Days ago, I was talking to a friend whose mother is visiting for Mothers Day weekend. She told me that her mother looked at her with “adoration and fearfulness”, and these words sent me deep into tales of family history. My friend, like many women of color, is facing the predictable repercussions of speaking truth at work and disrupting inequitable systems. But those words – adoration and fearfulness – seem to be at the heart of so much my family’s story. Here is a small part.
My Mother’s Story
My mother was an only child who grew up in a small town in Mississippi. Her mother ran a country store. People from all over the community, Black and white, would come to buy from my grandmother. She gave them a fair price, and, when they could not afford their purchases, she made sure they got what they needed, paying when they were able. Beloved and trusted, she offered advice, love and compassion. And, she knew everything that happened in that small town.
My mother, her only child, was outspoken and strong-willed. She excelled in school, entering Jackson State University at sixteen. While there, she was active in student life, which often meant political pursuits. She was a Freedom Rider, among a group of college students who rode buses with Black passengers seated in front, and white ones in the back. She was fearless as she moved through the world. (She also dove into the deep end of a pool while on her honeymoon with my father, knowing full well she could not swim, but also confident that if swimming didn’t come naturally, my father would save her.) When my grandmother found out, she warned my mother of the danger of her actions. Undaunted, my mother continued.
It wasn’t long until my grandmother received word that my mother was on “a list” of “disruptors”, which meant she was targeted and in danger. Southern trees bore strange fruit all the time. I believe she looked at my mother both with adoration and fearfulness. She couldn’t help but be proud of her resistance, but the mother in her also sought to protect. As soon as she graduated college, my grandmother put her on a train with a choice of two destinations: Chicago or Los Angeles. They said their goodbyes, both knowing that my mother would never take residence in Mississippi again.
She found herself on UCLA’s campus at nineteen and enrolled in a teaching credential program. UCLA was recruiting graduate students of color at the time, so the timing was convenient. She would eventually finish the program, begin work as an elementary educator, and meet and marry my father.
Her activism continued in California as she entered a segregated school system, fighting for equitable conditions for students and colleagues. Once I was born, her only child, she tempered that activism. Much like my grandmother, my safety was now her primary concern. She made sure that we were never in the same school system for fear that her actions would punish me. Her activism didn’t cease, but it did go underground, as she carefully chose her battles.
I remember her picking me up early from school one day, to take me to “the Board”. I didn’t know what that meant, but it involved me taking a test. I would later find out that after she repeatedly petitioned the school for gifted testing for me, she continued that fight at the district level. When they finally relented and gave me a special test administration all by myself, the superintendent himself gave it. The next week, I began receiving gifted services.
That is how my mother rolled. She got things done through becoming a policy expert, and learned how to advocate for me and so many others while keeping us out of harm’s way. She was that teacher – the one so many students of color could call "Mom" – the one who looks out for you even when you are not their student.
We visited Mississippi every summer, and, coming from California, it was like travelling back in time. The dirt roads were replete with rocks that made car trips long and dusty. Not having indoor plumbing was humbling, and no street lights made it scary. But for my mother, being home was like breathing again. Her Southern code-switching was confusing at first, especially since the educator in her demanded and expected perfect grammar from me. My grandparents lit up around my mother, and all my relatives looked upon her with a certain esteem that made me proud.
When my grandmother died, a bit of my mother died with her. I don’t think there was regret between them; they talked by phone daily, left nothing unsaid. But, as my father would often tell me, there is no love like that between a mother and child. My mother was different – permanently altered, just as I was when my own mother died.
The difference was, that I did have regrets. I was newly married and had no idea what I was doing. So many questions I had not asked. How would I be a good wife, let alone a good mother? How would I raise fearless children when I was so full of fear about not doing it right?
I wonder now, how much time apart did racism cost my mother and grandmother? How much time will be stolen from my children and I?
- - - - - - -
Fast forward to present day. Both my children were raised in the South. My first-born is a daughter, who has proven to be fearless. After receiving her graduate degree in a few weeks, she will embark on her career in a different state. Yesterday, we spoke of the recent passage of the heartbeat law in our state. Those familiar feelings passed down from my grandmother – adoration and fearfulness – came into consciousness.
She is such a better version of myself in that she is driven, ambitious, and knows exactly what she wants. Her courage and strength are admirable. Yet I fear that this country is still not a safe place for her as she begins her career. The more things change…
I heard myself explain that because of this I do not want her to move back home. For her to maintain agency over her own body, her dignity and self-respect, she must move away and not return. We both agreed. Chills.
As for my younger son, also in college, he knows the routine. Since he was able to drive, I required check-in phone calls to report location changes. As a Black man, his very existence is not guaranteed. Every trip home from college means I hold my breath for six plus hours. Until he is home. Until he is safe. But even the safety of home is an illusion. At age 20, he has stories of racial profiling.
