Carrying a Message Further • Part 1 – Why Educators Must Read Erec Smith

Introduction

This introduction begins the section of the “All We Are” series that is called “Carrying a Message Further”. These writings explore theories of ideological conditioning, ideas in the book “Cynical Theories”, the doctrine of “lived experience” (in which I explore my own lived experience of losing a close sibling to a tragic death), and reflections around Dr. Erec Smith’s argument for using empowerment as a basis for teaching, as laid out in his book, “Critique of Anti-racism in Rhetoric and Composition: the Semblance of Empowerment”.

In the early summer of 2020, the murder of an African American, George Floyd, by a white Minneapolis police officer catapulted a large number of Americans into a period of intense reflection on systemic racial bias, race relations, Black and brown racial identity, and the relationship between American history and its present day realities. With tensions mounting from the rapid spread of extreme versions of anti-racist ideologies, the rise of what some are calling a cultural revolution, the increasingly polarizing battles over the influence of Critical Race Theory in American educational institutions and schools, and the rapid implementation of policies that seek to relieve the inequities faced by Black Americans throughout history, it’s fair to say that we are living at a time of great reckoning. 

A major part of this reckoning involves the examination of identity and the existential questions around what makes us human. Two of the most central existential questions of all time have been brought to the surface during this reckoning: What is the nature of a human being, and which human experiences are universal to us all?

Articles, documentaries, and books covering this period of reckoning are exploring a variety of angles, including the presence of systemic racial bias in our criminal justice systems and the awkward ways in which well-meaning professionals are implementing “woke” programs while not adequately addressing rising inequality. Some are exploring the implications of our deeply polarized era and offering new frameworks for a post-progressive vision that aims to synthesize the highest resolution insights from across the political spectrum. Others are analyzing the impact of an interconnected world where competing movements for social change and institutional and cultural preservation have the same global reach and thus the potential to influence the destiny of Western civilization. Many are highlighting the divisions and conflicts between demographic groups and how these inter-group hostilities have historically brought on the darkest of outcomes on every scale imaginable. And even more are examining the specific topic of the intergenerational impact of the historical cruelties and contemporary sufferings faced by Black Americans since the first days of their arrival to the continent as enslaved people in 1619.

Much of the media’s coverage around George Floyd’s killing by the police has understandably been explored through the racial lens, but it has also opened up conversations around police brutality in general, including the reform of policies around qualified immunity for police officers and the examination of the relationship between the public’s perceptions around police killings and the data itself. Still others have focused variously on the Black Lives Matter movement and founders, the rise of historian Ibram X. Kendi’s popularity as the author of “Stamped from The Beginning” and “How to be an Antiracist”, and the stunningly rapid spread of Whiteness Studies scholar Robin D’Angelo’s theory of “White Fragility”. 

It has become clear that in the years 2020 and 2021, Black experiences—and the experiences of people of color in general—have become central to our national conversation. The centering of these experiences means that whether we want to or not, sooner or later we will have to directly engage with the widely accepted ideas and moral frameworks that are informing the specific calls for action around issues faced by people of color. Engaging with these ideas and frameworks will require us to understand the principles underlying the specific umbrella ideology of Critical Social Justice (CSJ).

The advent of the CSJ ideology’s influence on today’s mass movements has brought the timeless questions mentioned above to the very forefront of conversations around what makes us all human. These timeless questions have been brought to the surface for many people precisely because the CSJ ideology explicitly denies—and actively teaches its adherents to deny—the possibility that any internal or external human experience could ever be universal to all people. 

It is important to understand that in the present 2021 reality in which this ideology has captured mainstream media outlets, the educational world, and official U.S. government policy, these questions have been reframed on a large scale of influence. Questions about the nature of our personal experience and what constitutes truth, human knowledge, and wisdom have gradually shifted away from the universal to identity-based questions about the nature of experiences between different peoples. Thus, we have found ourselves compelled to ignore the possibility of a universal human condition. 

And, so we are now compelled to reframe the age-old question: 

What is the nature of a human being?

Into….

What is the nature of a human being within a specific group identity?

As though the group replaces the individual. As though the essential nature of all of us is fundamentally different.

We now ask: 

What is the nature of a Black human being, a brown human being, an Asian human being, a white human being, or a human being of any other identity group, including women, LGBTQ, Muslims, atheists, people with disabilities, and other groups? 

