How has race and intersectionality impacted your life?
I first conceptualized race when I was around four or five. I grew up in Georgia. I’d always see the Confederate flag. I remember going on trips, driving, with my parents, to Lake Lanier, which is just outside of Atlanta. We went through Forsyth County, and on Saturdays the Klu Klux Klan would march. I remember being seven or eight years old and watching the Klan march.
We moved from Georgia, at 13 years old, to Colorado, moved to a place called Highlands Ranch, which was majority White. My high school had about 1,200 kids. 11 of us were Black. There was only one Black teacher. I wasn't challenged academically. Nobody pushed me. Experiencing White supremacy from other students was commonplace. I did, though, develop a strong group of friends who weren't like me, but who would stand up for me, allies and co-conspirators, to help challenge the oppressive systems we were encountering.
As a historian, I always asked questions about the conditions of Black people. Going to the University of Denver, I was exposed to a lot of Latinx students. I was on a campus that had displaced the Latinx community. I began to take Mexican and Chicano politics, women's studies classes, gender studies, and Native American studies. I really just started to understand an internationalist perspective of working together.
Fortunately, five or six years ago, I was asked to teach a gender studies class. In preparation to teach that class, I came across Kimberlé Crenshaw's work on intersectionality. Intersectionality, for me, was the connection between internationalism, from the Marxist perspective, and that unknown thing I kept experiencing. Like, in the Chicano Rights Movement, they were like, we’re going to have a revolution, we're going to change society, but then we’re also going to tell women to get back in the kitchen and keep cooking. The Black Panthers did the same thing. So, I think, intersectionality is the final key understanding to real revolution.
To be an educator today in America, in an urban public school, or in any school, you have to be an internationalist and be intersectional.
To be an educator today in America, in an urban public school, or in any school, you have to be an internationalist and be intersectional. It’s about loving different cultures. You can’t love another culture just by studying it. You love another culture by really spending time with people. Like, dig in. Eat the food. Listen to the music. If we really want to understand intersectional struggles, and sit down with our LGBTQ+ students, we won’t be able to connect unless we genuinely have LGBTQIA+ people in our lives. If we don't have Latinx people in our lives, we don't have immigrants in our lives, we won’t be able to connect to those students either. To teach internationalism and intersectionality, we need to live them, you know?
Why is talking about race in the subject(s) you teach necessary?
To really tell the story of the United States, to tell any history, we have to explore all the people in that history.
I want to talk about race, real issues, and I want to talk about the things that I was interested in as a student, things that got me really excited. It’s also about who we're teaching, who the audience is. To really tell the story of the United States, to tell any history, we have to explore all the people in that history. If we stop at the traditional views of history, we won’t understand the complexity of where we come from, or who we really are.
The history of Juneteenth, for example. To understand the history of Juneteenth tells you something different about the history of the United States than what we're told through Independence Day, right? For Independence Day, you read about Benjamin Franklin, all his accomplishments. But then you have Frederick Douglass, his What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, which rightfully questions those “accomplishments.” And you have historical figures like Crispus Attucks, an African and indigenous American; he was the first American to die in the American Revolution! We should know about him as much as we know George Washington. Every kid should understand the Trail of Tears, how we displaced native people to make room to produce more cotton.
When you saw that video of George Floyd, when you hear those last minutes of him saying “I can't breathe,” begging for his life. Kids want to know, why does this happen? What is this? What do we mean by White supremacy? We have to teach this stuff to White kids, too. It’s not just People of Color who are responsible. It’s White people's responsibility to learn this history, because it's their history.
What was it like teaching this lesson or unit plan?
For my lesson “Racial Empathy Through Stories,” it was so cool to watch the kids explore the stories in Chapter One of Tell Me Who You Are, to see their perspectives grow, to see them develop their sensory figures, to see how they were able to connect those stories to each other’s experiences. And again, I think it goes back to this understanding of internationalism and intersectionality: there are a lot of things that we have similar experiences or perspectives on. And our kids, they make these connections. I think it's helping kids see. This is something that I wish I'd had younger.
I really loved TMWYA because my kids wanted to explore it. I had so many kids that were like, “Can we just keep reading?” Kids in their free time would want to grab it and check it out. It's accessible to them. The stories are short. They found people like them, and people different. It was so cool.
My kids are learning that it's good to push back when you experience racial oppression. They’re learning to speak up. Me, on the other hand, so much of my life, I was trying to prevent other people from feeling uncomfortable. I tried to rationalize their microaggressions, excuse them. But, with my kids, I’m learning to talk about it. Let's speak about it, because if someone did it to me, they're doing it to other people.
How did your community react to your work?
Some background on my community: my school is predominantly Latinx, and a majority of those students are of Mexican descent. We are around a 50 percent English-language-learner school. We have about ten percent African American students, some are refugees from East Africa. We are grades six through 12, and we are at about 60 percent free and reduced lunch. Our school has a center for Lakota language study, so we have some Native students who come to our school as well.
Overall, I feel really lucky about our community. As you can tell, there’s diversity. Plus, our school is an international studies school. We work to help them develop proficiency in what we call the four domains of global leadership—investigate the world, recognize different perspectives, communicate ideas, and take action. Gerardo Muñoz, another CHOOSE Champion and an educator at my school, we both got thirty copies of TMWYA to use. It was great. By the end of our efforts, the students, parents, and administration were appreciative. It was worth the work.
What would you like to tell any educator looking at your work right now?
If you’re looking at my lesson plan, take it, improve it, play with it. Teaching is about adaptation, right? It's about evolution. So, take those ideas and play with them.
Students are the experts in the classroom; they’re spending the most time there.
We all have to become anti-racist teachers. We have to work to meet the needs of our community. We have to be responsive to our kids. Recently, I've come to a conclusion. Students are the experts in the classroom; they’re spending the most time there. Kindergarteners can tell you what makes them feel good, and what doesn't. We want all kids to feel good, feel good about who they are, the way they speak, walk, talk, how their hair looks, everything about them, the color of their skin, everything. We have to really show them that they’re valued, and we show them that by the types of texts we select, by the types of videos we show. I may really love this one YouTube video, but it's got this White dude in it, so I can't show that to my kids. I can't, because I don't want to show them another White dude. No, there are plenty of people of color, just like you, so let's rock with them. I want my kids to see themselves. Also, just be as compassionate as possible. Our students are going through so much.
A majority of teachers are White. To those teachers, don't expect the students to be experts in their culture. Don't always lean on the teachers of color. It might involve doing some extra work, right? You're gonna have to spend some time learning, studying, listening to podcasts. But do the work, it’ll be worth it.
We're all on this path at different points. None of us have made it to where we're like, “Hey, I'm enlightened! I am a totally conscious person!” But, just keep working on your path and be hypercritical of yourself. I think teachers, anybody working in education, should be hypercritical. We should be humble. We should ask all the questions in the world. You should ask yourself over and over, was that racist? Was that sexist? Was that homophobic? You have to question yourself and not as accept the status quo. It’s the only way.
KEVIN ADAM'S Lesson plan:
TYPE: Lesson (full class) TITLE: Developing Racial Empathy through Stories CONTENT AREA: Social Studies
GRADE LEVEL(S): 6th, 7th, and/or 8th Grade
UNIT DESCRIPTION: This lesson is intended to be used at the beginning of a unit on Racial Literacy or any unit where students are being asked to explore and recognize different perspectives on race and the way race impacts an individual's life.
Click below to download a PDF of Kevin Adam's full lesson plan.