Heather Griffin on Why White Parents Shouldn’t Be Threatened by Ethnic Studies

by Ari Robin McKenna

This is the fourth in a series of articles featuring the words of local ethnic studies educators who are doing work to address systemic racism in our classrooms. To read the first, on Amanda Hubbard, click here. To read the second, on Bruce Jackson, click here. To read the third, on Shraddha Shirude, click here. To read the series intro, click here.

Editor’s Note: The following article includes a discussion on the racist attitudes some teachers harbor towards BIPOC students. This content might be disturbing, so we encourage everyone to prepare themselves emotionally before proceeding. If you believe that the reading will be traumatizing for you, we suggest you forego it.

If ethnic studies were to become an integral part of Seattle’s K–12 public education system, as Heather Griffin hopes, it could result in a profound shift away from systemic racism, led by youth, towards a more equitable future for this city. But for this to happen — sooner rather than later — Heather knows many of Seattle Public Schools’ white parents will have to reckon with their doubts, reason through their concerns, and reach for an understanding of the deeper fears they may be gripped by but hesitate to give voice to. Heather Griffin knows, because she has.

In what now seems like another lifetime, Heather used to think racism was a black-and-white thing of the past, centered in that woebegone era called “slavery.” After the civil rights movement ended segregation, racists were pretty much just a handful of overt actors, misfits few and far between. She was certainly not alone in this view. In fact, Heather’s takeaways about race from her own schooling seem very much in line with the oversimplified racial narrative commonplace in the United States, the brittle foundation for our default views on race. Three months after the public viewed George Floyd’s murder in slow-motion underneath four policemen, it seems obvious that this foundation has not held.

It wasn’t until Heather’s second year of teaching at West Seattle High School that she discovered something unexamined in her world view. The district was filming her teaching a model reading lesson about Talking to the Text, a reading apprenticeship routine that builds a community of engaged readers, one mindset shift at a time. After the lesson, Heather was handed Gary R. Howard’s book, We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know, by the woman on the other side of the district camera, who happened to be Ilsa Govan — a future racial equity trainer and consultant. Heather credits this book with beginning to pivot her towards a more thorough understanding of race — one which she feels has made her better at her job and a less anxious, more joyful working mom.

Early in her career, if you had walked into Heather’s English Language Arts class you would have found her teaching social justice-centered units which combined literature and nonfiction texts. For example, in one project-based unit, her class read stories about and researched sweatshops before turning the classroom into one. Other classes toured their “sweatshop” and students took on various performative roles for their peers. Looking back, Heather feels there was a naiveté about both the context for some of these social justice units and how they may have been landing on students.

After six years of teaching, Heather switched to Chief Sealth International School in West Seattle. She credits educators like Noah Zeichner and Ian Golash as helping her develop a more sophisticated understanding of not only the issues but what school is and who their students are. When Chief Sealth’s inaugural Racial Equity Team (RET) was created, Heather was on it.

Though she describes it as a net-positive experience, her participation on the RET forced Heather to take a deeper look at herself and her own participation in white supremacy. She had to face the fact that through mere complicity in this system that favored her, she had harmed both students and colleagues. While Heather admits this was not a pleasant headspace, it warranted action. Participating in growing her colleagues’ awareness about race and pushing for better policies for students eased her initial discomfort. It also led her to one potent, personal epiphany: “This will always be the work of white people — inner and outer work: to dismantle white supremacy.”

When Heather learned that an Ethnic Studies curricular framework was being built, she was intrigued, because by that time she understood full well that the default treatment of race would not suffice. It would only breed discontent and disenfranchisement in those it minimalized and fear and anxiety in those it protected. And race wouldn’t just go away; it was irrepressible. The celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie puts it best, says Heather: “When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

So Heather joined the Ethnic Studies Advisory Group (ESAG) to be in service to growing the framework district-wide, confident it was the right direction for all her students. She wrote a curriculum with a brilliant group of mostly BIPOC teachers that was on its way to fulfilling the 2017 school board resolution for a K–12 ethnic studies curriculum to be developed in the Seattle Public Schools. Heather was also occasionally in the position to debunk the fears of fellow white parents about this push.

