How Our Personal Stories Shape Our Social Justice Leadership
Toni Harrison-Kelly, Ed.D.
School Leadership for Social Justice | SLSJ.us
September 5, 2020
This is a picture of The General Lee, the car that the heroes of my favorite childhood TV show drove.
I am a Black woman who was raised as a Baptist white nationalist in a small town in north Texas. I was the biggest Dukes of Hazzard fan ever. Even talked my parents, a homemaker and a Baptist preacher, into taking me to the county fair to see The General Lee in person (see the pic of the car above with the Confederate flag on it). So I didn’t even bat an eye when my friend wore a Confederate flag on his t-shirt (behind the shoulder of the buttercup dress) for second grade class picture day. (Eight-year old me, bottom right. Yes, I marked that kid’s face out. Sorry. I was in second grade.)
I was taught all of the words to every song of national and state pride--God Bless America; God Bless the USA, Deep in the Heart of Texas; Texas, Our Texas (the state song; I bet you didn’t know that Texas even had a state song). The Fourth of July was my favorite holiday. I remember us taking down the “commies” when the Berlin Wall fell. I wrote letters to soldiers during the Gulf War. Most all of my friends were white and I only had one African-American teacher in 13 years of public schooling. There was not one affluent family or Black professional in my town, save for a few teachers. I was taught from birth that real Americans were white, they loved the flag and they loved their Jesus.
My peer group was affluent, smart, white and devoutly Christian. There were pros and cons to this configuration. I basically lived out a variation of the “Magical Negro” (“Magical Negro,” n.d.) trope. According to many white people in Sherman, I was not like other Black people because I was smart, so that made me acceptable and exceptional. My keen ability to assimilate won me favor among my white peers. I was “one of them” and I was “cool for a Black girl.” But never cool enough for any of my white male peers to ask me out on a date, though. My friends literally had summer homes and only shopped in the most exclusive “boutiques” in Dallas, 60 miles south of us. Our eighth-grade public school trip was to London. Of course I couldn’t afford to go. On the other hand, my white peer group gave me the gift of exposure. My peer culture was so strongly pro-college that attendance was a foregone assumption, even for me. We talked about my friends’ parents’ alumni associations, class rings, and favorite campus adventures so much that I internalized them as my own. So much so, that I am 45 years old, and I did not realize until last year that I was a first-generation college graduate. That fact never occurred to me. According to the behaviors of my white friends, my intelligence made me different from my African-American peers. I was the only Black kid in my 12th-grade class that took Advanced Placement courses. I internalized my differences as superiority instead of tokenism to the chagrin of my family and the ridicule of my African-American peers. I was called a “sell out” and an “Oreo” (Black on the outside, white on the inside). I often had lunch with my teachers because I didn’t want to pick a side in the lunch room that was voluntarily segregated by color. I was never bullied, but I definitely didn’t belong anywhere. Although I was Black, I associated intelligence and wealth with whiteness. And all I had seen until that point supported my theory.
My Mama fought hard against what she saw me becoming. We made a deal that for every white doll I picked out, she would also buy me a Black doll. Every January, she made me attend the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. parade. Every February, we re-watched the Eyes on the Prize documentary, my only access to African-American history. I was the secretary of the NAACP youth branch that my mother founded. Still, I found no pride in being African-American until my brother transferred to Morehouse College, a Historically Black College (HBCU), when I was in the ninth grade. I went to Atlanta and he gave us a tour of what seemed like Black Utopia. There were Black-owned malls, Black-owned banks, Black people who were extremely wealthy, who were attorneys and doctors. I felt betrayed by the suffocatingly white narrative that was my only air for the first fifteen years of my life. I also realized that my personal ideology betrayed my own race. I bought into the meritocracy narrative and believed that I achieved because I worked hard, and if other Black kids would just work hard like me (read: assimilate), they could achieve, too. I had no empathy or information. But seeing Black excellence made me vow that when I went to college, I would “go Black and never go back.” I was on a quest to find my true peers and learn more about African-American culture. I have spent the remainder of my life deprogramming myself, deconstructing the narratives that I was raised in, and seeking truth. Most of my childhood was a lie, except for the Jesus part. I have not ever been able to find true peace apart from Him and following His teachings. And, trust me, I have tried. But the subconscious white supremacy narrative I was taught my entire life crumbled under the weight of my exposure to anti-examples and introspection.
Relevance to the Domain Triangle : Beliefs, Behaviors, Knowledge
Although I have worked for years now to dismantle the systems of oppression that were constructed in my own head and affirmed by mainstream society, the whiteness that I was raised in still shows up in my teaching and in my real life even to this day. My latest revelation was that I often underestimate the intelligence of Black males. As I mentioned, I was always the only Black student, male or female, in my Advanced Placement courses in high school. Now I realize that discrimination may have played a part in the selection process. According to Ford, Wright and Trotman Scott (2020) Black and brown students are referred to gifted programs at disproportionately lower rates than their white peers. Of course, I bought into the lie of meritocracy and assumed that the Black male students at my school were not smart enough to take the harder courses. However, as an adult, I keep meeting these Black men who are geniuses and I keep being completely blown away because of the dissonance caused by their brilliance rubbing up against my biased beliefs. And I am ashamed. Now that I recognize the lie I believed, it is my responsibility to examine my behavior as a teacher, as a researcher, as an aunt, as a sister so that I no longer continue to support systemic oppression through my behaviors. Dismantling systemic racism is hard, continuous, life-changing work for American people of every ethnicity.
THE SLSJ DOMAIN TRIANGLE
What beliefs did this information challenge? How were your beliefs shifted?
What new knowledge did you acquire?
What leadership behaviors will change as a result of this shift in beliefs and new knowledge?
Ford, D. Y., Wright, B. L., & Trotman Scott, M. (2020). A matter of equity: Desegregating and integrating gifted and talented education for under-represented students of color. Multicultural Perspectives, 22(1), 28–36. https://doi.org/10.1080/15210960.2020.1728275
Magical Negro. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved July 17, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_Negro
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Dr. Toni Harrison-Kelly is a fifteen-year exemplary teaching veteran. For the last five years, she has taught at a middle school as a part of Dallas Independent School District's groundbreaking school turnaround model, Accelerating Campus Excellence (ACE). Dr. Kelly is also an education consultant, having worked with a variety of community partners, including KERA, the Dallas-area PBS affiliate. Dr. Harrison-Kelly earned her Doctorate of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from Texas A&M University, where her research focus was increasing student engagement in high-poverty, high-minority schools.
APA 7th Edition Reference List Citation for This Article:
Harrison-Kelly, T. (2020, September 5). I am a Black woman who was raised as a white nationalist--How our personal stories shape our social justice leadership. School Leadership for Social Justice.
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