Embody the Centering of Relationships
As our nation continues to make sense of the trauma imposed on our individual and communal consciousness, compounded by us navigating the perpetual murders of Black bodies, at midnight on July 31, 2020, we were gifted with the creative genius and performative brilliance of Beyonce Knowles-Carter through her visual album, "Black is King." As a treatise on Blackness—the color, the people, the idea, the life—Beyonce co-opts the sociocultural narrative of the color's association with gloom, mourning, darkness, and evil, and reconstructs it as the fullness of beauty, richness, vitality, royalty, and enchantment. While our nation comes to terms with its treatment of Blackness, Black bodies,
Black communities, and Black students, Beyonce exposes the world, a white world, to the pride, power, and possibilities of a people birthed from African Diaspora having survived the crises of the Middle Passage, American slavery, the Jim Crow South, and the presidential reign of Donald Trump. In effect, "Black is King" is a radically human, meaning-making treatment of the trauma imposed on Black folx, and the trauma often associated with the American oppression of Blackness.
But the splendor of "Black is King" has less to do with the individual creative-consciousness of Beyonce, who is indisputably the luminary, and more to do with the radical centering of human relationships in the creation of the project, the framing of human trauma, and the holding of the story/ies being told. From Jay-Z to Tina Knowles-Lawson (her mother), to all three of her children (Blue Ivy, Rumi, and Sir), to Kelly Rowland, to Naomi Campbell, to Lupita Nyong'o, to Pharrell Williams, to lesser-American-known personalities like Salatiel, to Adut Akech, to Mr Eazi, to Busiswa, to Shatta Wale, to Moonchild Sanelly, to Wizkid, Beyonce's gargantuan group of collaborators and special appearances underscores that a work of epic proportion is only actualized through relationships. More than the album itself, watching the credits was not only formidable, but it was mesmerizing. Name after name, after name, after name, after name, after name reinforced the centering of relationships. In fact, it accentuated the African proverb—"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." This Africanist perspective of "going together" underscores the role of collaboration and communal consciousness, which demonstrates that our capacity to reconstruct the inhumane and transform trauma is less about what we can do individually, challenging Western individualism, and more about what we can do when we center relationships.
At the start of any school year, teachers are often encouraged to build relationships with students in their classes, through questions about family structures, family walls, get-to-know-you worksheets and morning circles, artifact-sharing exercises, and the like. In structurally racist school readiness and professional development sessions, teachers, particularly white teachers, are admonished to get to know their "struggling students"—benevolent code typically reserved for the Black, brown, and/or economically-vulnerable ones. But when it comes to radically humanizing the integrated traumas that many, if not all, students are experiencing, the suggestion to "build relationships" is not only too ambiguous to be helpful, but it fails to go far enough. Instead of building relationships through questions like student interests, favorite colors, and television shows—in which the teacher remains the focal point as the one getting to know "the other"—centering relationships challenges one-way superficiality and equalizes the relationship for the teacher to have to expose themselves as much as they seek the exposure of the students. Beyonce's treatment of Blackness was a relationship-centering treatment versus a relationship-building treatment in that she did not dehumanize the participation of the album's collaborators by subjecting African cultural practices and histories as "the other"; instead, she centered relationship by humanizing African cultural practices and histories as part of her own narrative. It was a mutual treatment of Blackness, not a subjecting treatment. Radically humanizing trauma invites the teacher to be as much of the subject in the relationship as the student, underscoring the idea that trauma and our inherent dignity beyond our traumas are a part of the human experience, regardless of our age and positional power. To be clear, this does not diminish the need for healthy, developmentally appropriate boundaries as to inhibit placing teacher-traumas on the student, but it does nuance those boundaries by humanizing the classroom through educators exposing parts of our inner truths as having been formed and informed by traumas without attempting to make our traumas equivalent to our students. Is there a fine line? Yes. But is that fine line worth walking? Yes. Why is it worth it? Because students know, intrinsically, when educators are committed to human-centered relationship.
As a school leader, prioritizing staff retention of highly effective, highly equitable, highly empathetic, highly relationshipcentering teachers and staff is an embodiment of radically humanizing trauma. While it typically goes unnamed by students, I am without a doubt convinced that students, acutely in communities with disproportionate exposure to integrated traumas, track and analyze the revolving door of teachers and staff. At the end of the year, when staffing decisions are being made, how often does the leadership team ask itself, "What does this teacher represent relationally in the lives of our students for this community?" As students transition out of our classrooms and grades, and into their next stages, an abolitionist approach to transitions involves "rites of passage" where current teachers intentionally share meaning and knowledge crucial to the humanization of each student through meaningful, asset-based, relationship-centering stories of identity and dignity without the filter of judgment, data, or pretense.