As I write this, the gospel song No Greater Love is playing in my head in the background. I have heard these lines so many times in church:
Jesus went to Calvary
To save a wretch
Like you and me
That’s love, that’s love
And for me, that’s motherhood. It is sacrifice. And activism. And protection. Because we are raising warriors who faithfully will bring liberation for us all.
I am thinking quite a bit about motherhood and what that means for women of color, especially Black women. When we are young, home is where mother resides. It is the place of safety and protection. For both my mother and I, the passing of our mothers meant the absence of safety. What kind of love does it take to send your child away from you? What kind of strength does it take to continue to carry the torch after she is gone?
But there is also hope and unwavering faith in the struggle, as I have been taught to believe. In the end, love prevails. Love is the answer. Fierce love that demands change. Active love in which silence against injustice does not exist. I must believe that my ancestors walked with this undying faith that their descendants would inherit a world they deserve. That they would be respected, revered and cherished. For after all,
But that’s not how the story ends
Three days later He rose again
That’s love, that’s love
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Sara Ahmed (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).
In a blog post I wrote last year, I talked about knowing. Because I referenced the pain of losing my mother, I think what got lost is the underlying meaning of knowing the pain of racism.
In the clip above, the Black teammates, Petey and Blue, tell the white one, Sunshine, that they will be met with racism if they attempt to eat in the segregated restaurant. Undeterred, Sunshine announces confidently that because of his presence, they are safe. They enter. And inevitably, they are thrown out. While Sunshine is stunned, Petey is incensed.
Sunshine: I didn’t know, man.
Petey: I told you. Whachu mean you didn’t know?...
Blue, he don’t want to know.
On Being Welcoming
It has been over a year since I attended my first Twitter Math Camp, commonly known as TMC, and over a year when I first began thinking about what I wanted in a math conference here . I remember distinctly being among a crowd of so many who felt so affirmed in that space – the same space that I just did not. My revelation was honest, but it was widely met with surprise. It’s not that I didn’t think the conference was valuable. To be clear, I did get a lot from it, but it was different than the life-changing human experience that others felt. And that was ok. I hadn’t expected otherwise.
Yet, some very well-meaning humans really wanted TMC to be welcoming to those who did not feel welcome. Conversations about diversity were held that weekend at TMC17, and I was a part of some of them. I had one simple question: Why does TMC want to be (racially) diverse? And as many times as I ask it, the answers remain scant and not quite satisfying. (Although my initial thinking was of TMC, it extends to other math conferences and gatherings.)
My sense of belonging goes far beyond being welcomed. When you welcome someone into your home for a weekend visit, you are excited that they are coming. You prepare their sparkling clean guest room with scented soaps, reading materials, and fluffy towels. You may even prepare special delicacies to impress their palettes. And yet, it is still possible to get it wrong. Maybe they are allergic to scented soap, they don’t share your taste in reading material, or need a special diet that you have not considered.
Being a decent human being, you admonish yourself for not thinking of asking what your guest would like beforehand. Of course, this makes sense to you. To make someone comfortable, we should ask what it is that they need to feel comfortable. But as these conversations continued that TMC weekend, there was still something missing.
The answers to why we should be racially diverse often hover most around “because I know it’s the right thing to do”, which just doesn’t cut it. I wanted to ask:
Why is it the right thing to do?
Why do you want me here?
What do you miss by my absence?
All met with silence.
TMC was trying to welcome me, and other educators of color, into their space much like the person in the above example would welcome a guest into their home. As comfortable as you make the guest, it is still your house. And that is the problem.
Instead of asking what type of flowers the guest likes, how about inviting them to co-create the visit with you? Plan the activities, meals, and décor? This is easy if the imagined space always included educators of color, much more difficult if it never did. This is the renewed thinking that I crave. I don’t want to feel welcome in your conference; I want to feel that I belong in ours. I want to feel that I am creating it along with you. Why did you never think to ask me? Why didn’t it feel hollow with my absence?
If you have diversity in your life – among your friends, your neighbors - then it would feel awkward when you don’t have it. You would notice the absence and you would seek it naturally at work, around town, and yes, even at a math conference. Is there diversity in your life? Do you feel my absence in your organization? Our organization?
To co-create is to be on equal footing, to have equal power. Does math belong to all of us or just some of us? Because if it does indeed belong to all of us, then why do some of us get to decide for all of us? If math belongs to all of us, then so do math conferences and math organizations. We should all be there. And if we are not, the absences of those not represented should be felt. Painfully.
Yet, are we in pain? We are not. Pain would demand willingly relinquishing power and privilege because the loss from not experiencing the beauty and knowledge from all voices is too much to bear. Instead, we are content with temporary pain relief through actions that welcome others to our teams and conferences, but stop just short of empowering them to make real decisions. And mathematics continues to suffer.
Returning to the movie clip above, how often do we take the word of people of color when it is in direct conflict with what we know to be true? Let us move beyond saying that we don’t know what to do and move toward truly shared power, equal footing, and concrete plans to get us there. No more studying the problem and experimentation. Let us just commit to sincerely act until we reach the goal.
