Speaking Up and Speaking Out (for White Folks)

Shawna Coppola🏳️‍🌈
5 min readJun 3, 2021

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As a white teacher–one of the roughly 80% that make up all U.S. educators– I’ve perpetuated, engaged in, and been complicit in curricular violence (Ighodaro & Wiggan, 2011) more often than I care to count during my over two decades of working in education. There was the time my colleague and I coerced our students into participating in a “privilege walk” in order to prompt a discussion about social, cultural, and economic privilege. Another time, both my colleague (a different one) and I said and did nothing but exchange looks across the room when a white visitor to the class noted out loud–in front of everyone–how “articulate” one of our multiracial students was. Then there were the years when my classroom library’s only representations of Black, Brown, Indigenous, Latinx, or Asian protagonists were relegated to the dusty corners of Historical Fiction.

And like any white person who has been socialized in this country, I’ve been complicit in racial violence in my personal life, too, though I’ll save you any additional cleansing of my soul via digital confessional. Let’s just say that I’ve likely enacted enough harm over the past forty-six years that I’ll spend the rest of my life attempting to repair it and–hopefully–prevent it from happening again (although I’m a realist at heart, so…I’m fully aware that I’ll continue to screw up, and badly).

A lot of this work entails a preventative approach: helping white folks like me conduct a racial “excavation” of sorts, unearthing and exposing the ways in which our whiteness has invaded our hearts, minds, and bodies–much like a parasite does–informing our every move. This excavation work is challenging enough; like someone suffering from brainwashing, one cannot generally help the person afflicted with whiteness to heal until the afflicted wishes to help themself. But what is even more challenging, I’ve found, is attempting to help folks oscillate between the “looking inward mode” and the “taking direct action” mode–especially when it comes to speaking up and speaking out about another white individual’s engagement with racial violence, particularly when it happens in the professional/educational sphere.

For white folks like me, this is because many of us have been taught to avoid conflict, especially with other white folks: “Don’t ever bring up religion or politics!” our families warn us from a young age. Of course, this is a prime example of how white supremacy maintains itself. Avoid talking about it, avoid teaching about it, and…*poof*!…it doesn’t exist.

I’ve discovered over the years that one of my superpowers, for better or worse, is speaking up. Why? Because I can’t in good conscience ask my children or my students to be “upstanders” (Power, 2002) when I myself am too fragile, too overcome with anxiety, to be one myself. I quite literally can’t; staying silent about injustice causes me to lose sleep. And rest is too precious for me as an educator, parent, advocate, and woman in this world.

So I speak up–especially when I see examples of curriculum violence being enacted by fellow white educators. At least, I try to. One of my brothers sometimes jokes with me about how many white male educators I’ve “bullied” each day. (He’s kidding…I think.) I don’t always get it right, I almost never come out of it unscathed, and I continue to learn from the example of others. And over the past several years, as my impulsive tendency to speak up has made its way into my online communities, the biggest question I am asked–usually in private and almost always by fellow white educators–is, “How do you do it?”

Here is what I tell them. Here is what I’m telling you, if you’re also wondering.

  1. Name your fears. You’ve been socialized into white supremacy for your entire life. It’s ok to be afraid. It’s not okay to let your fears around “breaking rank” with other white folks stop you from doing so. What are you afraid of? Name it–then metaphorically stomp it to pieces as you get ready to use your 🙃unearned social capital🙃 and step the fuck up.
  2. Identify 3–4 “go-to” sentence stems. What language works best for you? I’ve learned from several different folks that it can be helpful to name what you are about to do: “I’m going to push back on that for a moment.” Sometimes it helps to ask a question first: “May I share a concern?” Other times, simply saying what you notice or wonder is useful (“I’m noticing that…”/”I wonder if…”). Follow bright, compassionate folks whose approach to this work of “calling in” curricular violence you appreciate. My personal mentors include @AlexSVenet, @JennBinis, @biblio_phile, @ChristieNold, @LyricalSwordz, and @doxtdadorb**.

**NOTE: This does not give you permission to make a direct ask for these fine folks’ labor without compensation. If you are not already following them, please do so and spend some time in that listening/learning space.

3. Be prepared for the inevitable. You’re going to get pushback, especially as a white person calling in another white person. They will likely engage in one or more of the following:

  • Blame-gaming: “Oh, that wasn’t my decision/choice…”
  • Gaslighting: “That’s not at all what happened.”/ “You’re seeing something that isn’t there.”
  • Fauxpologies: “I’m sorry if YOU feel/think ________.”
  • Eye-rolling: “Are you serious?” / “Not this again…”
  • Tone-policing: (BONUS TIP: this usually happens passive-aggressively when someone who is adjacent to you is thanked in your presence/mentions for their “civil” or “kind” tone. You know, kind of like when some teachers say, “I like how Patty is raising her hand!”)
  • Ignoring or ghosting: *crickets*
  • AND OCCASIONALLY: acknowledgement, thanks, promises to do better, naming of future actions

4. Show grace. Not for those enacting curriculum violence (because fuck them, right?). I’m kidding! Remember, we all make mistakes. What I mean by this is, show some grace when you DO screw up and are called in yourself for it. But only give yourself a minute or two to wallow in your shame before you brush away your white tears and get back out there (after making a sincere attempt to learn and repair the harm you caused, of course).

5. Don’t get stuck in the “I’m gonna just like and RT and share what other upstanders are doing and saying.” We see you, and while we appreciate you doing this, don’t let that be the only thing you do. Because it’s fucking annoying always having to be the one to say something.

That’s all I got! Hope it helps. And if it doesn’t, please do me a favor and let me know why, so I can continue to learn. Because we need to get this right, y’all. Time’s a-fuckin’-wastin’.

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Shawna Coppola🏳️‍🌈

I am an educator, a writer, an artist, & a troublemaker. Website: https://shawnacoppola.com/ Twitter: @shawnacoppola #blacklivesmatter She/Her/Hers