Then, late last school year, the Seattle district office fired the only paid Ethnic Studies employee responsible for the curricular rollout (the next article in this series will get into this). While the framework and dozens of units of instruction already built by ESAG remain unavailable to Seattle teachers, many ESAG members continue their work for the newly formed nonprofit called Washington State Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN), and Heather has been staying involved by taking the online modules of WAESN’s professional development series.

What follows are the highlights of an inspired conversation with the Emerald that took place under a covered picnic area on a windy, rainy day in Jefferson Park. Heather addresses commonly held concerns that parents have expressed to her, and speaks about how she thinks Ethnic Studies will ultimately benefit white students.

Heather Griffin (Photo: Chloe Collyer)

“What white people don’t want to admit is that we have an understanding of the world because we were socialized into it, and if Ethnic Studies is brought in and changes that understanding, it can be so disorienting that our defenses come up. But there are compelling reasons to not fight against it.

“When you’ve grown up with a certain story and then somebody says: ‘You know there’s this whole other set of stories that is closer to the truth, and you have been raised on a lot of myths — or not the full story,’ that really makes people feel like you’re pulling the floor out from under their feet, and it’s really uncomfortable … like their reality is being twisted. But people need to understand that learning a more complete story isn’t gonna pull your world out from under you. It doesn’t mean that your life is gonna fall apart; that your kid is not gonna have the kind of life you want for them.

“I grew up white and liberal, and the understanding that I left school with didn’t include history from anyone else’s perspective — it was all in relation to the Europeans’ perspective. Of course I understood that everyone deserves human rights and racism is wrong, but I wasn’t taught anything about non-European cultures besides learning a little bit about ancient civilizations. Basically, ‘This used to exist and it’s over now.’ And the more modern history was always taught through the Eurocentric lens.

“When you learn history in that way, this leaves out the agency, creativity and contributions of the other non-European civilizations and cultures. There are plenty of math, science, philosophical, and literary concepts that came from other civilizations and we’re not taught about their origins in non-European cultures. How do we grow up holding racist ideas and not even realizing it? Because we grow up understanding the world through the Eurocentric lens. That lack is because we’re not getting the whole picture.

“Some parents think that Ethnic Studies is not going to provide their kid with a rigorous education, but I don’t know why people think that learning more history and more perspectives from around the world — from all kinds of different cultures and ethnicities — will result in students not getting a good education. The more you know, the more you understand. That’s more! And why do people think that studying Ethnic Studies is somehow less rigorous when every standard that I have to teach in English Language Arts is covered. It’s about communication — so, how you discuss with people and learn with people. It’s about writing — how you organize and argue and defend and use word choices and figurative language, all of that.

“It’s about reading and being critical. Ethnic Studies is about, ‘Let’s read all of these stories (by stories I mean fiction and nonfiction). Let’s question what’s being said here. Let’s question who is behind this story. Whose voice is here? Whose voice is not? Let’s look at this one. What does this add to the picture? It’s questioning. It’s critical thinking, and you can write and read and discuss it all …  So, again, there’s more to learn about, and we still get to apply the same skills that we’re being tested on and are required, so there’s literally nothing that your student is losing. 

“One parent I spoke with admitted that they were worried Ethnic Studies will strip opportunities from their kid — but what would it look like if all of our kids were able to thrive and learn, not in fear but from a place of, ‘I feel like I belong here,’ ‘I feel like I’m valued,’ ‘I can see the stories of my ancestors represented — not just the white ancestors’? And if we could all thrive and learn from that vital place, that valued place, school becomes a place where all kids can achieve their potential — whereas right now many students don’t see themselves in the curriculum, and they don’t feel that school is a place for them. When these same students reject that dehumanization and unacknowledged racism, it often results in students acting out and becoming the target of discipline. Ethnic Studies is about counteracting that insidious pattern, and instead, through pedagogy and relevant content, lifting all of our kids up. What kind of society would that be?