A space for me to be valued, seen, appreciated, yes, this is what I want. And eventually I’d like that without a special initiative, push, or intention. I want it to be natural, because if I am truly wanted, it would be. I want a space where I don’t have to explain, justify, or convince. This is what I want. It is what I deserve. In the service of children.
Recently, I was honored to give a keynote address at Twitter Math Camp (TMC). Because some have asked for the speech in written form, I am providing it below, along with some of the slides. Images are either original or licensed under Creative Commons.
Let me first begin by thanking Lisa for the introduction, the TMC organizing committee, and our larger Math Twitter Blogosphere (MTBoS) community, for this opportunity to address you. I have received blessings from many who are here, and those who could not be. Second, I would also like to acknowledge that the land we are standing on today once belonged to the indigenous Potawatomi and Haudenosauneega Peoples. I give honor to them and ask their blessing for our time together today.
I am not a very familiar name to many, and I would very much like to explain how it is that I ended up here.
I begin my twentieth year teaching elementary students, and I have always centered mathematics. I was fortunate enough to have a father who passed on his love for the subject to me. Throughout my teaching career, I have centered mathematics in my students’ lives. Although I teach all the core subjects, I am most commonly known as their math teacher.
Although I didn’t have a blog of my own, I followed blogs of math educators, learning from them, and trying out new things with students. Reading Graham Fletcher’s blog led me to so many others, and led me to the concept of MTBoS. Talking to him by phone, he answered my questions and encouraged me to join Twitter and to blog. But, I did not. I felt I had little to say or contribute, and was quite happy watching from the sidelines.
Late 2016 was when things changed. I joined Twitter, seeking answers for why the world was the way it was. I mostly lurked in the beginning, occasionally retweeting. I really wanted to know how to do school better for kids who looked like my own kids. As long as I had been teaching, things really hadn’t gotten better for kids of color, and specifically Black kids. I wanted, I needed, answers. And I looked for them on Twitter.
Yet, I didn’t see as much as I wanted. I thought it was me: Maybe I didn’t know who to follow, or maybe I just wasn’t on their radar, because surely, those people existed. So when I saw a tweet advertising TMC, it made sense to apply, to seek those answers from the very math community Graham had introduced me to years ago. It was held locally, so I could attend each day and go home each night. I got on the wait list, was selected, and was all set.
What I found was interesting. I managed to match faces to Twitter profiles, and many gave me friendly hellos (Hi, Hedge!) but I really knew no one. I admit I was surprised that there were not more educators of color, specifically Black educators in the space. I came during a time when people were talking about diversity, and the lack thereof, and confronting it. It was obvious that this conversation had been brewing for a while.
I’d come to TMC with a mission – to find out everything I could about teaching mathematics in a way that honors students of color, in a way that leads to liberation for us all. I thought, surely, TMC would have my answer. In short, I came to learn about combining mathematics with social justice.
I am still seeking those answers. From last year until now, I’ve done things I never thought I would do: writing blogs and collaborating with strangers. I am thankful for the examples of Grace Chen and José Vilson, to name a few, who have been centering the discussion of equity in mathematics for years. They each delivered a keynote here in the last two years, and I am here to continue what they, and others, have started.
So let’s get started. Measures of Center (or measures of central tendency) have a particular mathematical interpretation. The analysis of a data set, reducing it into one “typical” value, is useful to make judgments about that data and how it is used. As an elementary mathematics teacher, I’ll center the definitions as mean, median and mode. Of course, data sets are often asymmetrical and contain extreme values, which affect its center. Distributions of this sort can sometimes be described as skewed or even biased.
But I am advancing that our mathematical definitions are metaphors for many societal realities. The center is often what or who is valued, since it represents the entire data set. Often, by framing this measure of center, much of what is truly important disappears. In our discussion today we will encounter different frames of center.
Let’s look at the Sports Center. From a young age, my husband and I felt it was important to expose our children to sports. Teamwork, discipline, a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself, and physical activity were very important to us, and we wanted this for our kids. They tried everything: ballet, gymnastics, soccer, tennis, basketball, baseball, softball, and swimming, but finally landing on football and volleyball, playing these throughout high school.
They each began at age 3, often following each other into said sports.
My daughter began volleyball in 6th grade in a recreation league. She decided to get fairly serious about it in 8th grade, and talked us into a travel club team. Once we moved back to our home state, she made the Freshman Team of her high school.
Now in volleyball, there are six main positions, and she was a pretty good hitter. The hitter is offense - a front row position, and is the last touch of the ball before going over the net. Optimally, the hitter should be tall and able to clear the net so that the ball is angled downward as it descends. As it turned out, she had a killer serve, and was a powerful hitter by freshman standards. They won their championship pretty easily.
In the high school off season, she wanted to again play for a club team. She set a goal for herself to make the Varsity Team the following year, and knew she would have to raise her competitive level. She worked hard, and she made Varsity as a sophomore, which was pretty unheard of, but eventually switched to a defense specialist or libero position, once she realized that she had reached her maximum height of 5’4”.
