Emily Meadows, LGBTQ+ Consultant for International Schools
Tamara Friedman, International School Educator
We are not the wokeness Olympics. Nor are we a guilt-and-shame-and-despair-fest. We are a group of white international educators guided by the understandings that we are all learning, that we can all do better, and that we must both support and challenge one another in the life-long work of antiracism. We explore, unpack, process, interrogate, and engage in conversation on the various dynamics, beliefs, and thoughts that shape our racialized experiences as white members of the international school community.
We challenge ourselves and each other to recognize and be accountable for whiteness in international schools, including individual, institutional, and systemic white privilege and power. We believe that we need to literally practice what it looks and sounds like to disrupt our internalized dominance and superiority. This includes learning about, discussing, and practicing disruption strategies. We can only achieve racial equity and justice if we relentlessly hold one another accountable for collectively transferring our learning and commitments into action.
We are intentional about exposing our vulnerabilities. We share stories to reflect and gain capacity for acknowledging our racialized experience as white people in international education. The story that I shared at our first whiteness accountability meeting took place more than 20 years ago in Boulder, Colorado, when I was an undergraduate student. I was taking a class called "school and society," which turned out to be mostly about school and race. Early on in the course, our professor was explaining that schools perpetuate racism by advantaging white students in a multitude of ways. Being white in school, he told us, was to benefit from racism.
This assertion was deeply uncomfortable for me as a white person. I didn’t like the idea that I was part of a racist system. I was offended that he was suggesting I somehow had an unfair advantage and had not truly earned all of my accomplishments. I was upset to be categorized by my race, without any acknowledgement of my individuality.
Based on their reactions, the other students in our mostly white class felt similarly, and offered up their exceptionalisms one after another: "My parents raised me to treat all people the same," "My best friend growing up was Black," "I come from a poor family, I didn’t have any advantages!” Our professor—a true pro—was ready for each of these deflections, and dealt with them in turn.
When I felt brave enough to speak up, I told the professor that I grew up in international schools, where we had many different races and nationalities represented, and we were all equal. This got him; to my delight, he had no response! He told me that he didn’t know about international schools, and we’d be studying schools in the United States. I had found my exceptionalism—international schools—and it worked.
I was able to carry on, content in believing that I had nothing to do with racism, that I was entitled to everything I had worked hard to achieve, that I was a unique individual, that my communities growing up were places of diversity and multiculturalism and global citizenship. The others in the class could do the hard work of grappling with their place in a racist world, but I was home free.
And this is why we need a whiteness accountability group specifically for international educators. We are not exceptional, but we often tell ourselves that we are. The existence of predominantly white spaces, discriminatory hiring, colonizer curriculum, white saviorist “service” programs, etc. are all abundant in international schools. Tamara and I have formed this group to cultivate whiteness accountability within international education by working alongside international educators, people who are part of—and who directly impact—this system.
Our group is a supplement to, not a replacement for, antiracism work centering people of color. Indeed, white people are ultimately responsible for resolving the problem that we created and maintain. We must not burden people of color by expecting them to provide free labor to educate us or cater to our feelings and emotions around white privilege. Instead, as white educators, we need to use our own time to grapple with our whiteness and to own the impact of our participation in racism. We can then be better listeners and supporters and collaborators in antiracism work alongside people of color.
For skeptics, please note that affinity spaces for minoritized groups also serve an important purpose, as they provide a time for people of color to take care of themselves and one another while unpacking racism, internalized oppression, and racialized trauma in the absence of whiteness. The Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color (AIELOC) organizes a number of affinity groups such as an African Affinity and Allyship group and an Asian Pacific Islander Educators community support group. You are welcome to email AIELOC for more information and to join these groups: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The positive news is that people are showing up. Our first monthly meeting, in April 2021, included 64 participants from all over the world. And when I say they showed up, I mean they showed up. Folks stayed for the full session, they engaged in the (sometimes challenging) discussion groups, they held space for one another, and they came back for more the following month.
When: If you’d like to take part in this work, please join us. Our next online session will be on June 24 at 10am NY / 4pm Amsterdam / 7pm Dubai / 11pm Shanghai time.
June 24 registration here: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZwkf-6rqjssE9WYjY12FVjp_vYLy2xWcrrL
Emily Meadows (she/her) is an LGBTQ+ consultant and published author specializing in international schools.
Tamara Friedman is a long time educator currently teaching Grade 4 at the American School of the Hague.