Last week, spurred by a post on Diane Ravitch’s blog, I wrote about the unproductive narrative developing among traditional education boosters who are stoking fear about the supposed evil conspiracies behind online learning, ed-tech, and nontraditional education. COVID-19 is forcing on millions families, students, and educators to adapt quickly to a “new normal,” and it seems to me the usual debates about school reform are entirely bootless now.
Perhaps my arrow shot at those I see as public-schools-or-bust “cultists” inspired a retort from a retired teacher in California wrote a piece that placed me, my colleagues, and our network of parents and educators into an elaborate billionaire conspiracy to ruin an faultless public education system, staffed with indisputably virtuous and effective teachers and stocked with excellent pedagogical capacities, that works equally well for everyone regardless of class, race, or history.
The teacher, Tom Ultican, shared his post through Twitter and tagged members of Diane Ravitch’s Network for Public Education who breathlessly crowed over his shoddy work. To make it saucy he added this: “Uncle Tom Stewart spews neoliberal billionaire ideology and hate for public schools at Bloomberg’s Project Propaganda.”
None of the tagged co-signers said anything about the fact that Ultican, a white male who is presumably educated enough to teaching high school students, should have attended enough cultural competence trainings in his career to understand using the Uncle Tom slur against any black person is morally subterranean.
It’s weird that these are the people we must battle to gain the freedom to learn for our kids. TheUtlican’s, Ravitch’s, and their racially redundant network of age-similar and privileged peddlers of an overly precious nostalgia about their public schools. As people demanding reform, change, and choice, we threaten their beloved system, and that pushes them to lazily bypass the dignity of reasoned exchange, and, instead, slide into the expediency of stereotyping.
When we disagree with their old-school labor theology they marginalize, discount, and attempt to cancel us. They pull our 990’s, misread them, and attack our funders, our salaries, and our contracts. They ask to speak to the manager and try to get us fired (Karen is alive and well in education and her phone is already on 5G). They bird-dog superintendents, harass school board members, and attack even the most gentle reform-positive participants in Facebook groups.
And, the only people of color they celebrate are those who read all the red letters in the teachers’ union hymnal. For those of us claiming the promise public education is a check that keeps returning to us for “insufficient funds,” Ravitchins reserve their most backward tropes that include the greedy pimp, the shameless sellout, the uppity negro, the coonish minstrel, or an illicit combination of all those anti-black figments of the white imagination.
I’d prefer they just call us niggers and move on.
When Ultican calls me an “Uncle Tom” I forgive him for making my African ancestry an issue in his disagreement. I can’t forgive him as an educator for attempting to use Uncle Tom as a slur when in fact he means Sambo, the character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic book Uncle Tom’s Cabin who beat Tom to death when his “master” demanded he do so.
In a comment on Ravitch’s blog he responded to exposing his racism with this:
I am sorry to have hurt your feelings but I don’t see how labeling you an Uncle Tom is racist. Uncle Tom is the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He is seen variously as a ground-breaking humanistic African-American slave, one who uses non-resistance and gives his life to protect others who have escaped from slavery and as being inappropriately subservient to white slaveholders. This is how Uncle Tom became a derogatory epithet for an exceedingly subservient person, particularly one aware of their own lower-class status based on race.
This incoherent and ahistorical rebuttal is supposed to spare him. It doesn’t. It alarms the part of me that wants teachers before my kids who posses a stronger command of history and its classic texts. In my view, true educators should be better than this. They should continuously educate through their engagement in and out of classrooms. Their publicly shared “analysis” should make people smarter, more informed, better able to critically consider the life they live and to grow intellectually.
Are we to believe that when Ultican called me “Uncle Tom Stewart” and claimed that I’m working for the white masters, he really meant to call me a “ground-breaking humanistic African-American slave” – like that’s somehow better? Should we assume he meant to compare me to Rev. Josiah Henson, the pious and principled real life individual who inspired Stowe’s character Tom and the noble character in her story who preferred to lose his life at the end of a slaver’s whip rather than turn in two enslaved black women, who had escaped from the plantation, as Stowe’s story says?
If so, fine. The real Uncle Tom would have probably agreed with me when I say our families should decide when, where, and how our children learn (and this includes families using public funding to educate their children).
He would probably agree that historically marginalized people have a longstanding special interest in self-determining what constitutes an education for our children, and we have every right to seek alternatives to the public schools that have harmed them over generations. Any proposal that limits families to inferior educational opportunities or blocks marginalized families from nontraditional schools is a nonstarter for me.
History’s real Uncle Tom, said this about his life’s purpose: “One absorbing purpose occupied my soul – to gain freedom, self-assertion, and deliverance from the cruel caprices and fortunes of dissolute tyrants.”
I’ll abide by that wonderful and inspiring mission regardless of how many night-riding overseers and Sambos the public education plantation send to collect me.
We can disagree on the best way for black families to educate their children. What you’re not going to do is discount my advocacy with racial slurs.