Here is her Varsity Team. Now, I’m going to ask you to notice and wonder here. Although her high school was diverse, volleyball was not. There were 3 Black girls on the team of 14. I was the Team Mom for her 3 years on the team. Do you think that mattered? I suppose I did what I had always done with my children. Because they were my center, I sensed that I would be needed to help navigate the microaggressions that may arise. I received some myself through those years, so I was able to model some strategies and foresee challenges.
As a libero, she was now a back row player, tasked with the first touch. In fact, it was her sole responsibility to “dig” balls, preventing them from hitting the floor, no matter how hard or how angled those balls were, often sacrificing her body to keep the ball in play, and get it to the setter. She enjoyed it. It’s often called the toughest position, but it is not one that receives glory. She would never be the one to score a kill or make a block, and would be blamed if the ball ever hit the floor.
Here is her Club Team. Again, I ask you to notice and wonder. Yes, I believe that she was far closer to these teammates than those on her school team because her racial identity was affirmed. They entered tournaments in which they were the only Black team, and won. They faced microaggressions here, but they faced them together, and with their families.
The “norm” for volleyball in our region was white players. This team would also have 3 years together, winning tournaments, going to Nationals, and playing in the Junior Olympics.
My son played as both an offensive and defensive lineman from a young age, but when he got older, he switched to offense as a center. So, similar to my daughter, he had the first touch of the ball. It was his responsibility to snap the ball to the quarterback, enabling others to make plays. Again, the center, although also often called the most important offensive position, is not one of glory. But he was my center. I would watch him first, then the ball later.
And the same with my daughter. For me, I was in awe of the precision they both had to have to do their jobs as they watched their teammates score. What a responsibility – and a lesson in humility.
As their mom, I centered them in sports. Yes, I paid attention to the game and to the other players, but if I am honest, I always had my kids as the center. My focus wasn’t on the score, the running backs, the hitters. I still saw them, but they weren’t my focus. Why is that important? If I hadn’t centered them, then who would? If I didn’t look for their moments of greatness, who would? If I wasn’t their biggest cheerleader, fan, coach, then who would be?
Like his sister, my son made Varsity as a sophomore. Their state championships came before he got there, but they reached the playoffs each year. Many of his teammates went on to Division I scholarships, as did my daughter’s club teammates. My daughter decided not to continue volleyball in college, but my son did decide to become a college athlete.
For us, his choice is a practical one. He still gets to continue a sport he loves, and is in an excellent college that offers what he needs and wants: a small campus, small class sizes, and a coaching staff who recognizes his talent, commitment and intelligence. I look forward to another season, and I will be at every game.
My husband and I consciously chose to center our children in their Blackness. I know what it feels like to be the only one in a classroom, the only one in the high group. You are torn because you are proud of your accomplishment, but sad to be treated as the exception. After some years, you find the words to match your feelings and you are determined that your children will not experience that. You do everything in your power to give them a firm internal center that can be leaned upon when the teacher doubts their ability.
We wanted positive Black role models for them, and sought out a primarily Black professional neighborhood in which everyone knew their neighbors. And for 11 years, we had just that. It was often the case that on any given Saturday morning, we would find our son playing next door with his “best friend” who was like a grandfather to him. Indeed, he and his wife served as surrogate grandparents to them, watching each of them during school hours from birth to school age. Weekends and holidays were often spent with them and other neighbors. We celebrated in each others’ successes. We even vacationed with them.
Their preschool and elementary years were spent with primarily Black teachers and among Black children. My daughter played with Black dolls. At the mall, grocery, pediatrician, and everywhere in our community, they were around Black people. This was their center. This was their normal. We never thought about it much, but our children had little in-person involvement with non-Black people. Yet, they were socialized just the same. Every checkout aisle contained magazines with white faces. The television and movies they consumed rarely featured Black children as main characters. Our decision was therefore necessary to counter those influences. It was this immersion that set their foundation for years to come and would steel them from the hurdles I had faced, I hoped.
This was fine until work relocated us to another state, and we were faced with attempting to recreate this “normal” in our nation’s capital. It was a challenge, but we settled upon an Eastern suburbia. We ended up in a place that offered the best we could find of both worlds: a track record of demonstrated academic achievement (yes, through test scores, because that was the only measure of which I could go on), among a diversity of students and faculty.
My son came to school with me, and we were both in third grade, but in different classes. Watching him navigate among students of different races was hard at times. Finding friends when he was among the few Black kids in the high group was difficult. And, this gregarious child who had never had trouble finding friends before seemed to be floundering. This was his first white teacher as well, my teammate, who never really made a connection with him.
The next year, I became the gifted teacher, teaching mathematics to students who qualified through testing. Sam had not been recommended for testing by his previous teacher, but the fourth grade teacher did. He qualified, and in fifth grade, he was my student. I wish I could say he loved being in my class. I know I loved having him. But, there was a certain pressure for him to prove he earned his spot that he never got over. He had made friends through sports, but not school. I hoped for a better middle school experience.
