[EDEQUITY]A book review on "Taking It Personally"

From: Kay Gilliland (GillilandK@aol.com)
Date: Mon Mar 04 2002 - 10:47:39 EST

This book review is a bit long, but I appreciated the book so much that I
couldn't stop writing. Hope it is helpful. Kay

Berlak, A. and Moyenda, S. Taking It Personally.
Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2001

I just finished reading Taking It Personally by Sekani Moyenda, an African
American teacher, and Ann Berlak, a white professor of sociology. For those

of us who are white teachers, Taking It Personally provides a long, hard
at our own racism, our own defensiveness, our own blindness to the
of life in a racist society. This review is my sharing with you my own
reactions to reading the book. Moyenda and Berlak provided me with one more

opportunity to examine my own beliefs, root out a little more of the
and rededicate myself (to the best of my current ability and understanding)

to antiracist living.

Moyenda was invited by Berlak to address pre-service teachers taking
course on Cultural and Linguistic Diversity. The students had just seen a
powerful film on racism entitled The Color of Fear. They appeared to have
understood and empathized with the film. Moyenda told her audience some of

the incidents of racism that had affected her. The students reacted
what she told them. They tried to defend, saying that race was not the
important factor. They compared oppressions, saying they, too, had
experienced difficult conditions. They said Moyenda had a chip on her
shoulder. They were unable to credit a Black woman with her own reality.

Moyenda devised a role-play activity (based on a Black inner-city classroom

ituation) that questioned these preservice teachers' ability to work in a
classroom that included Black children. The future teachers were unable to

handle this idea and some ended in shouting, crying, and walking out of

It became clear that the white members of the class believed that the
for differences in achievement resided entirely in the children and their
parents, not in the society and its major socializing institution, the
schools. They took for granted the prevailing explanations for racially
differentiated school success: class and race differences in achievement
the result of parents'limitations, their irresponsibility, their low levels

of education, their apathy toward their children's schooling. These
believed all they needed to do to teach these children was to care for
They did not recognize the essential ingredients of "kinship,
and solidarity"(p. 105) essential to the teaching of African American
children in the United States. They could not envision themselves joining
the fight against the unjust social arrangements of the broader society
powerfully influence these childrens lives. They had never seen this as a
part of the obligation of teaching Black children and they were not about
accept it now.

Moyenda spoke forcefully from the depth of her anger and the students
to her delivery as a way of avoiding her meaning. The role play was set up

o the teacher and principal would fail, and the students tried to twist
situation away from failure, believing they could handle the class without
failing. The white male playing the principal had a heated argument with
Moyenda over the situation and the students faulted Moyenda. At every
the students appeared to defend themselves, make excuses, think of ways in
which race was not a factor, smooth over the incidents, so they would not
have to face the awful reality of institutionalized racism and their own
resulting privilege.

Neither Berlak not Moyenda had anticipated the eruption of feeling the
presentation elicited. They analyzed carefully the responses of these
preservice teachers, both during the visit and from the journal entries
followed. They found evidence that directly confronting racism upset the
students' worldview. If they accepted the fact of institutionalized
they could no longer accept their own privileged position as an earned
position. If they recognized that the treatment of Black people is
unjust, what did that say about their own status? If Moyenda, a Black
was a skilled professional teacher, what did that mean about their own
preparation for the profession they were entering? Further, if she
questioned their ability to work with Black children, where did that leave
them? Rather than recognize all these threats to their self-esteem, they
attacked Moyenda personally, discounting her method of delivery and her

A certain understanding began to dawn on students as the weeks went by and
Berlak sensed "powerful feelings that were so deeply buried that they were
never spoken of. These were feelings of profound loss, grief, sorrow, and
despair". "One source of the sorrow flowed, I think, from the immense
and disconnectedness the encounter brought to the surface between white
people and people of color, and between Latinas and Asian, Filipina, and
African Americans, as well."(p. 125) "Perhaps the students who saw Moyenda
infested with negativity" were protecting themselves from knowing that
their worldview is based on the degradation and exploitation of others.
Berlak says, "I have begun to see many of the white, Asian, and Latina
responses to Moyenda as unconscious responses to Black anger, as well as to

fear of Black violence." However, she follows with, "I also have come to
see them as expressions of desires to maintain precarious identities and
connections with others. These fears and desires had, however, in large
part, been transformed into something unrecognizable by our conscious

