Am I A Witness?

This week’s blog is a collaborative effort between myself and my good friend Justin Schleider. We both watched the same movie this week which led to some great conversation. Read Justin’s #slowchatpe blog post and join in the conversation on social media this week.

Having finally found the time to watch I Am Not Your Negro I was again left with a mix of emotions similar to those I felt having watched 13th. Anger at the way in which African-Americans have been treated and continue to be treated, frustration that there seems to have been limited progress since the 60’s, and guilt regarding my role in the situation today.

As expected from a movie that includes the words of novelist, essayist, playwright, poet and social critic James Baldwin there were many poignant quotes that made me reach for the pause button so that I could allow the words to sink in. In describing a trip that he took with civil rights activist Medgar Evers, Baldwin said that he “was to discover that the line which separates a witness from an actor is a very thin line indeed”. Baldwin was troubled by the passivity required of witnesses. He wasn’t a member of the Black Panther Party, the NAACP, or the church and did not help with voter registration but accepted that because he was a writer he had no choice but to keep this distance.

In the movement today, there are many actors, people that I see ‘doing the work’. I avidly read the material from Shaun King and DeRay McKesson, Blair Imani and Brittany Packnett. But in the reading I am being passive.

I consume social justice podcasts on my commute to work such as Code Switch, Politically Re-Active, Tapestry and Edge of Sports, but again, isn’t this another exercise in passivity?

My privilege affords me a choice, and I have chosen to be a witness. I see the actors on stage, the ones in the news, the ones up on the podiums who are leading change while I retreat into another social justice book such as The Warmth of Other Suns, or The Underground Railroad.

Perhaps I am being harsh on myself, perhaps that’s my white guilt talking. After all, I am a master teacher and committed ally to marginalized students in my building. I am aware of the role of power and privilege in the school environment and I try to empower my students by encouraging them to develop their advocacy voice in my #healthed classroom. I speak up whenever I see injustice and have presented at a number of conference on social justice issues and yet I still feel like a witness. I know I have a lot to learn, and I know I can do more, and yes I am being harsh on myself. I took comfort this week from the opening words of the Pod Save the People podcast from DeRay in which he said “We all have a common understanding of what the world is that we want to live in, a world of equity and justice, and we might differ about how we get there…the way that you fight in this space is important and that we all don’t have to fight in the same way to fight for the same world.” I have to believe in some way that my actions can and will help as we continue to fight against injustice.

I Am Not Your Negro is currently available for free to Amazon Prime users.

If you liked this post, you’ll also like the following #slowchathealth blog posts:

9 Netflix Documentaries to Watch This Summer

Health Disparity

Since writing this blog post I have continued to broaden my PLN and read extensively. You can find a list of the books that I have read…or plan to read…HERE.


2 thoughts on “Am I A Witness?

  1. Pingback: I Am Not Your Negro | #slowchatPE

  2. Hi Andrew,
    I see you and Justin and others reading, writing and encouraging others to venture into discussions of racism which are often uncomfortable, charged and never fully done. Good on you. It is important. It is essential that you as white males use your platforms to continue to push these issues, even if some of your readers are saying “enough already, we get it!” by not saying anything at all in response.
    Sort of like when we teach we cannot easily measure the impact of our specific example on each student. But we can’t relax on setting the example we want to encourage and demonstrate for our students and peers because of that uncertainty. We have to keep on doing what is right, keep learning what is right, keep practicing what is right and people will notice and take away their own lessons from it.
    One of the downsides of our technologized world is our mistaken notion that because our tools are changing at astounding rates, everything else is, too. Nope. We are still humans and in many aspects we are very slow to change our habits or deeply internalized beliefs. Racism falls into that category of mental and emotional functioning. ‘The Work’ will not be done in 6 months or a year or five years. Rather it is a generational standing commitment which will require as much effort to progress forward as it will to avoid sliding backwards (as seems to be the case currently).

    When you think you aren’t doing enough, look around you. When you are presenting at a conference or helping to organize one, do you use your prestige to insure that those groups are inclusive and representative? Do you speak up to point out to others which perspectives may be missing on a committee, panel, board? This is not to suggest falling back into tokenist modes of looking for that one black or brown person to fill a gap, but it does require researching perhaps more carefully, collecting information from your extensive network and of course diversifying that network. Shana V. White has done some excellent writing on proactive steps you can take to move from witness to actor. And Tom Rademacher is a great example of a white guy doing the work well but not without difficulty. He’s honest about his journey. Val Brown is also a great speaker of truth on these topics.

    I see you and Justin doing the work. I appreciate it a lot. this response got a little long. The sincerity is real though. Thank you.


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