My daughter began middle school on her own, and had to prove herself academically as well. Underestimated at first, she was taught by Black and white teachers who genuinely loved her. She formed tight friendships that continue today.
Another job change brought us back to the original state. Our once ideal neighborhood had drastically changed in the 3 years we were gone. The recession proved devastating. We chose a different community similar to the one we had just left.
But, they discovered that things would not be the same and their choices were no longer ideal. My daughter continued to excel in high school, but would not have any more Black teachers. She kept to herself mostly at school, and found her community among her club volleyball team. Microaggressions from teachers, classmates and school teammates were the new normal.
Middle school was tough for my son. Known for academics, it was a particularly harsh place for students of color. His seventh year was the worst. By second semester, his grades had plummeted and he seemed to always be in trouble at school. He was on “that” team known for harming students of color, especially Black males. Being new parents, we did not know this. Our son tried to handle things himself, but nothing worked. For fear of not being believed, he did not tell us when it first happened. Two team meetings later, we came to an agreement. The teachers most responsible for the abuse backed off. But the damage had been done.
In high school, my son became a social butterfly, fully embracing his underachiever jock role. Although the school was diverse, the football team was overwhelmingly Black. He had found social comfort again, and was tired of playing the school game. He did just enough to appease his father and I.
Both are in college now, out of state, and doing well academically. They survived. I wonder what would it have taken so that they had a good experience throughout.
Shortly after I joined the world of Twitter, the movie, Hidden Figures was released. How many of you have seen the movie? Anxiously awaiting it, I viewed it early, in December, shortly after Christmas. Like so many, I was struck by this important mathematical and cultural history that was new to me. I went to Twitter to read all the tweets about how wonderful the movie was, yet there were few. I told myself that this must be because I had viewed the movie in one of the cities that released the film earlier. I wanted to process it with a mathematical lens. I told myself that I would have to wait until the movie was released more widely across the country. Surely then, the MTBoS would weigh in.
I have alluded to this a few times on Twitter, and I don’t mean to reduce anyone’s contribution. Please hear me. This is my perception as a person new to MTBoS who was specifically looking for something I felt missing from my teaching.
The reaction, in my interpretation, was indeed a reaction to this hidden history. It was a joyous one: we now had proof of the labor of Black women in mathematics and engineering, occurring during the Civil Rights Movement no less. The focus seemed to be on the importance of representation, which, I agree is essential. There were field trips to movie theaters, research projects, and even living museums. Yet, I was looking for something more. What I wanted was for someone to say, “Ah! Math is political!” But that never came. I will try to explain.
Hidden Figures is based on the work of Margot Lee Shetterly, who has chronicled a nonfiction account of the stories of Black female mathematicians of the Langley Research Center in Virginia, which would later become NASA. They were called computers, who performed calculations largely by hand. There were 2 groups of computers, of course, since segregation was the law of the land. When the call goes out to recruit a computer specifically for the Space Task Group, an all White, all male group, Katherine Goble Johnson, depicted here as played by Taraji P Henson, is assigned.
Here we have the intersection of mathematics and politics. Computing is seen as menial work and is therefore relegated to women. And, there are separate classes of women, which necessitates their segregation. Many of the characters in the movie are composites of others, but there is a significant attention to authenticity I find compelling. I found myself asking: How many other Katherine Johnsons are there that I don’t know about?
As Johnson impresses her supervisor, despite the daily micro- and macroaggressions on the job, composite character Al Harrison gives her an insight into his thinking. He says:
“Look beyond the numbers. Look around and through them. Answer questions we don’t even know to ask. The math that doesn’t exist. Because without it we’re not going anywhere. And then we’re staying on the ground. We’re not flying into space. We’re not circling the earth and we’re certainly not touching the moon. And in my mind, I’m already there. Are you?”
This is such a rich bit of dialogue that begs to be unpacked.
Look beyond the numbers. Look around and through them. Answer questions we don’t even know to ask. The math that doesn’t exist.
Isn’t this what we want for our students? To not just regurgitate an algorithm, but to imagine, to innovate?
Because without it, we’re not going anywhere.
An acknowledgement that this innovation is our future.
In my mind, I’m already there. Are you?
The ultimate challenge is presented. We want our students to see beyond – to visualize in order for this to happen.
Yet, there is another layer here that exists, if you choose to decenter systems:
To look beyond is to look past our current oppressive systems in school.
To look around and through them. To find the math, or the ways to rehumanize education, that doesn’t yet exist. To find a way for students of color to see themselves in our curriculum. To see themselves as capable and innovative.
This line really hit me. This is the imagining, isn’t it?
In my mind, I am already there.
My kids and their kids are receiving a humanizing education that liberates and affirms their racial identity in all its ways.
Of what oppressive systems do I speak, you ask?
