A few years ago, when talking with an education reform leader (a strong advocate of charter and choice schools), I was told that I was not a typical principal. My initial reaction was to take these words as a compliment because I have never identified as a school principal. While I do hold a principal’s license and have twice served as a school leader, I see myself more as a change agent.
But, in light of this distinction, I got the sense that he actually wasn’t giving me a compliment. So I asked, “What does that mean?” He replied, “Most principals follow an order (a prescription and philosophy) but you have created your own.” Again, detecting that this wasn’t regarded as favorable, I responded “And, what’s wrong with that?” In that the charter and choice reform world is based on the premise of innovation, leadership and “grit,” I could not understand why my thought leadership, my grassroots orientation, and my unapologetic hustle weren’t perceived to be an asset.
By the end of this little exchange, it became clear that such leadership wasn’t what was desired in the current iteration of reform. Regardless of my supposed credentials as a leader, I was still expected to comply, consume and conform. Because, as suggested by Andre Perry (Another Black Faces on White Education Agendas… ), I am only of value when my face (and maybe my intellect) can promote someone else’s agenda.
Regardless of all my supposed credentials as a leader, I was still expected to comply, consume and conform.
Saturday I was invited to a jam session in someone’s home. In a nutshell, it was smart, creative, and spiritual!! I felt honored to have been invited to such a sacred space (especially as we come to terms with Donald J Trump being our President-Elect). But, while there, I was confronted with the white agenda (the institution) and the challenge of whether or not I will use my face to further it.
You see, the question of my livelihood kept surfacing. “What do you do?” is what they wanted to know. I am sure it wasn’t a question just for me. I think it is just what you do in spaces where you are trying to establish new connections. The “What do you do?” conversation potentially opens the doors for exciting opportunities.
But for me, it threatened the harmony of the music. And it intruded on a professional duality that I have privately created for myself and a feigned acceptance I have managed to uphold when not publically challenged by it.
You see, my leadership in education is centered on innovation, social justice, and critical theory. And, I hit a place in my professional practice about 15 years ago where I no longer could do leadership authentically within the institution of K-12 schooling. So, I left. And for a long time, leaving still afforded me a paycheck… until it didn’t. Until I was forced to return and become bi-vocational in order to sustain myself.
I am only of value when my face (and maybe my intellect) can promote someone else’s agenda.
In short, being bi- vocational has meant laboring inside of the institution while leading outside of it. It has meant treating my shiny leadership credentials as an endorsement by the institution… all while resisting the white agenda it promotes. And, admittedly, it means laboring as a face during the day and leading as a renegade at night.
It is a type of duality I never would have imagined for myself. But, it has become a critical part of my work.
It’s not easy… this duality. In fact, at times it is quite turbulent. Because as much as I crave authenticity, a call that hits many of us during what Richard Rohr frames as the second half of life, my labor and my leading are no longer married as one. And, because my shiny credentials tie me to the institution, the best I can do right now is choose how and when I will black-face it.
This black facing, even in the derogatory theme it evokes, is a choice made by many African Americans trying to make a living…whether or not they are trying to change the world. Critical race theory says that due to the origins of our country and the historical maintenance of unequal distributions, all American institutions are in some way or another structured to support a white racist agenda. The real work of African Americans needing to be employed by these institutions (or funded by those who get their wealth from these institutions) is to play the game. We find the degrees in which we can tolerate serving as the face of the institution and we search for the opportunities where can resist and be our most authentic self of purpose.
And, because my shiny credentials tie me to the institution, the best I can do right now is choose how and when I will black-face it.
This dance was the tension at the weekend jam-session to which I was invited.
Knowing that I was primarily talking to a room full of institutional actors, I did not really know how to answer the “What do you do?” question with ease. As I listened to them share their post-election musings and come to their own awakenings about white supremacy and institutional racism, I knew I was in good company. But, I also knew they were not yet conscious (at least not outwardly so) of how their own connection to the institution furthers the agenda more than it radicalizes it. And to talk openly and honestly about what I actually do, in both how I black face the agenda and how I work to disrupt it, would require me to move out of the sacred. It would have required me to serve as a teacher and an activist. It would have required me to be the “other.” And being the other doesn’t feel sacred.
So when I woke up this morning thinking about my new friends, the agenda, and my face, I realized that black facing isn’t just a professional decision. It is also a personal one. In space with some really cool non-black progressives, driven by a mutual love for music and a need for post-election healing, the institution was still present. The What do you do conversation is a byproduct of that institution. It is not only a way that we seek opportunities; it is a way that we find and establish purpose and worth.
But my purpose and worth are no longer tied to that institution. So, in order to hold onto the sacred, I felt compelled to be in black face… to talk about the institution as though the white agenda does not exist. It wasn’t a choice that I made with ease. But, it was one made nonetheless.
I felt compelled to be in black face… to talk about the institution as though the white agenda does not exist.
In my attempt to keep the sacred, I black-faced it… and I came to terms that the struggle really is real.