We undertook this self-study after we began leading an anti-racism project awarded to the Teacher Education Program through the University of Victoria’s anti-racism grant. The purpose of the grant was to support instructors and teacher candidates to embed equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) practices more intentionally and skilfully into their practice. We determined that engaging in a self-study would help us identify our individual and collective motivations for anti-racism work, unpack our contexts, and develop a relationship of trust as we engaged in the project. Through an exchange of letters and conversations, we were able to learn more about ourselves, each other, and the intersections and differences of our particular contexts. The self-study allowed us to move from courteous colleagues to committed partners, with a deeper understanding of our motivations, curiosities, hesitancies and tensions as we engaged in anti-racism education.
Context of the Study
In the spring of 2021 the University of Victoria Teacher Education Program (TEP) was awarded an anti-racism grant, bringing together both authors, Tanya of Afro-Caribbean descent and Kerry, who is white. The project was designed to support the TEP in collaborating with instructors and teacher candidates (TCs) to develop the skills and confidence needed to embed equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) into their classroom practice. A key component of the grant was the creation of the role of an “Equity Educator in Residence” (Tanya) to support the instructors and TCs in their EDI efforts. While we were eager to begin the work as the new school year approached, we realized that it was critical to unpack our own contexts and motivations for engaging in anti-racism work, acknowledge our insecurities, and develop a relationship of trust as we took the first steps on our journey.
Since we were both new to, and therefore nervous about how to do anti-racism work, we chose to undertake a self-study. We understood that our work required us to delve into our own understandings of self, racism, and anti-racism and the tensions within it, which we each understood in very different ways. This exploration of the tensions within the work became the genesis of our self-study, the space to engage in our own growth and exploration of self and self-in-practice. Consequently, the purpose of the study is to uncover for ourselves, the challenges, fears, and tensions of leading an anti-racism project and to explore ways of overcoming these challenges to meaningfully engage faculty and students in this work. We aim to explore the following:
- How have our experiences impacted our readiness to engage in anti-racism work?
- What role do our individual stories play in the challenges and fears we experience?
- What are the reflexive and interrogative processes impacting our collaboration and deepening understanding of our contexts and anti-racism work?
Our Personal Contexts
I am an Afro-Caribbean woman, teacher, researcher, immigrant, and mother who is coming to a deeper understanding of what it means to be the Other. I engaged in this self-study as an emerging racialized scholar from a non-western country reflecting on the ongoing systemic inequities in education and the challenges this poses to my commitment to disrupting these systems. I write with a sense of urgency, intention, and purpose that now is the time for change. I acknowledge that I have been marked, placed and geographically confined to an idea of what I should be, and it will take real work to undo those perceptions. It is important for me to reflect on the weight of my position, knowledge, and voice within the project and how these will likely impact relationships with others and the progress of the project.
I am a white woman who is a graduate of and currently manages the TEP at the University of Victoria. Anti-racism work is new to me, who, as a white woman, has had an entirely different experience with respect to race and racism. I would previously have described myself as “not racist”. However, recent occurrences, in particular the murder of George Floyd and the ongoing discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves on former residential school sites, provoked me to read and explore further. And I thought back to things I had said (“I don’t see colour.” “That happened so long ago.”) and I was ashamed. But feeling apologetic or remorseful is not enough; sitting with the uncomfortable thoughts and emotions provoked me to engage in learning more about becoming consciously anti-racist.
Collective and Intersectional Contexts
As we consider ourselves as individuals and in relationship with one another, we resonated with LaBoskey’s (2004) words: “We all have issues to overcome, ‘isms’ to undo, strengths to enhance, limitations to minimize in our ongoing efforts to construct and reconstruct our identities as teachers and teacher educators for social justice” (p. 175). We entered into this work as women from diverse backgrounds, races, classes, and experiences. The intersectionalities of our experiences have challenged us to recognize our own privileges and the tensions within ourselves and with each other. As Tanya shared in this narrative with our critical friend via our Zoom meeting, it is an opportunity to move beyond our discomforts individually and collectively:
I have been thinking quite a bit about what we envisioned this to be, and for me, it is starting the groundwork. How do we initiate conversations to begin with? How do we push beyond the discomforts? Kerry and I have had many polite conversations over the years but we have never sat and spoken to each other prior to doing this work. We never took the time to understand each other's experiences. So for me, part of the work is how do we get our conversations going where we're moving beyond superficial interactions; where we're having those real conversations where we're deepening our understanding of each other and our experiences…
As such, we seek to find out how we are coming to understand anti-racism work and how we deepen our understanding of self and selves as we move forward with the work.
