A White Teacher’s Reflections on Attending POCC (NAIS’s People of Color Conference)

My New York City private school has supported faculty and staff attendance at NAIS’s People of Color Conference for many years. For those unfamiliar with it here is their overview:

The NAIS People of Color Conference is the flagship of the National Association of Independent Schools’ commitment to equity and justice in teaching and learning. The mission of the conference is to provide a safe space for leadership and professional development and networking for people of color and allies of all backgrounds in independent schools. PoCC equips educators at every level, from teachers to trustees, with knowledge, skills, and experiences to improve and enhance the interracial, interethnic, and intercultural climate in their schools, as well as the attending academic, social-emotional, and workplace performance outcomes for students and adults alike.

While POC colleagues, knowing of my commitment to the work, suggested I go I hadn’t, thinking it wasn’t a space for white allies. Finally, this year I decided to go, learning that there would be a place for me to learn and grow in my white allyship, and feeling the greater and greater urgency of the work we need to do regarding white supremacy and race in our schools. I am so grateful to my school’s commitment to sending any faculty or staff member who wants to go. I believe we were between 30 and 40 strong. Additionally, a group of our high school students attended the Student Diversity Leadership Conference that runs in tandem with POCC.

It was great to see how this conference is so fortifying, empowering, and so much more for my independent school POC colleagues. Connecting, reconnecting, feeling seen, heard, having a safe space to testify, and so much more was going on. The celebration of POC heads of school was wonderful to see — so many standing on the stage. And even more, to start this coming year, one of them the remarkable Lisa Yevette Waller who is leaving my school to head the Berkeley Carroll School.  (Happy for them and her, but she is going to be missed terribly:)

Here are some of the workshops and sessions I attended:

  • The Opening Session with wonderful speakers including journalist Lisa Ling.
  • Black Boys Doing What? Evaluating, Selecting, and Incorporating Children’s and YA Lit Featuring Black Boys with educators Dr. Kim Parker and Jack Hill. This was an outstanding workshop — if you get an opportunity to see these two, run!
  • Old School Diversity to 21st Century Cultural Competency featuring Rosetta Lee.  Lee had done work at my school and so I knew this session would be worthwhile. I wasn’t disappointed — so much to process in what she said and shared.
  • Black Male “Privilege”: The Highs and Lows of Hyper Visibility. This was perhaps the most significant workshop for me, both because of what was said, but also because most of the panelists were current or former colleagues. Brave, honest, insightful — these are just a few of the words I have for this important panel. Thank you Brandon Guidry, The Berkeley Carroll School (NY); William Fisher, Trinity School (NY); Kenneth Hamilton, The Dalton School (NY); Dwight Vidale, Riverdale Country School (NY).
  • Marian Wright Edelman’s keynote “The State of America’s Children” was such a call to action as well as heartening as she shows so much confidence in our being able to make the future better at a time when it feels overwhelming to do so.
  • Marc Lamont Hill‘s closing keynote. With only a few wry references to his firing by CNN a few days earlier, he focused in on what this audience needed to hear. He was fierce, strong, and fortifying.

However. I’m not sure about my being there as a white ally. I had expected to be one of a few, but there were 1400 white folk among the over 6,000 attendees. That seemed bizarre to me, but it was explained to me was that many private schools have few diverse staff and faculty so roles such as diversity directors are held by white folk. Another reason I observed was that administrators were attending (certainly a good thing) and they are still very white overall. And then there were many whites attending because their schools, like mine, are committed to doing the work. So I can’t fault the reasons we were all there, but it is still troubling to me that a conference for POCs was so full of white folk.

Related to this is that I had very mixed feelings about the white affinity group meetings. These were enormous — over 1000 people so kudos to the planners for managing that so well. Still, for all the warning of discomfort, I didn’t feel much at all. I get that we white folks there were in different stances and situations, but I have to say I was disappointed. I’d been told that white allies at the conference were farther along on paths of action, but the work we did in the white affinity group meetings felt very cautious and overly sensitive to participants. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I wonder how much participants came away with that will be helpful when we go back to our schools. It was difficult. Some were overly complacent about fellow white colleagues, others didn’t seem to register microaggressions, and still others were depressingly unaware about all sorts of things. It felt all incredibly careful, scripted, and vague to me.  Not sure what the answer is, but if that many white folks are going to be coming, there must be something more that can be done?

And as for coming — I don’t plan to go again. I thought it was amazing and I got a huge amount out of it, but this is NOT a conference for white person me. It needs to be a People of Color Conference and that isn’t what I am. The importance for independent school POCs to come together was visible at every moment. That needs to be honored and respected overall.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to go to POCC, to spend time with colleagues I didn’t know (at the airport and other moments:), to learn, to stretch, to force my thinking, to undo ideas, and so much more. Thank you to my school and NAIS for this important event.

 

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10 responses to “A White Teacher’s Reflections on Attending POCC (NAIS’s People of Color Conference)