Reading the book Black Stats this year with the MTBoS book club that Annie Perkins started, we became keenly aware that from many viewpoints, Black citizens in this country fare nearly the worst on any measure. Our public schools are mostly Black, Indigenous and Students of Color (BISOC), yet it is those students whose scores are lowest, who are retained at higher rates, who are the least likely to be enrolled in gifted or enrichment classes, and are the most likely to be suspended.
I know we have all heard the reasons for this, but, unless you believe that BISOC are inherently less gifted, less capable, and more behaviorally challenged than White students, then you must admit that there is something wrong with this picture. Putting it another way, if you are okay with these statistics, then you are accepting this as your normal, your center. No, it is not a matter of poverty and economics. Study after study show that when compared at equivalent levels of family income, the same patterns exist. The same sad statistics are found in health, the environment, sports, entertainment, justice, lifestyle, the military, money, jobs, politics, and science and technology. It is eye-opening. I encourage to read this text if you have not already.
Last year, Grace gave an excellent keynote about the question of mathematics being political. In analyzing this movie, I find a curious juxtaposition of the themes of patriotism vs. oppression. The patriotism is expressed through the seeking of new mathematics, and it is in the backdrop of the oppression of some of those tapped to seek it. The irony is astounding, if you allow yourself to decenter the white norm enough to see it.
“We can’t get anywhere without the numbers.” To be more clear, they couldn’t seem to get anywhere without the numbers of Black women.
The scene on the left is when the John Glenn and the astronauts are paraded among the NASA employees in a great moment of patriotism. On the right, the very next scene shows Johnson discovering a new coffee pot just for her, reminiscent of separate but equal.
Time and time again, we see that Johnson is expected to perform her patriotic duty by doing the math, while that very task is increasingly made difficult - literally hiding some of the information from the calculations she is to check, segregated bathrooms, etc. Did this discussion go into the Hidden Figures units put forth by the mathematics educators community? Was this part not important to discuss with students – how the racist acts of yesterday were overcome, but exist in new forms today? Did you ask any of your students if they could relate?
Maybe this does exist in the curriculum. Maybe I missed those conversations. But it’s what I wanted to discuss then, and now. I think our students can handle critical analysis. Don’t they need to be prepared? Our children deserve the truth, and the truth includes our racist past and present.
As Dr. Erika Bullock has written, this lack of discussion amounts to figure-hiding. Johnson had to fight to be seen and not hidden. Are you hiding your own students? Or, if you do not teach students of color, are you assuming their absence in mathematics?
The movie next goes to the story of Dorothy Vaughn, as portrayed by Octavia Spencer. Vaughn sees that human calculators are being phased out, and notices the IBM coming. Her supervisor, composite character Mrs. Mitchell replies, “You all should be thankful you have jobs at all.”
That response also seems familiar: Black people hear often we should be thankful segregation is no longer the law of the land. If we are in private school, we should be thankful, or we should be thankful that we aren’t in “that” class. No regard to the system of inequality that exists, or that segregation still exists. Or isolation, dehumanization, or microaggressions exist.
In the next scene, we see Vaughn and her 2 sons walking to the library. They pass protest marchers fighting against their segregated city. Once inside, she is approached by the librarian who quickly asks her to leave because she is in the white section. We should note that she is in the white section to read a book that is not in hers - one on Fortran, which she will need to say ahead of the computer layoffs. Vaughn refuses at first, then is “helped” out by a police officer, but not before she hides the book under her coat.
We then see her reading the book, on the back of the segregated bus with her sons, when one asks if she has stolen it. Her reply is classic resistance: she says that as a taxpayer, she pays for the use of the book. The camera then goes to a picture of a colored vs a white fountain. She says, “Separate and equal are two different things. Just ‘cause it’s the way doesn’t make it right.”
So much to teach here:
Vaughn goes on to teach herself Fortran, and the Black women she works with, finally earning the supervisor role she has been fighting for.
Some quotes that are heard in the background. JFK speaks of the moon. Is racism harder to tackle than travelling to the moon?
A poignant quote from MLK. I think we as educators need to really ponder this to see if we believe it. If not, what are we doing?
At this point, we learn of the story of Mary Jackson, as played by Janelle Monae. When asked by her supervisor if she would want to be an engineer if she were a white male, she answers with the famous line, “I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one.” She ends up petitioning the court for permission to attend an extension class only offered at a segregated white high school. She does attend the class, and continues the road to becoming an engineer.
She does so by also demonstrating strategic thinking in her exchange with the judge, and resisting the current state of affairs becoming the first Black female engineer at NASA.
As Katherine is depended upon more and more, she is frustrated that her calculations are obsolete soon after she submits them. She requests a seat at the table as changes occur to improve her accuracy. Her demands eventually are met, since her work is impeccable.
Upon proving her mathematical prowess, she compiles reports of her work, only for a man’s name to be listed as the solo author. She resists by typing both names, and each time is reprimanded for doing so. Toward the movie’s end, she is allowed to list her name along with her supervisor’s. We could speak to students about authorship and the right to original ideas. Is this not important in math class?