I remember a mathematics education equity workshop an African American
colleague and I conducted for practicing teachers. We and the teachers met

together for a week, living together on a college campus, eating together,
working math problems together, engaging in role-play activities, and
swapping stories of classrooms and of our lives. About half the
were Black and the other half white. One of the last exercises we engaged
required us to sort into various categories and talk in our own social
about things we never wanted to have happen again or hear from other
Next, individuals in the non-dominant group repeated some of the sentences
verbatim to the whole group. The dominant group was not asked to speak.
social groups were rural/urban (both were allowed to speak), male/female
(only females spoke), and finally African American/white (only African
American participants spoke).

As with Berlak and Moyenda, we had not anticipated the eruption of emotions

the activity elicited. It was clear that the males had difficulty with the

tatements of the females. Then the African American teachers spoke with
feeling of the indignities they never wanted to suffer again. Only one of
many, but the one I remember most vividly: "Don"t clutch your purse close
to you as my Black husband walks by you on the street." Another: "Don't
make an excuse to move when I sit down beside you in the teachers" room.
"There were tears and anger and some white teachers left the room.
I sensed a new strength and solidarity among the Black teachers who had
able to give voice to their own reality, even hearing this stated by some.

The white teachers turned their anger on us, the presenters:" "How could
do that? We developed such good relationships in class. You destroyed
we spent a week building. That was wrong to do. Now we can't be what we
were to each other! You ruined our relationship."

Moyenda defines racism as "institutionalized and systematic oppression
directed at people because of their race, or a system of advantages and
disadvantages that are exerted in the United States by institutions
by white people, usually white men."(p. 132) Moyenda was asked if all
people are infected with racism and she answered,"Yes." (p. 135) Teachers
asked, "Are you saying that because I'm white I can't work in Black
schools?" and Moyenda answered, "If I said, "Yes," would that stop you?
The question itself falls under the heading of silly/dangerous white-people
questions. One of the luxuries of white privilege is that, when people of
color disapprove of white intrusion
or conduct in our community, all we can do for the most part is state our
objections. White people are going to do what they damn well please".It
doesn't matter what I think about white people teaching Black children.
It's a moot issue now. There certainly aren't enough Black teachers, so
clearly I can't afford to say white people shouldn't teach Black
children"even if I believed it."(pp. 135-136)

"I don't fight to win, I fight to fight," says Moyenda. (p. 169) Sekani
Moyenda continues to teach, to write and to talk about the fundamental
of racism: "The reward for us personally of examining racism is not to get

racism out of the society (this is impossible) but to get it out of
ourselves, our families, and the classroom we teach in." Berlak speaks of
her own work, "I have come to think of antiracist teaching as woven in a
variety of
patterns from trauma, anxiety, resistance, and mourning. The trauma of the

encounter was sparked by Moyenda"s call to us to become witnesses to
Her call activated feelings of fear, and socially prohibited anger, and
intimations of the risks involved in bringing to awareness sorrow deeply
buried in those on all sides of the racial divide. These feelings aroused
anxiety" a generalized feeling of dread. The most common initial response
the anxiety was denial and resistance in the guises of defensive anger and
numbness. But anxiety can also set the stage for a moment of creative
in those who have the spirit to face resistance and denial and go beyond
them…Going forward through potentially debilitating anxiety to confront
painful realities of racism by recognizing and coming to terms both with
one's fear and with the reality of loss can result in a decision to take
responsibility for one's own fate and the fate of others with whom we feel
intimately connected. This can engender a deep sense of vitality. But I
also know the process cannot be invoked according to plan. A student must
reely choose it in response to a compelling invitation."(pp. 127-128 )

Reading "Taking it Personally" may become that compelling invitation each
of us
needs to engage in the fight.

Kay Gilliland
14240 Skyline Blvd.
Oakland, CA 94619-3626

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.2 : Mon Apr 15 2002 - 09:57:59 EDT