“And now I feel like I’m getting into my idealistic, pie-in-the-sky, like ‘Just imagine!’ right? I don’t know, there’s a little part of me that’s like, ‘This is ridiculous. We’re just talking about dreams and we’re never gonna get there, but honestly isn’t that what we’re working for?

“I feel like Ethnic Studies helps all our students feel like they are part of the equation, and they know that because they see themselves there but are also seeing a lot of windows into the people who aren’t necessarily their ancestors but who all had a part in building this world. Operating from that understanding, I think we’re able to build better structures and better systems that are good for all of us.

“When parents think that there’s no time for Ethnic Studies with all the other things that students need to learn,’ I can relate to an extent, because I have the same concern that we shove so much into all of our days, and kids have to do more now to look good on their college transcripts than I did when I was in high school. But it’s really just about being strategic in terms of who is represented in the curriculum and how, so people don’t start their lives from this myth of white supremacy.

“And finally, if parents are worried that Ethnic Studies will make their kid feel bad because they’re white, the opportunity that Ethnic Studies provides to develop and understand your own identity more fully gives you the strong base to stand on so that you don’t feel like your world is being ripped out from under you when you start to understand what your white identity means. Because if you think that you’re only white and somebody starts to tell you about the system that makes you white and and gives you all of these benefits and privileges, then yeah … I can understand how you would feel like your world is dropping out from under you. And that is very scary and you don’t want that for your kid.

“But part of the framework for Ethnic Studies is understanding everyone’s racial identity, and the implications of that — and that piece is really important, but it’s only a piece. We also have the opportunity to think about our ethnic identity and heritage and build a sense of ourselves beyond our racial identity. For white students especially, who often don’t have a strong sense of ethnicity, this is also important. ‘You have whiteness, sure, but you also have this ethnic basis.’

“For all of our students, having a chance to explore our ethnic identities grounds us. We have who our family is, we have where we’re from, and we have our cultural traditions — whatever those are. From that base, we can dismantle the racial identities that are harmful. Then we feel empowered, we know who we are, we know who each other is, and then we can look at that scary piece of racism and how we participate in it but know that that’s not who we are. That’s part of it, but that isn’t all of it, and that’s the piece that we can look at and take apart and reshape.

“And moving past the common parent concerns to the benefits of Ethnic Studies, one thing that I’ve heard a lot of people say is: ‘When we’re all free, we’re all free.’ But what does that mean? I’ve been thinking about this and about how I break that down. Racist ideas lead to assumptions about others that make us fear them. If white people (including liberal Seattleites) could see people for who they are, for their value, their contributions, their innovations and their beauty, then we could lose that fear that goes along with having these racist ideas about other people. And that is freeing.

“Having these racist ideas about the other — whether or not you understand that they are racist — causes us to operate out of fear or stress because of it.

“I think of myself as a teacher, and I just have to be the first one to acknowledge that I have racist ideas, and I am learning how to recognize them and push back against them. But I was socialized into that. You can’t avoid it. And so it’s exhausting to be defensive about it, and try to be like, ‘No, no, no, not me!’ As soon as I was able to let that defensiveness go and just be like, ‘I got that.’ Ahh, that was freeing!

“Looking back I see how those ideas played out in who I was as a teacher and how I treated my students. Without checking my implicit bias, I was operating from white cultural norms and I made assumptions about students and wrote them off as lazy or not caring or disrespectful or defiant.

“Understanding that there are so many more valid ways of being than what I was socialized into helped me see defiance, for example, as an invitation to meet a student where they are at, figure out what they need, and provide space for them to thrive.

“When I can let go of those ideas, that single story, it’s freeing, and teaching is so much more fun and vibrant, and I’m seeing my students for who they are and what they bring, and it might be different from how I’m bringing it, but that’s the point! Humanity is infinite, and that’s why we need Ethnic Studies.”

Heather Griffin recommends parents and teachers check out Washington State Ethnic Studies Now (WAESN) for more information on ethnic studies and upcoming professional development opportunities.

Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA, before settling in Dunlap (just north of Rainier Beach). Currently, he writes about issues relating to the South End. You can contact him here.

Featured image: Heather Griffin by Chloe Collyer.

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