Contextualizing Anti-racism Work
Ibram Kendi (2019) challenges us to be more than ‘not racist’ but to become anti-racist. We contend that being an anti-racist educator is a call to action to fight against racism in all forms. It requires us to actively work to change systemic racist practices and policies that continue to impact generations of racialized people. As hooks (2015) and Kendi (2019) warn, racism is rooted in power and policies that have to be uprooted to create equity for racialized groups. Golash-Boza (2016) reasons that when a group of people holds power over institutions, they strongly influence the everyday thoughts, expectations, and behaviour of individuals by directing the normative practices of such places. In this case, white culture is normalized and elevated above all others, rendering people of colour to the periphery and status of Other. For Dei (1996) it is important to operate from an anti-racist and anti-colonial framework to understand and disrupt the harmful knowledge being reproduced. He notes that this discursive framework allows the anti-racist scholar to interrogate self, practices, and complicity in systemic racism. He further theorizes that an integrative anti-racism approach that examines the intersections of difference through a race-centric analysis is necessary for this to be effective.
We turned to self-study of teacher education practices (S-STEP) to provide the framework for exploring our individual selves, and ourselves in relationship with one another as teacher educators working together on anti-racism. S-STEP was appropriate for our study as it met the criteria described by LaBoskey (2004) in that it is self-initiated and self-focussed; improvement aimed, interactive, uses qualitative methods, and defines validity as a process based on trustworthiness.
Although methodologies such as narrative inquiry, action research, and autoethnography all contain elements also found in self-study, for us, what solidifies self-study as our mode of research is the emphasis on self and practice. As LaBoskey (2004) iterates
self study seeks to determine whether or not our practice is consistent with our evolving ideals and theoretical perspective as we wish to transform ourselves first so that we might be better situated to help transform students, their students, and the institutional and social contexts that surround and constrain us. (pp. 820-821)
We are cognizant of the different ways in which our identities and practices are changing, evolving, and transitioning during the project.
Kerry had been reading self-study research about letters as data sources (Fletcher & Ní Chróinín, 2021; Pithouse-Morgan et al., 2012). Taking our cue from this, we wrote letters to one another as we embarked on the anti-racism project, and revisited those letters in subsequent conversations. Kerry initiated the first letter triggered by her fears about leading the project and this led to many letters being shared over the two-year period. There were no rules around how the letters were written, we simply wrote to each other whenever we encountered perplexing events in our professional and sometimes personal lives relating to equity and our roles as project leaders and teacher educators. In the first 10 letters we exchanged between September and February, we took steps in getting to know one another as women and colleagues by including as many background details about our lives as possible. We shared our letters on Google Drive and let one another know “You’ve got mail”. We then connected weekly (usually by Zoom) where we considered and reconsidered the letters, noting how much we appreciated the “slower” format of letter writing, and how it somehow separated our conversations from prosaic email interaction.
We also recorded a one-hour Zoom meeting with our critical friend that provided opportunities for us to reflect on our thought processes, learning, and growth while engaging in the project. We thought it was necessary to have a third objective voice in our conversations to allow us to reflect more critically on our letters and conversations. As such, prior to our Zoom meeting, we shared our letters with our critical friend, an education professor, who helped develop the trustworthiness of our findings (Hamilton & Pinnegar, 2015). Our critical friend provoked our thinking with questions arising from our letters that directed the conversation during the Zoom meeting. These included: What brought us to the work and why? What do we imagine the work will look like? What are we learning about each other and ourselves? What makes the work urgent? Her intentional questions, asking us to circle back to assumptions, clarify our thinking and identify how we had changed were essential to our insights. We came to understand “the work” encompassed both our relationship and commitment to exploring ourselves as we worked together as well as the urgency to connect with TCs to support their growth.
Analyzing the Data
To make sense of the data, we went through two rounds of coding of the letters, and a video conversation with our critical friend. The first step in analyzing the data was reading and rereading the letters separately to get a sense of our thought processes and generate open codes. That is, we went through the data and identified emerging themes and recurring ideas to unitize the data (Guba & Lincoln, 1994). Some of the open codes included connections, authentic dialogue, self-reflection, and tensions. In the second round of coding, we identified segments of the data that described our developing relationship and deepening understanding of selves.