And when we take into consideration Kimberlé Crenshaw’s widely popular framework of Intersectionality, we are now encouraged to ask:

What is the nature of a straight cisgendered white woman of size, a Black gay man with physical disabilities, an Asian transgender woman who practices Islam?

For educators in the West who teach students of color—indeed, students from all walks of life!—in the 21st century, there is no avoiding these questions. The simple reason is that the primacy of socio-cultural identity has not only exploded into the mainstream over the past decade, but has become central to mainstream culture. Identity has become a primary foundation in the building of classroom cultures and curriculum throughout all levels of education, and this primacy must be adequately acknowledged and addressed if educators hope to have a chance to survive in their field. More importantly, educators will need to come to terms with the question of identity’s place in the educational enterprise and formulate a clear path for integrating its promises and perils into their practice if they are to be effective in the classroom.

If we are to be effective in our classrooms. 

I am one of those we

I am an educator. And given that I have taught in urban settings from K-12 to college settings with a supermajority of students of color, all of these questions and considerations are personally and professionally intimate to the quality of the work I do.

For this section of the All We Are series, my focus will be on the transformational power of educators to encourage students to expand their sense of self beyond their sociocultural identities while simultaneously honoring their collective tribal identities and histories. In particular, I will be focusing on the necessity for educators on all grade levels, from Kindergarten to college, to adopt a model of what can be called deep inclusion. This level of inclusion fosters in all students and teachers the qualities of authentic agency, respect for the dignity of self and others, and a commitment to the continued development of the practical and inter-relational skills that will help students to have a real impact on the world and on their place in it. This model requires, above all, the cultivation of wisdom, which the voices from the wisdom traditions of virtually every spiritual faith and secular philosophy through the ages have taught us involves the integration of both other-centeredness and self-empowerment.

The original inspiration for this series of essays is a book called A Critique of Antiracism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment by Erec Smith, Ph.D., a professor of rhetoric and English composition at York College. On the publisher’s web page, the book is described as follows:

“A Critique of Anti-racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment critiques current antiracist ideology in rhetoric and composition, arguing that it inadvertently promotes a deficit-model of empowerment for both students and scholars. Erec Smith claims that empowerment theory—which promotes individual, communal, and strategic efficacy—is missing from most antiracist initiatives, which instead often abide by what Smith refers to as a "primacy of identity”: an over-reliance on identity, particularly a victimized identity, to establish ethos. Scholars of rhetoric, composition, communication, and critical race theory will find this book particularly useful.”

For this white American educator who has taught in the Boston Public Schools district since the late 1990s and who currently teaches in the same city at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, a small technical college that teaches more than 74 percent students of color, Erec Smith’s book could not have come at a better time. Simply put, the issues, problems, and solutions laid out in Smith’s book are not only relevant, but essential to my work. I felt compelled to write about the ideas in Smith’s book in the hope that promoting his ideas might generate more nuanced, compassionate conversations among educators, parents, students, and policy-makers in schools, colleges, and policymaking institutions.

For the most part, I will be quoting extensively from Smith’s own words and will offer my own insights only in instances when I believe they will help to translate his ideas into more layman’s terms or when I believe that describing my own teaching experiences and life experiences might lend more meaning and context to Smith’s ideas.

False humility is not called for here. I won’t hold back from expressing what my own lived experience, formal studies, and expertise have shown me to be true. But, I’m also at peace acknowledging that my own mastery over the material that Erec Smith covers in the book does not hold a candle to his mastery. I receive it as a great gift to myself when I can walk away from a learning experience (including reading a book) that not only broadens and deepens my perspective but that gives me practical advice and simple-yet-expert framing that helps me understand why that advice is practical. This is especially a gift to me if that practical advice and framing has the potential to influence the way I work with students who come from different backgrounds. 

Put in another way, while I am reasonably well informed and equally critical of the incursion of Critical Theories into much of civic life—and especially in the education field—I am grateful to acknowledge the genius of another educator who has taken the time to communicate our shared critiques in a way that is inspiring and enlightening. To borrow a phrase from Caner Dagli, whose own writings on Critical Theory have focused on this theory’s incursion into the Islamic faith, I have chosen to approach Smith’s work as “a commentator doing clerical work about an apex thinker” with the hope that his insights will gain ground in the coming years.

However, there are some areas of study in the book that I feel uniquely qualified to address, as they converge in my own experience as an educator in the K-12 realm (to my knowledge, Smith has mostly taught at the college level) and as a practitioner of the path of mindfulness called Buddhism that Smith addresses (to my knowledge, Smith hasn’t actively participated in Buddhist communities). When there are differences between our perspectives on some of these realms of inquiry, I will be clear about that.

