Educating Potential

The Oppressive Schools letter

I said it would be a week before I posted on the Oppressive Schools letter and it’s been longer than that. The honest truth is that I struggled about whether or not to sign my name to it; the back-and-forth in my mind and heart has led to lost sleep and moments of anxiety. It’s been hard to put my finger on exactly what the issue has been and I am thankful for the chance to talk with friends, and even strangers, about that question because it has helped me clarify my thinking around why signing onto this particular articulation of the problem didn’t fit for me.

Anyone who knows me knows that I care deeply about words and how they are used. The words “oppressive” and “dehumanizing” are strong words that don’t leave much room for good intent. I didn’t suggest that the individuals who wrote and signed this letter NOT use these terms because I believe they have the right to share their perspective in as strong a set of language as they wish. But it matters to me that the intent of schools, policies and people has not been to hurt children. Using language in this letter that makes it hard to acknowledge and recognize people’s positive intentions feels counter-productive to me because it is hurtful to many of the individuals who work in or participate in schools and systems. This makes it less likely that we can engage in constructive conversation and action that can move us towards improving systems.

There is no doubt that for some students and families the impact of policies has been hurtful, and many of the individuals who ended up signing onto the Oppressive Schools letter hold the stories of these students and families, or ARE those students or family members. I have interviewed or spoken with many of them directly and I know how raw and real their hurt is. For this reason I think that as a community and as leaders we have a responsibility to listen to and acknowledge their experiences – even if the language used to communicate these experiences can feel harsh or hurtful. Because without listening, honoring and acknowledging people’s hurt, we cannot heal and then strengthen the trust and fabric of our community. Having said this, I think the most productive vehicle for such conversations is likely to be small, facilitated groups in which care is taken to respect and honor the voices and feelings of all parties coming to the table. Ultimately, my position and hope is to work towards productive problem-solving that can channel the good intentions that I believe drive people’s work into policies and practices that better reflect the outcomes we want to achieve.

1 comment

  1. Amber Kim, Ph.D. - April 15, 2017 8:46 pm

    The words “oppressive” and “dehumanizing” may sound harsh and threatening, but they are simply words that can describe an impact—not an intention, not someone’s character. You write in your blog, “The words `oppressive’ and `dehumanizing’ are strong words that don’t leave much room for good intent.” This claim is simply false. These two words have no connection to intention, and, therefore, do leave much room for good intent. Your assertion is over simplified and sets up a false binary that only divides people rather than creates an environment where, as you write, “…we can engage in constructive conversation and action that can move us towards improving systems.” What is true is that one can call out oppression and see good intentions at the same time.

    Additionally I am afraid that your blog post sends the message to those who are experiencing oppression, “What you say may be true, but can you please find different words? These two words put me—and others with power—off.” Your published claim, therefore, silences the people who are marginalized; it literally takes two words out of people’s mouths. Your blog implies that if one really wants to work collaborative for positive change, one shouldn’t use those words. Conversely, if one chooses to use these words, one is leaving no room for positive intent, is “hurtful,” and does not want to engage in “constructive conversation.” That is an extremely unfair and inaccurate characterization of people who are comfortable calling oppression “oppression.” Your blog (unintentionally?) ends up reifying a false dichotomy between constructive people who make space for positive intent and rabble-rousers who are using terms that vilify well-intended people.

    Next, your sentence above not only implies that using these words is inappropriate, “hurtful” and “counter-productive,” it also implies that if one courageously chooses to use these words, they may revoke her/his seat at the table to address injustices. Think about that. The people who see and experience—and subsequently use the words “oppression” and “dehumanization”—are most needed at those “productive problem-solving” sessions you write about. Do you really want the problems of injustice solved by a table of people who are offended, scared of, in denial of, or misunderstand the terms “Oppression” and “Dehumanization” so much so that they cannot even see the value of using those words?

    Furthermore, when you write this: “Using language in this letter that makes it hard to acknowledge and recognize people’s positive intentions feels counter-productive to me because it is hurtful to many of the individuals who work in or participate in schools and systems.” it positions you as being sympathetic to those who wish to use other, less-hurtful words to describe racism, sexism, classism, cis-sexism that are pervasive in our Denver schools (ignoring the fact that not using those specific words hurts those who are already being hurt by oppressive systems—who are we trying to make comfortable?). It also, and maybe most importantly, reassures those in power (education leaders, CEOs, and district officials) that they are right to be offended, attacked, and outraged by these two words; they are right to think these words too harsh and unfair; they are right to view these words as oppressive (to them) and unproductive; they are right that these words do not leave room for good intent. Your blog post simultaneously builds a bridge between them and you while tearing down paths for those who need to speak truth to power.
    In sum, your well-intended post about Oppressive Schooling has an oppressive impact.

    In closing, I know from your post that you care deeply about words, but I will assume that the authors of this letter care about words too, and that is exactly why they chose the words they did. Please don’t validate and perpetuate a negative myth about those who choose to use accurate words about what they see and live. Believe me, I understand clearly that these words turn people off and can prevent important conversation. You—we—can acknowledge that unfortunate fact. We can also acknowledge that our society has raised us to be deathly afraid of being called “racist,” “oppressive,” or “dehumanizing.” We can discuss this and include that reality in a blog post. We can publish the fact that when we use these words, we run the risk of shutting people (with power) down. But we also must acknowledge that by not using these words, we run the risk of continuing to silence those who are oppressed. We run the risk preserving the status quo, perpetuating that these words are un-useable, hateful words.

    Education leaders and school “designs” may have the best of intentions, but they can still be oppressive and dehumanizing. To be sure that we are, in fact, providing an excellent, equity-driven, non-oppressive, humanizing education, we have to embrace these two jarring words. We have to use them daily and encourage our staff members, students, and families to use them. We cannot see and change that which we are afraid to speak. It is privilege that allows us to tell others which words we can and cannot use. It is an act of privilege to hide behind our intentions.


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