  1. Joan Edwards

    Thank you so much for this! I am going to share this with my head of school so that we can discuss ways we need to educate and support white colleagues who want to do equity work. I so appreciate your summary of the sessions — way more succinct than mine are. I join you in saying that the Black Male “Privilege” session was phenomenal. I found it be a gift of authenticity and brilliance.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I am troubled by your praise for Marc Lamont Hill, at least without some qualifiers. Hill is a highly educated and articulate person who makes his living through words. If he rejects the idea of a two state solution for peace in Israel and Palestine, he should say so. I totally disagree with him, but I also disagree with CNN’s choice to fire him. (The suggestion that Temple U. might dismiss him is much more problematic since tenure gives him greater freedom of speech protection that his position as a commentator on a news network.) His support for “a free Palestine from the river to the sea” cannot be reasonably construed as anything but a negation of the legitimacy of any Jewish state; that is how the phrase has always historically been used. Hill is allowed to hold and express that belief, but he has refused to stand by his ideas. Much more disturbing to me, and to many people, is his embrace of Louis Farrakhan, an avowed anti-Semite who has been condemned by both the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center for his outrageous and vile statements about both Jews and LGBTQ people. We have a high bar for suppressing hate speech in our country, and we should, but people need to take responsibility for their statements and associations. After meeting with Farrakhan in 2016, Hill claimed he was trying to engage him in discussions about LGBTQ issues, and did not share all his views. This was utterly dishonest, as his statements about the meeting were reverential towards Farrakhan, referring to him as his “beloved brother.” Farrakhan has called Judaism “a gutter religion,” referred to Jews as “termites,” called Jews “satanic,” and claimed that Jews were responsible for 9/11. He has blamed Jews for both World War II and the Holocaust, and points at Jews for causing the “filth and degenerate behavior… that has “turned men into women and women into men.”
    Does any of this give you pause when calling Hill “fierce, strong, and fortifying?”

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  3. js

    Troubled by the commenter choosing to open their comments with “well-educated and articulate” to describe MLH (were you at the conference, commenter? if you were, i’m wondering if you see what you did there) . This is the tip of a very deep iceberg of reasons why a white person would not have been disciplined similarly (see Maher, Imus, etc.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A person who is articulate and a successful author, professor, and commentator is aware of the power of language and conscious of the words he chooses to use.
    Just as Ms. Edinger chooses to stand by her comments, I stand by the obligation to condemn anti-Semitism as well as other types of racism and hate speech.

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    • Ms. Schneider, we’ve met in the comment of several posts, and as a fellow Jewish person I continue to be amazed at the way you bring up calls of anti-semitism at the exact moments where someone is calling out racism in some way – again, as others have said, the way in which you are doing so just doesn’t sit right. But the fact that you called Mr. Hill “articulate” is, as js mentioned, problematic – it’s coded language. See this post (https://www.theroot.com/he-s-so-articulate-what-that-really-means-1790874985) to see more on why that word should be retired.

      How refreshing it would be, Ms. Schneider, if you stopped using the comments section of posts on decolonizing Thanksgiving, on whiteness at POCC, etc. to call for others to work against anti-semitism. Because while that work is indeed important, not just in the current political climate but at all times, leveraging that work in the way that you do is not okay. Please stop.

      Liked by 2 people

      • There is nothing coded in my language about Dr. Hill. I believe you are probably aware of that. People such as Dr. Hill whose profession depends on their use of language are well aware of what words mean and of their impact. That is my point.
        In fact, there is very little attention paid to anti-Semitism on this or many other blogs or publications which discuss diversity in children’s literature, unless people committed to combating this prejudice speak up. Continually telling people who bring attention to anti-Semitism to stop is no more acceptable than telling people who bring attention to other types of hatred or prejudice that they should stop. It has nothing to do with the particular blog post or article where we raise the issue. You do not want the issue to be raised.
        As Ms. Edinger singled out Dr. Hill for praise in her post, and he has been in the news precisely because of the issue which I noted, my comment is relevant. In any case, if you disagree, you can ignore what I have written or write a rebuttal. Telling me to stop is completely inappropriate and is an attempt at intimidation. My comment in no way diminishes the validity of any other comment on this post or of support for any other progressive issue.

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  5. Hi there,
    Thanks for sharing your observations. I find them very helpful in thinking about white attendance at PoCC. I didn’t realize how large the white contingent at the conference was but over 1000 is surprising even to me. Interesting too to consider what the white affinity space looks like and how you can differentiate in a way that allows folks to get past the beginning stages of anti-racist conversation.
    Last year when I co-facilitated a session on community, there was a call to decolonize PoCC which on the one hand raised some eyebrows but mostly drew applause and snaps. So thank you for speaking to this ongoing tension between insuring that PoCC remains primarily *for* PoC and still offering space for white allies/accomplices to engage in their work as well.
    Yours in struggle,
    Sherri

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dean Spencer

    I did not attend POCC this year, and haven’t for several years, but I have attended 3 past POCC conferences and been involved in facilitating white affinity group spaces at 2 of them. In many ways those conferences have shaped my practice inside and beyond the classroom ever since. I’ve also recognized that if my school is going to continue to send any white folks (as we do) it is probably more important that our administrators and occasional board members be there. There are, now, many other places for those of us who seek to be allies to further our own development and our work with colleagues of color. There is something amiss if we feel we need to be at POCC to do this work.
    Even in times that were less openly toxic, the ambiguity of white presence in this space, and the wide range of experiences, understanding, and readiness for further work among the white attendees were things I was keenly aware of. A major concern at the conferences I attended, and that I have heard about from both colleagues of color and white colleagues who have attended others has been that many participants choose to forego the affinity sessions altogether, which I think is tragic. Speaking only with respect to white participants, I do wonder whether it is time to consider some different tiers of affinity group participation at the conference. It is lovely to think about experienced practitioners serving as bodhisattvas and offering guidance in these affinity sessions to those of us who feel we are at earlier stages of our journeys, and I have certainly benefitted from such mentoring. But I also think that there are also times these same veterans must need the opportunity to convene with others who have similar experiences, challenges, and weariness without the need to rehash Equity 101 for those of us who are just recently waking up.

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    • Thanks so much for this, Dean. I have heard suggestions about tiering the experience, but I’m really not sure that helps the situation that so many white folks are attending a conference meant for POC. Better, I think, to recommend other spaces to do the work, White Privilege Conference, the Carle Institute, etc.

      Like

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