KG class and was wearing shorts, a white boy whom I had taught all year remarked, “hey, you’re brown all over!” A light bulb went on not just for him but also for me. I recognized the importance of my being there for him to have that experience and be able to make that very real connection.
    Thanks for the opportunity to share this part of my PE story which otherwise doesn’t get much mileage.

    • Really enjoyed your comments,edifiedlistener (what a great name!). I hear what you’re saying and know exactly what you mean. Not everyone is willing to be that bridge, but somebody has to do it. The desire to build bridges does enable you to cope. When someone says, Ooh, can I touch your hair?, I just smile and let them do it. I don’t have a problem with curiosity. Being a bridge brings that person one step closer to greater understanding–like your kindergartener. How sad it would be if there were no bridges, then there would no chance for future unity.

  3. I have/had similar experiences being a Female Athlete from the time I was little, being classified as as a “tom girl”, before there were competitive teams for girls. When I went to a party in college with my Fiancee who was an “intellectual”, his buddys, who didn’t know me, came up and very sarcastically said “oh, you’re the one who is “playing her way through college”. My response was “well, if you consider taking Chemistry, Physiology & Anatomy in that category, yes! Again sarcastically, one of them replied “Yeah, but WHAT kind of grades did you get?” When I was able to say ‘straight A’s’, they both walked off, rather embarrassed. I never had any trouble then for years, until I moved to California. I attended a summer seminar for Masters Degree candidates in Physical Education as a guest speaker. The
    Athletic Director for Berkeley, explained how “Men’s Athletics were helping with the women’s sports financially and that all there supported it because there was a HISTORY behind the men’s program but not the women’s. A young man in the audience stood up and loudly opposed that practice saying the money should stay with the men’s. I very quietly said “young man, do you have any idea what it was like to have to sit on the sideline cheering on your high school boys’ basketball team when you can’t play because you are a girl and you are better than any of them Obviously, my experience was a long time ago, but these kind of concepts still exist and we through education and example do what we can to change and educate others. My daughter went to college on a softball scholarship. By the way, that young man came up afterwards and apologized to me.

  4. I do not portend to know what it feels like to be seriously discriminated upon. I grew up in Los Angeles, CA and am the son of a son from white middle class suburbia. But, I have read about it, studied it and spoken out against “it”. It being…racial discrimination. I do know that it produces anger, embitterment, fear and resentment. I started teaching in 1980. Back then I would have never dreamed that thirty years into the future we still have “educational discrimination” against our profession that is manifested as physical education still not a “core subject” as defined by the Education and Secondary School Act of 1965. This makes me feel a bit angry and embittered when we still to this day, we are not a CORE subject, despite advocacy and well meaning advocates. We still fight the good fight for legislation that will make this happen, but to date it has not happened…We still have the number of required by state law mandatory minutes NOT being met in elementary physical education schools across our land. I can see some injustice here in this past example as I can understand the anger, frustration and bewilderment that many past voting rights advocates long ago took up to the streets for…Waivers, substitutions and other negligent policies still prohibit many of our high school students from taking required physical education classes for two years. Some states require four years of high school P.E., others do not. It seems arbitrary to me that marching band “counts” for physical education credit. To me, band teachers are building up their programs and building up their numbers on the backs of good, quality physical education programs and teachers. When in spite of the First Lady and her great attempts to promote our profession and the brain based research out there that supports daily physical education we still have a physical education standards not being met due to many educational injustices…yes, I understand how injustice can breed anger, resentment and fear. But, I use this issue as my “edge” or “my chip” on the shoulder. I use this chip and edge to motivate myself to be the best physical educator ever and to lead by example in advocating for quality physical education and helping to build a strong base that can end this educational injustice that plaques our great progression of PHYSICAL EDUCATION! Maybe someday our profession will be free from the many restrictions and educational policies that hold us back…maybe someday we will be free at last!

  5. Reply to race discussion
    I wanted to add a “light” comment about something that happened in my 1st grade P.E. class. In my elementary school students can bring the uniform T-shirt of their choice. They can choose between red, green, blue, or white. I always try to randomize the way they form groups and it is frequent to hear me say to “group by shirt color” (a quick way to make groups). One day I did not say the word “shirt”, but quickly said: “group by colors”, assuming that all my students knew what I was talking about. I was surprised to find a group of three girls chatting and bringing their arms together and looking at them. When I approached them and asked them what they were doing and why they were not getting into groups, they said they were trying to get into groups by “color”. They thought I was referring to the color of their skin and they were comparing their colors to see if they could be together!

    The concept of skin color can be perceived in many different ways depending on the background of the different people involved. I’ve heard arguments among my students in which they are upset because the other thought they were white, while they clearly considered themselves to be black. In this sense, I believe their self concept of race is more based on the family roots than on the color of their skins. On the other hand many of my black students use an expression that you mentioned in your article “nigga” or “nigger”. I often have difficulty trying to help them understand how inappropriate it is to use this expression, in particular because it is usually the black children calling the white children the “n” word. When I talk to them they tell me there is nothing wrong with that word because they use it at home; their parents use it all the time, they say.

    Other times I turn the situation into a “teaching moment” when a student comes to tell me that “the white boy” or the “black girl” said this or that. I try to help them understand that they can describe the person in other terms that is not necessarily their skin color. That they can say “the boy with the blue shirt”, or “the girl standing by the post”, but I also realize most of the times they do it without malice, and it might be the feature that in their minds stands out in order to describe a person.

    Sometimes I wonder if by trying to help them describe the person using other features I am putting more emphasis on their race than not. But in general, I try to have them describe the other students using more “generic” features that are not their skin color, their weight, or their nationality. Many of the race or nationality related concepts my students bring to class come from their homes. It is a fine line I try to walk when I try to explain how to treat others without necessarily making them feel bad about their own families or upbringing.

    Thanks for bringing this topic to the discussion.

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