For white folx, imagery like The Blind Side, Freedom Writers, Green Book, Hidden Figures, and, most nauseatingly, The Help will create a false correlation between relationship and saviorism. In cinema, this is the white saviorism trope, in which a well-meaning white person builds an unfolding relationship in order to rescue non-white, usually Black characters from oppressive plights. Without an abolitionist consciousness, white educators can often totter into the same trope, assuming that their role in the lives of Black students is to build a relationship in order to rescue students from perceived plights and poverties, versus centering relationships where they as educators are as much learners as their students are teachers. This teacher-student relationship-building trope dehumanizes the traumas that students bring into the classroom, particularly in periods of sociocultural and sociopolitical crises, because it obscures the role of relationship as a colonializing and civilizing tool, rather than a dignifying tool. Want to know how to identify white savior teaching as relationship-building? Listen for the language of power politics and social hierarchies through oppressive pronouns, "them" and "they" and "these," as white educators describe their relationships with Black students.
Even more than film, the most explicitly racist form of white savior relationship-building is the idea of mission trips—a staple of colonialism—where a group of white folx travel to foreign, non-white nations and territories, frequently places full of Black and brown folx, and give of their time, services, and monies with little regard to the inherent assets within the community. And the Instagram photos and stories demonstrate a faux-relationship where the white helper is passive in maintaining the oppressive structures, but often humbled and enlightened by an encounter with an indigenous, non-white community member. Does that model sound familiar? It should. Many popularized and noted teacher-pipeline programs like Teach for America (TFA) are often treated as two-to-three-year mission trips where predominantly white educators with access to time, educational privilege, and monies travel into urban, non-white cities and towns, frequently schools full of Black and brown students; and at the end of their mission, these educators leave the community rarely having centered relationship-building with students because of institutional commitments to "no excuses," sparse training, and a lack of abolitionist vision. As Dr. Chris Emdin, professor of science education at Columbia University notes, "... it [TFA] and programs like it tend to exoticize the schools they serve and downplay the assets and strengths of the communities they are seeking to improve."13 One could argue, why critique programs attempting to close the teacher-shortage in our nation? That is inherently the wrong question to ask. In its place, the question is, what structural oppressions have produced a public education system in which people, namely people of color, are not entering into the teaching workforce? The integrated traumas that Black students are carrying would benefit most from experiencing abolitionist teachers, representative of the students who fill the seats in our classrooms, committed to radically humanizing the teaching and learning experience, while deconstructing the traumatizing practices within the classroom, instead of white folx exploiting Black and brown students to feel good about themselves and their contributions to the world. Without abolitionist school leaders calling out and calling in white educators who embody the centering of themselves, instead of the centering of relationships, when Black students are experiencing the traumas of crises, we risk an overdose of "I don't know what to say," "You have so much to be grateful for," "I don't see color," or "I understand what you're going through." Statements like these not only calcify student traumas, but they detrimentally oblige students to become the educators, having to guide white educators to realizations of trauma, race, and racism.
An abolitionist approach to centering relationship demands that school leaders and educators sit together with Black students (and families) in communities, not as saviors and suppliers, but as reflective listeners, recognizing that holding space for students (and families) to learn as much about us as humans as we learn about our students is a precondition and necessary abolitionist infrastructure for the healing and transformation of trauma. In effect, the abolitionist approach to radically humanizing trauma is about educators doing things with, and not for, our students on the journey of making sense and making meaning of the crises that plague all of our lives. Grounding our abolitionist approach in historical abolition, the "with" requires us as educators to metabolize and embody a new way of doing relationship, one where we participate fully, engage deeply, and reveal equally in the trauma transformation processes.
Practically, effective relationship-centering includes questions that both educator and student answer, story prompts that both educator and student tell, and artifact-sharing that both educator and student displays. Relationship-centering strategies include the cultivation of abolitionist ways of interacting with student, including listening to (and adjusting) one's tone of voice, being mindful of proximity (particularly in high-tension moments) as not to police Black bodies, avoiding the use of humor (as a de-escalation strategy when it is a façade for our lack of preparedness to engage, or potentially lessen the gravity of the moment), and knowing that, above all, holding space for students is about a relationship based on dignity, and not conditional on performance or ability or attendance or engagement. Radically humanizing trauma is about ensuring that each educational encounter is a mutual opportunity for students and educators to experience relationship-centering that invites all of us to make meaning, reinvent identity, and begin again.