Why We Must Reject Group Identity Essentialism

As I explored in Part 2 of the “All We Are” series, I believe we must reject group identity essentialism. This means we must reject racial essentialism

The problem with racial essentialism is that those who believe they know the inner life and thoughts of other people based on their perceived racial category and assume they can predict their character, morality, and personal beliefs and habits are prone to dehumanize the targets of their beliefs. We must reject racial essentialism in the same way that modern medical science has rejected phrenology as pure quackery. You can no more divine the character of a human being by the shape of their skull or the color of their skin than the timbre of their voice. Each person’s character is their own homegrown garden, and any framework or belief system that tells us differently is not likely to set us onto the path of harmony.

Harmony between groups requires empathy and respect between individuals. Empathy and respect for the individual are crucial to preventing or at least ameliorating the divisive effects of group identity essentialism, and in particular, racial essentialism. The best way to resist these effects is to openly question the belief that we can know—or have access to—the inner lives of people who belong to groups that we do not belong to. We cannot know the inner life of any human being from reading books, articles, and pamphlets that describe the supposed inner lives of the groups a human being belongs to. 

But, we do have the capacity to identify with others. To have empathy for them.

I believe we can know—and have insight into—the inner lives of other human beings if we practice open-hearted immediacy and stay present with those who are directly expressing their inner lives to us. But, if we are ideologically conditioned to presume we already know what is happening in the inner lives of people who belong to a different racial group, we are further constrained in our capacity to empathize with other individuals. It has become commonplace among some ideologies to believe that intergroup empathy is not really possible because of the differences between the lived experiences of individuals who belong to different groups. But, this belief rests on the idea that all demographic groups and intersectional identities are one-dimensional and that the lived experiences between each identity group are strictly separate and unique, which means there is no way for any of us to understand or empathize with individuals from other groups. To believe that we cannot empathize with people from other racial and ethnic groups or that we cannot develop the capacity to understand the experiences of individuals from different ethnic or racial groups with a different collective history is to say, “I could not weep for King Lear’s misfortune, for I have never been a king.” 

And it’s important to point out that the belief in hardened boundaries between groups has historically bad consequences.

When 17th century Puritan Minister Cotton Mather used academic-sounding theories to provide legitimacy to the idea that Africans had no souls but could be taught to develop “white souls' by converting to Christianity, he was unfairly and inaccurately assigning an essence to both skin colors. For Mather and his contemporaries, dark skinned people possessed an “essence” of soullessness (and therefore many other negative and inferior qualities) and light-skinned people possessed a different “essence” of soulfulness (and therefore many other positive and superior traits). This kind of racially essentialist thinking backed up by an academically polished veneer helped to pave the way for murderous, oppressive systems and practices, chattel slavery, economic and political disenfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, legalized segregation, the intentional sabotage of Black home ownership, and many other cruelties; and this is beyond dispute.

We shouldn’t stop at saying no to racial essentialism. We need to reject all forms of group identity essentialism (gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.) because this ideology-based patterning has led to atrocities across the world since the beginning of time.

When the Nazis similarly employed academic-sounding theories to provide legitimacy to the idea that Jews were inherently greedy, power-hungry, and conniving, they, too, were unfairly and inaccurately assigning an essence to this disfavored demographic group. And they went further and persecuted “homosexuals”, gypsies, the disabled, the Roma, the frail, the elderly, and other so-called “chaff” and “deviants”—all of whom were assigned a shared “essence” of inferiority of some kind. 

Throughout history, different atrocities came about after a period of time in which group identity essentialism was practiced against disfavored groups. These atrocities often began with a campaign of dehumanization that was designed to create an atmosphere of scorn for the targeted groups, making it much easier to justify the coming atrocities. In all circumstances, the assigned monolithic essence of shared character traits among all individuals who belonged to the targeted groups was depicted as inferior, villainous, or oppressive. Cambodian dictator Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge imposed their “Super Great Leap Forward” onto the populace between 1975 and 1979 by “purifying” the Cambodian nation with the persecution and murder of between 1.5 and 2 million intellectuals, imperialists, and other “microbes'' they found dangerous or undesirable. In the spring of 1994, the darker skinned Hutus launched a campaign of racially essentialist hatred against the “Tutsi cockroaches”, leading to 800,000 Tutsis being hacked to death by machetes in the Rwandan Genocide. Women throughout the centuries across all continents have experienced torture, subjugation, rape, and murder in many of the world’s traditionally patriarchal societies. People of nonconforming sexual and gender identities and orientations have been shunned, sexually assaulted, and killed all over the world. All were victims of group identity essentialism—a belief that has been exploited by despots, dictators, murderous demagogues, and simple career climbers throughout history, leading to untold human suffering and in some cases hundreds of millions of deaths.