All 3 of these women were firsts in mathematics, computer science, and engineering. And they didn’t get there by being passive. Each was able to assert themselves to disrupt in ways that they could, although not without consequences. This is the history that must be acknowledged to our students – that even in mathematics, all is not equal.
So here’s the thing. It is amazing to me that we can look at the same movie yet see very different things. The reaction and message I interpreted from mtbos was this: There are many mathematicians of color we don’t yet know about. How can we help students discover them so that they see themselves in the mathematics?
My response was that PLUS:
What would’ve happened if more Black mathematicians were in the Space Task Group? How many brilliant mathematicians were missed? Could we have gotten to the moon faster? Do we hide budding mathematicians today?
It’s everywhere in the movie. If you decenter yourself, can you see?
Why aren’t we embracing those that look different than ourselves? Isn’t it in our collective best interest? Why can’t we see the gift – the necessity – of sharing the power?
If you are standing by while students of color continually lack access to great teaching, then you are modelling compliance for all of your students. Our kids need us to speak up and disrupt or at least interrogate what is going on. Are you waiting for permission?
If you are in a school with no students of color, are you interrogating that? Why do you have none? If you teach with no teachers of color, are you interrogating that? You either believe that our education needs all voices or you don’t. You either believe that if some of those voices were no longer hidden figures, we would all benefit, or you don’t. Can we really reach the figurative moon without all of our voices? Or are you teaching your students, your colleagues, your children, that only some of us are smart enough to get there?
Representation is important. I was talking to a friend about this talk last week and I mentioned that I saw a connection between Hidden Figures and mathematics education. She got quiet. She admitted being emotional as she pondered her school experience and her family history. She asked me to show you this, because it matters. This is her Nana, who was the first Black female math education student at the University of South Florida. This one is for Val.
I know much of this history is new. It is definitely new to me. It is new because it has been hidden. That’s what makes the MTBoS book club so powerful. We chip at these books one by one, so that we can decenter the lies we have been told in our schooling.
We need to improve our racial fluency. We are good with the numbers, just not good with each other yet. Lean into your discomfort. Ask yourself what you are feeling. Decenter yourself and listen to those who find themselves at the margins. Imagine their point of view.
Decentering self is a lifelong journey, but it must be done for our students and for all of us. To revisit the Harrison quote, like Jackson, we have got to look beyond. Like Vaughn, we have to ask the questions we don’t even know to ask. Like Johnson, we must invent the math that doesn’t exist. Because without it we’re not going anywhere.
I don’t want any more dehumanizing mathematics. I reject teaching this way. I imagine all my students seeing themselves without limit in the mathematics.
In my mind, I’m already there.
Now in my 50th year of life, I think about my different stages of yearning for my mother. When she first transitioned from this life to heaven, I missed her touch the most. To fulfill this need, I touched her hand in her coffin, but it was cold and her skin was rough. I knew then she was not there, nor here on earth, and I no longer yearned for her touch.
Next, I missed seeing her. I wanted to see her see me, to see that I was ok. She then visited my dreams, never speaking, but giving me just enough to feel comforted. She still comes when I need direction, leaving me with just that and a bit of peace.
Years later, when I first became pregnant, I really wanted to talk to her. So many questions I had failed to ask. Was I ready for motherhood? How would I do this without her? Would my daughter ever know how much I loved my own mother? For this, she gave me the greatest gift - of knowing: an unspoken communication. A caress devoid of touch. An understanding requiring no explanation.
She's been gone now 25 years, half of my lifetime, yet she's been with me all along. We communicate in ways I can't explain; she's with me all the time. I was not aware of this way of being before her transition, but now, it is how I view all my relationships.
My husband knows when we watch a movie and cry at the exact same moment, because he feels my pain of a memory of my mother. My daughter knows when she calls at the exact moment I need to talk to her. My son knows when he gives me a desperately needed hug when disappointment looms.
You do not have to share my blood to know me. My son's best friend knows when they both leave my house at night. There are dangers that my son faces that his friend will share when they are together. We don't have to discuss it anymore. We know it is real. He knows the rules as well as my son. He knows I worry, so the goodbye embrace is not simply a "Have a good time" hug, but one of caution. They will text me location changes. They will let me know when both get home safely. If he knows, why can't you?
The colors are a different shade now that my mother is physically gone, permanently altered. And perhaps that is what enables me to seek being known, to need to be known. I am an educator by vocation and by life choice. I need to bond with fellow educators to do this work. But I am not known by many. But it is what I need most.
I don't expect you to know me instantly, but sit at my table with me. Share a meal. See what I see so that you can feel what I feel. Then, there would be no need for explanation. You would know. And when you know, you will help me do.
Much has happened since the gathering in Atlanta in July. Some of us have begun our school year, and some of us have been able to attend a second TMC. I am beginning my third week of school with my cherished fourth and fifth graders. And still, I am thinking about my experience at TMC. Forgive me, but it has taken a while to process it all.