At the onset of this study, we sought to understand our experiences as white and Afro- Caribbean women engaging in anti-racism work in a dominant white teacher education program. In this process, we engaged in dialogue about our disparate and similar experiences to reflect and interrogate our experiences with the project. We used Berry’s (2007) framework of tensions as we resonated with trying to capture the feelings of internal and collective pulls on the energy we experienced, wondering how to attend to the complex combinations that work both in opposition and tandem. These tensions are between:
- Our internal dialogue and external collaboration
- Urgency and intentionality
- Commitment and hesitation
Tensions Between Internal and External
The tensions in our lived experiences were evident at the onset of the project. For example, after Kerry mentioned in her letter that the conference they would be attending would be in England, in her response, Tanya shared a particularly disturbing racial encounter there that made her averse to visiting the country. After more dialogue via letters, Tanya began to feel safe to be vulnerable with Kerry, which gave her the courage to share her racist experiences with her own family, something she was very embarrassed about for over two decades. This breakthrough was significant to both Tanya and Kerry in establishing a relationship of trust. In response to Tanya’s shared letter about her encounter in England, Kerry wrote:
I know you said there was no way I could have known and that there is no right response. That it never initially occurred to me that this might have been your experience is, I believe, an essential part of my work within our work. That I can have an intellectual understanding of racism and its persistence in the world (hence not being surprised), and the privilege to have it remain in the intellectual realm, is powerful, powerful learning. I thank you, Tanya, for having the courage and trust to share your story with me.
Stories such as Tanya’s have helped Kerry move her intellectual understanding to her heart. For Kerry, the revelation has helped her understand the importance of slowing down and taking the time to develop an authentic connection, to listen deeply to others’ experiences without assumption. One of Tanya’s comments during our Zoom conversation with our critical friend spoke to this as well:
How can Kerry and I collaborate in an authentic way so that we can develop a greater understanding of each other as we move forward with the work itself? We didn't realize how important it is for us to have that honesty with each other and to connect to understand each other…So I'm feeling so grateful for the opportunities to really have these honest conversations as we're growing to understand each other better but we're becoming better at the work because we are being more authentic with each other.
From these encounters, there were two elements that revealed themselves: we needed to collaborate with each other to learn about one another and understand how racism manifests itself, so we can learn how to be anti-racists. As Desmond Cole (2020) writes: “We need to cultivate listening, partnership, and solidarity to carve out a better collective future” (p. 12).
Tensions Between Urgency and Intentionality
With growing conversations on anti-racism issues and the call to action, our Zoom conversation with our critical friend revealed that we undertook our work with some urgency, but our intentionality was lacking. Kerry notes:
When we got this grant I felt this urgency–the tendency is to want to rush into doing things because either I’ve got the energy or the commitment or there's a time frame. What I've noticed is exactly what Tanya said, that actually until we know one another better and understand one another and have some of those conversations and some of the most profound things were in the communications that Tanya and I had, and in some of the letters, how much more there is in terms of the relational parts of this work and how much trust is involved and how many assumptions that are easy to make because at least for me in my head there's ‘OK, let's get moving’ and realizing it's actually been very helpful to work together to get to know one another at the same time as trying to imagine how the work can unfold.
While there is an overlay of urgency as we consider the global shifts in conversations on racism, we discovered in our conversation with our critical friend that sometimes ‘doing’ is sitting, reflecting, and learning about ourselves. It is in these quiet moments that we recognize our own privileges and how we can use these intentionally to create change. It is also through this intentionality that we examine how we were deepening our knowledge about self, and identities and how our collaboration was shaping our experiences within the anti-racism project. Tanya notes:
I know the George Floyd incident sparked a lot of ongoing conversations and new conversations. For the BIPOC folks that I’ve been talking to, many of them have expressed that they feel like now is the time. They have a small window to really push conversations to push for change. There is this sense that if it's not done now that's going to be a missed opportunity. I feel like there is that window where we're having that opening where we can have some of those conversations and we can make that change…because I feel like it's not going to be there forever.
Once we began quiet reflection both individually and together, the work of looking in and then out, the project took on new meanings. We recognized that our identities and concept of selves were shifting daily as Tanya wasn’t questioning her ability to be an ‘Equity Educator in Residence’ as much, and Kerry began to feel more confident in conversing with others about racism. Through reflections with the critical friend Tanya noted:
I am discovering that once we're comfortable with each other and we're having those honest conversations I feel more confident moving forward. I don't speak for other BIPOC folks but some of the conversations that I've been having seem to suggest similar kinds of feelings where someone white might have done something to you and you take that hesitation into other conversations with folks you don’t know. Maybe even my initial fear about the anti-racism work within the department stems from my fear that I don't know folks enough to initiate that kind of work and it's coming to that understanding that I can do the work and I can let go of some of my own weight around that as well.