Although I cover the topic of group identity essentialism in some detail in my seven chapters on polarization and cynical theories, I want to present a clear picture of where I stand on the issue of group identity essentialism in this piece of writing, as I will be speaking more specifically about race, racism, racialized ideologies, and the transformative education that students of color can receive in K-12 and college classrooms where their identities can expand far beyond the constricting categories of race, skin color, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation and other outward markers. My rejection of group identity essentialism is a major theme that runs through this three-part essay series, including the present one. Anything that this essay has to say will stem in part from that position, and I know that even those who disagree with me will appreciate my being upfront about this position. To not be upfront about it would be to manipulate the reader with the Trojan Horse method of sneaking in unsuspected propaganda, which is often the goal of writers with an axe to grind and followers to recruit. 

My goal is to persuade readers, not to deceive them.

Which brings me back to one of the most important foundations of Erec Smith’s book, Critique of Antiracism in Rhetoric and Composition: Semblance of Empowerment. Among the several themes Erec Smith covers, developing the capacities to use all of our “available means of persuasion” to impact others and the moral call for us to take our seat in this world as truth-speakers, not liars, stand out to me as two of the most important themes.

In reading Smith’s book, I couldn’t help but feel that this was the first time in a very long time that I was reading something that aligned with the cross-section of my concerns about society and social cohesion; the actual practice of teaching reading, writing, and communication to students from disadvantaged communities; and the integration of the practices of mindfulness and open inquiry into the teaching and learning environment. 

The last book to reach me in this way was Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives. This book was written by James A. Banks and Cheery A. McGee Banks, both of whom have been leading educators of the multicultural education movement over the last several decades. For reference to James A. Banks’ approach to transformational teaching and where my own chief influences lie, this article on the four approaches to multicultural curriculum reform he has written offers a glimpse. For a slightly more comprehensive glimpse into my own teaching philosophy, which is influenced by Banks’ work, this link to my paper on the comprehensive person-centered approach '' will present some insight. Another link to my graduate thesis about organizational change in communities (and in particular, educational communities) will hopefully offer enough context for understanding why the writings of both James A. Banks and Erec Smith appeal to me. It’s important to point out that at the time of this writing, the papers I have just linked to were written ten years ago (2011) and that my perspectives have shifted somewhat in response to the rapidly-changing educational landscape. It’s equally important to point out that, in spite of all the changes and my own continued learning in the field of education, my basic philosophy remains the same. Where some perspectives might have shifted in recent years in my own thinking and approach to education will be clarified as I go forth in delving deeper into the ideas laid out in Smith’s book and other writings. 

To make it easier for the reader to appreciate the insights of Erec Smith’s book (which can be quite abstract and intellectually complex), I have organized different short chapters of this section of the All We Are series into separate themes from the book in an order that reflects my own perspectives around how these themes relate to one another rather than the order in which Smith covered them in the book. In recognition of Smith's unique phrasings and helpful framings around why we teach, and who we teach, I will also highlight in bold words and phrases that I hope will stand out for educators and people who are interested in education as worthy of deep consideration and practice. 

If any reader wishes for detailed notes with chapter titles and page numbers, they are welcome to email me at slawrence@bfit.edu. As a true fan of Erec Smith’s work and the from the desire to promote his thinking and his writings, I will be more than happy to send those notes along. 

Theme 1. The Problem of Bullying in Social Justice Activism

Theme 2. Primacy of Identity: The Rightful King

Theme 3. Primacy of Identity: The Sacred Victim 

Theme 4. Preconfigurative Politics: The Performance of Empowerment

Theme 5. Authentic Empowerment: Mastering the Language of Wider Communication 

Theme 6. W.E.B. Dubois: Preparing Students for the World We Currently Have

Theme 7. Pragmatism and Empowerment: Carrying a Message Further

Theme 8: Empowerment Anti-Racism: Kairos, Responsibility and Interdependence

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NEXT: Carrying a Message Further • Part 2 – The Problem of Bullying in Social Justice Activism