I am a math person. For me, that does not merely mean that I am good at math, it means that math colors the way I think. Many of us are also math people by this definition, which is why the TMC environment is so comforting – days of not having to defend or explain our math-nerdiness to others.
Yet, I don’t feel that I was able to fully let my hair down at TMC. For one, I was a first-timer, and the few people I “knew”, I only knew through Twitter. For another, I was one of a few black women, which although not an unfamiliar situation, still was not comfortable.
I found myself in the midst of the group’s internal struggle with equity and what that means. I participated in an excellent three-day workshop centered around these themes, and interacted with thoughtful educators who sincerely asked questions and displayed vulnerability. But, still, there were more educators of color clustered in this workshop than in the others. I think that matters.
Larger discussions of equity revealed a wide spectrum of positioning. And, there was a reluctance to engage, although attendance in these spaces was high. Namely, these concerns presented themselves and loomed large: the real fear of:
saying the wrong thing
being labelled as a racist
So, here are my thoughts, for what they are worth.
One session was about how to increase the diversity at future TMCs. Demographic information had been collected, and we were encouraged to analyze the statistics in order to brainstorm solutions. But the problem was quite murky in its definition. Here are some questions that I would pose to help define terms:
What is diversity?
What does diversity look like in our community and/or at TMC?
What are its indicators?
Should percentages reflect the larger math educator community?
Should percentages reflect the math Twitter community?
How will that data be obtained?
How will the diversity be achieved?
Clarify The Why
In this Common Core era, we know how important the why is. Yet, as many times as it was asked, in different forums, and by different people, this question never got answered:
Why should we be more diverse?
It is an important question which leads to others:
Should we be more diverse?
Is it okay to remain as we are?
How will we know when we’re diverse enough?
We preach to our students all the time about how the process is as important as the solution. Defining terms and digging deep to understand why is worth grappling with. Otherwise, all efforts seem inauthentic, and ultimately will not sustain new membership.
We encourage students to take risks. We tell them that mistakes are okay, good even, and that it is their failure that leads to learning. This is true for us as well.
We should not let fear of saying the wrong thing prevent us from doing the internal work on ourselves. To truly understand my perspective as a black woman, you probably should get to know me. I will not speak for my race or gender, but just me, and there are others who share my views. And some who don’t.
We have to have honest conversations. And read a lot. And risk sounding ignorant. And racist. We will make mistakes. But isn’t it worth it to learn? Isn’t this what we teach our students? Learning can be painful. Shouldn’t we model the pain of learning for students, too?
Let me be clear, TMC was an amazing experience and I learned so much mathematics from brilliant minds. And many have undoubtedly started the work in beginning to answer some of these questions. I look forward to our forward movement in mathematics and honest dialogues. I am thankful for the connections I have made. Have a great school year.
"Wow! Two kids in college!" Is a phrase I hear a lot these days. Yes, I have a rising senior daughter and a rising freshman son. I realize that this is meant as a compliment. The implication is that with so many wrong turns that could have been made, my children have "made it" past their primary and secondary school experiences, and that my husband and I have concocted the magic sauce that allowed for their success.
Am I proud of them? Of course! They both have taken different paths, but both have emerged as fine citizens, with healthy world views. They are intelligent communicators, have cultivated leadership through playing varsity and travel/club sports, and have been able to navigate past peer pressure. Yes, my husband and I were and are present and vocal through it all, and we have managed to keep them close. However, the fact that my two are in college, and away from home, is not as comforting as it should be.
You see, they are people of color. And that is a game-changer.
I have devoted my life's work to getting other young people to this very point. I teach at the elementary level, but have kept up with my students well beyond my classroom. I have attended their bar mitzvahs and homecoming games. I counsel them about their life goals and give feedback on college essays. I am their coach through many of life's challenges. This is part of who I am.
And yet, I am feeling uncertain about my own two. I no longer have the comfort of knowing where they are every minute of the day. For a parent of color, this is unsettling. I know that for all we have taught them about who they are, how to treat others, and how to protect themselves, it may not be enough. We are reminded continually of what can happen. And that, for many of us, is the reality that we live with.
Since my parenting informs my teaching, I am left to wonder how this, too, will manifest in my classroom. My evolution is demanding abandoning silence. As it cripples me, it cripples my charges. My students can affirm that I am not the teacher who claims to have all the answers. But saying nothing, skirting issues that affect all of us, is no longer acceptable.
I tell my students all the time that I will not ask them to do anything that I do not do myself. I thought that this was true, but it isn't. I ask them to take risks, yet I have few of those conversations with them. I expect them to care for one another and be a family, but I don't always push my colleagues to be better by questioning what we do and why. Pushing is ultimately an act of love. I'm not loving if I am afraid of discomfort.
I will do better. I must do better. My silence is my defeat. And theirs. And yours.
Reflecting is good for the soul. Doing so in public is terrifying and exhilarating.