Tanya now recognizes that rushing to do as many workshops and initiatives as possible robs her of the breadth, voice, confidence, and depth she needs to help TCs become anti-racist educators. She is learning to slow down, focus on small initiatives and embrace her human errors in doing this work and not be burdened by it. As we continue to reconcile the tensions between urgency and intentionality, Kerry’s poignant words are a reminder of how we can learn from the project to inform ways forward in changing teacher education. She notes:
I'm new to this, but it's important to do…so how do we just get things going? Because we can make strategic plans and we can write fancy phrases all we want, but unless people actually take up the work and are willing to put themselves out there and take risks and be vulnerable and not know all the answers and dust themselves off, and all those kinds of things, I think we will just keep doing the same practices.
Kerry felt an increasing sense of agency and ownership as she read about systemic racism, engaged in dialogue with Tanya, and worked to take those intentional first steps. Identifying herself as someone who is new to leading an anti-racism initiative she hopes will be a way to continue with courage and vulnerability, and support others in taking action.
Tensions Between Commitment and Hesitation
Our letters and conversations indicated that there was tension between our commitment and our hesitations. For instance, in one of our reflective sessions, Kerry was surprised that Tanya was terrified of the idea of doing anti-racism. Kerry notes:
A pivotal moment in our relationship was during a Zoom call after we had been notified that our proposal was accepted. During this call, Tanya acknowledged that she was “terrified” of doing the work. I was speechless, completely caught by surprise that someone I saw as confident and knowledgeable approached anti-racism work with trepidation. I knew I was terrified, what did I, a white woman, know about anti-racism? Tanya’s honesty created a space, an opening in the project that had hitherto been more about “how do we support others?” rather than also considering “how do we support each other”?
Why were we terrified? Both of us acknowledged that we did not know enough about how to do anti-racism work. The revelation that Tanya was just as terrified of the work united both scholars in learning together. In learning together, Kerry begins to understand the weight of assumptions Tanya faces as she is expected to inherently be an anti-racist educator despite having no formal training in this field. Kerry later reflected:
I thought about that and I still think about that a lot. It was so surprising to me that the work was terrifying. I could understand why I was terrified but I couldn't understand why Tanya might be. That was really helpful to remember that because Tanya is an Afro-Caribbean woman does not mean that she is confidently able to do anti-racist work. So that assumption I made was obviously incorrect… and so that was the first of those things that just kind of stopped me in my tracks.
It is through our mutual vulnerability the real change began. We began to really see each other, free of assumptions. As Tanya reflects on Kerry’s statement and the conversations that followed, there is also a deep shift in her consciousness as she comes to accept it is not her responsibility to ‘know’ anti-racism work. Instead, what Tanya discovered is that her strength lies in collaborating with others to deepen her understanding of experiences.
Kerry also experienced a fear of trespass (Restoule & Chaw-win-is, 2017), a worry she is treading where she has no experience or authority. This hesitation is both a pause for reflection and a pause from fear. It is important for Kerry to be aware of these pauses and hesitations, using reflection to resist the excuse to avoid the work but rather an opportunity to refocus and recommit. She reasserts:
We are called to do this [anti-racism] work and I believe very strongly that we need to, and I am mindful of…the professional standards that say it's our responsibility to keep learning…We can’t wait for someone else to do the work or to become the expert… it was about if ‘I believe in this then I need to do something about it and I need to find people who I can have these conversations and learn alongside’
Throughout this self-study, we reflected on what led us to anti-racism work and what steps allowed us to move forward in this work and in our understanding of ourselves and one another. We have discovered that a trusting relationship, commitment to the work, and forging ahead despite challenges is necessary for us to thrive. We have had to reconcile our sense of urgency in completing the project and making use of the grant funds within a specified time by taking the time we needed to really understand the work we were required to do. In many ways, we were able to liberate ourselves from the constraints of a system that does not facilitate slow and intentional anti-racism work and, in the process, free our anti-racist selves. We have learned to confront our fears of not ‘knowing enough’ about anti-racism work as we come to a new understanding of the work itself and what ‘doing’ means. We recognized that for the project to be a success, we have to continue interrogating ourselves and our practices to allow for authentic actions and outcomes. Through honest dialogue and collaboration, we can develop new insights on what works and doesn’t work and use these to inform our future actions. Coming to these conclusions has reaffirmed our commitment to continue anti-racism work and research about this work.
In the two years since the project began, much has happened, including Tanya accepting a position at another university. We have continued our engagement in self-study, sharing letters and examining our experiences, dilemmas, challenges, and successes. Our next steps are to explore how to build capacities among teacher candidates, engage faculty on a broader scale and get parents involved in our conversations. We have led several workshops, courageous conversations, and equity labs with students and will continue this work in the coming year. While we recognize the immediate value of this self-study to our transformation and practices as anti-racist teacher educators, we hope it will allow others to consider how they might engage their students and themselves in meaningful and intentional self-reflection.
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