I had the great fortune to speak at the NCTM Regional conference in Chicago last fall. Easily the most impactful piece of my time there was meeting and learning from Danny Martin. I have rarely heard someone so willing to cut through niceties to get to the heart of a matter. I immediately bought several books of his, and started asking around to see who might be able to record his talk at the NCTM Annual conference in DC. Luckily, NCTM itself recorded, and you can listen to the talk, “Taking a Knee in Mathematics Education” here. (And you really, really should.)
Finally having found some time, I started to live-tweet my viewing of it. The start of that thread is here.
I was excited I was able to pause and rewind – able to digest a bit more slowly what he said. Dr. Martin’s intellect is so far beyond mine it’s laughable to think I can fully comprehend his message, but I am trying to because it is so necessary and so compelling.
Per the normal, while I was watching it I got a text from a colleague about a time-sensitive matter, and I had to pause my listening. Life has gotten away from me and I hadn’t gotten back to it, but with some persistent (because she’s wonderful) prodding from Marian Dingle, I sat down to finish it. I’ve also perused Wendy Menard’s post on the same talk. Here are just some of my reactions to it.
White people on the whole have absolutely no understanding of just how bad things are for Black children in mathematics education. And we keep trying to minimize it.
I experienced this when I listened to Dr. Martin talk in Chicago. Not only does Dr. Martin detail physical violence enacted on Black children, he also provides startling examples of emotional trauma.
Almost more upsetting than this, however, is his (accurate, to my experience) pointing out the high threshold White people have for accepting that harm is being done to Black children. We are unwilling to believe Black students telling us things are bad without proof right under our nose. (Perhaps that is why Dr. Martin felt it necessary to include such blatant examples in his talk.) “You feel you’re not included? Well, how? When exactly? What did the teacher/school/students do?” We don’t just take it on faith that students feel excluded or ostracized from their school environments, we demand proof. Would we be so demanding of a White child upset about their treatment in schools? Would we make them retell and offer proof of how bad things are or would we simply take the child’s word that their experience was negative and see how we could improve it?
I’ve personally seen this at work. (And if I’m honest, I’ve probably done it, too.) Black students at my school have been particularly vocal at our school this year, and I have heard teachers I know say that the students are exaggerating. I have told non-school people in my life what my students are telling me, and had them say, “well that’s just how it is, they’ll get through it.”
I would kindly ask that you start listening for this. Do we let our Black children experience their world how they experience it? Or do we put pressure on them to experience it how we hope they will?
Dr. Martin’s argument of “Equity as Compromise” absolutely cut me to the bone.
At the end of his speech, Dr. Martin makes a very compelling case, quoting Carol Anderson, that while the civil rights movement may have earned Black people some rights, it negated the deeper issue that human rights must supercede civil rights. The energy that went into attaining civil rights is a mask that allows America to deny Black people basic human rights, beginning (but not ending) with dignity. We say, “You can vote now! Segregation is illegal!” and pat ourselves on the back while calling the police on Black people (Black children included) for just living their lives, and refusing to see their full humanity. If a White person is getting “unruly” (loud voice, exaggerated body movements) we think that they’re acting so silly. Must be having a great day! If a Black person is acting “unruly”, we call the police. Or prevent them from dancing to celebrate earning their college diploma. Or ask our students to be more quiet and compliant.
A White child struggling is supported and the root cause of their non-compliant behavior is sought, while a Black child struggling is “defiant” and “misbehaving” – we approach them from deficits rather than with compassion. We don’t see their strengths unless we are forced to.
Dr Martin summed it up well in his conclusion:
“Mainstream math education has traditionally invited Black people to participate on its terms. Expecting the system to reform from its foundational purpose and fundamental character to a new state of validating and valuing the humanity of Black people is unrealistic in the face of evidence otherwise. Traditional discourses of equity and inclusion have been self-serving within liberal white imaginaries, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness. But they have been inadequate for Black liberation. The kinds of changes advocated for within mainstream math education discourses are welcomed and accommodated within the self-correcting systems of white supremacy and anti-Blackness because they represent no real threat to these systems.” -Danny Martin
What cuts me to the bone here is that I can see how much of my work toward including social justice in my classroom may have fallen into the category of me patting myself of the back – saying that I’m doing the work to improve things, while still maintaining the system as it is. A system that so often refuses our Black (and often any other non-white students) their full humanity. I have been guilty of praising Black exceptional figures. Praising their exceptionalism rather than seeing them as representative of a whole. I have absolutely done things to support the system as it stands.
Dr. Martin is calling for a true revolution. An absolute abolishment of the system of math education as it stands today and building it anew from the ground up for Black children, supervised, supported, and approved by the Black community. And I gotta say, the math education he advocates for sounds amazing. Capstone projects that address issues in the world. Teachers informed by their community. Teachers to serving in the communities they actually live in. A focus less on technical math skills and more on applicable skills students will use to understand and improve their lives. It sounds so fantastic. And it’s just so so far off.
Wendy suggested in her post that Dr. Martin’s vision may not have a place for white educators like her and me. That’s totally possible (although I don’t think he completely closed that door, he advocated the community having approval power over the teachers of their children). And I guess I agree that it’s not the job of white educators to create the world Dr. Martin dreams of. It will be better if its built by the people who inhabit it. After all, white people built this one and it’s not doing too great.
I do think, however, that White educators have an important role, and that is to start by acknowledging the current system as it truly is and not how we hope it is. I live within a really great online community of educators that regularly challenge their assumptions, beliefs and attitudes in the hopes of attaining a more just world. But outside that lovely community, I find it exhausting trying to drag white educators into conversations about how we impact our students of color.
There are just SO VERY MANY math teachers out there who don’t want to think about this at all.
I say this from my own experience trying to talk to other math teachers in my district and at conferences. I have the privilege of being a white woman familiar with a fairly wide network of math teachers, and it’s been dawning on me over the past year (and there’s some privilege for you, it’s only really the past year that I’ve noticed how wide spread this apathy is) just how few teachers seem really willing to do “the work”. There absolutely is a dedicated core, but I have yet to see evidence that the majority of teachers are willing to truly examine their place in the education of Black children. We’re happy to shake our heads and say that yeah, golly gee, things are bad, pay lip service to social justice in our classes, but then we need to get back to making a worksheet about linear systems. It’s just so very exhausting to try to drag anything deeper out of them. (And sometimes it’s exhausting to drag it out of myself.) Any reflection on how we might be contributing to the damaging experiences that Black students experience day in and day out is too often absent. But dragging that conversation out is something I can do, and although I am already exhausted by it, my tiredness is absolutely nothing compared to the exhaustion of educators of color trying to get us to do the same.