FEATURE

You and White Supremacy: A Challenge to Educators

It started as a series of Instagram posts; then it became a downloadable workbook. Now, the “Me and White Supremacy” challenge is reaching the mainstream—and creator Layla F. Saad hopes all teachers with white privilege will find the courage to take it.
Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

The night of June 26, 2018, Layla Saad was unable to sleep. The previous year had been a taxing one for the writer, life and business coach, and spiritual advisor. The deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, had unsettled her deeply. It wasn’t just the hatred and the violence; it was also the reaction from the online coaching community she inhabits. 

“People who are dominating this industry that I’m in are largely white women,” she explains. “And they’re never talking about this. They talk about, ‘We want to change the world,’ ‘We want to transform people’s lives,’ ‘We want freedom,’ ‘We want liberation.’ You’re using that language, but what that means is so limited to who it applies to.”

Portrait of Layla Saad.
Photo courtesy of Layla Saad

So, in August 2017, Saad posted an essay titled “I need to talk to spiritual white women about white supremacy,” encouraging the women in her field to look more deeply at how they benefit from—and even uphold—conscious and unconscious biases and institutional racism. Her post went viral, catapulting her into a spotlight that was often painful. 

“I triggered a lot of people,” she says. “I was having my social media posts constantly censored and removed because people didn’t want to hear what I was talking about. I felt like I was fighting every day.”

It took almost a year of introspection, mentorship and self-care, but by the time that sleepless June 2018 night rolled around, Saad was ready to raise the issue of white supremacy again. She now felt stronger and more centered. She noticed her community gradually becoming less defensive. And, despite all the negativity, the viral post had expanded her online platform significantly. 

So on June 26, Saad posted on Instagram, “White folks: Time for some radical truth-telling about you and your complicity in white supremacy. Not those white people ‘out there.’ Not white people as a collective. But you. Just you. We start tomorrow.”

And with that, the “Me and White Supremacy” challenge was born.

 

The First 28 Days

The challenge was an experiment—and it worked. Each day for 28 days, Saad asked the participating white members of her Instagram audience to respond publicly to prompts about how they benefitted from white privilege, engaged in tone policing, denied seeing color and assumed white superiority. The audience responded publicly, and she pushed them—just as publicly—to go deeper.  

“It was very gut-wrenching for everyone involved,” Saad remembers. 

Each day of the challenge looked at a specific form of white supremacy and offered examples of how it shows up—recognized or not—in daily life. Based on how offended readers were by her 2017 essay, Saad knew the learning curve was going to be steep, so she kept the process manageable. 

“It’s a very simple format. It’s kind of reliable: ‘I do one, then I do two, then I do three,’ all the way through to 28,” she explains. “You’re given the understanding of ‘Why do you need to look at this thing? How does this specific thing contribute to white supremacy?’ Because people think white supremacy is KKK, people in hoods. So, what does white silence have to do with white supremacy? Break that down. ‘This thing contributes to white supremacy in this way.’ Then you’re given these questions to help you dig within.”

Saad worried about harming her followers of color, so she posted trigger warnings and encouraged self-care. But, ultimately, many black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) in her online community thanked her for what she was doing. Some even participated by helping hold the white participants accountable and encouraging them to look harder at themselves.

“I had so many black women specifically who showed up and volunteered to hold the space with me,” she says. “I was like, ‘I took this on. You don’t have to take this on.’ But they showed up to give that accountability.”

It is a very uncomfortable process. It can be very hard to admit, even to yourself, the things that you have done—and do and think and participate in—that are harmful.

Teachers Take the Challenge

Among the participants who benefited from the challenge and the accountability were a significant number of educators. One of them was Sarah McIntyre, who teaches kindergarten to English language learners in Akron, Ohio. 

“It was really easy to just do surface-level thinking. … [Saad would] just constantly ask you to go deeper in your thoughts,” McIntyre recalls. “‘That’s too surface level; think harder.’ Coming to recognize all of the biases that I have and all of the racism that I have was obviously just hard because I have been in denial about that for most of my life.”

One of the biggest takeaways for McIntyre was the fallacy of the “good-bad binary”—the notion that good people can’t be racist and vice versa—which allowed her to acknowledge that she did have racist thoughts. Now she could begin addressing them.  

“I always considered myself a good person, and so I just assumed that I was not racist,” she says. “Obviously, I learned about how that is wrong.”

Avery Unterreiner, another challenge participant, teaches high school ELA, literature and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) classes in the Bay Area in California. Her experience required her to look honestly at classroom moments when she defaulted to white silence.

“It is a very uncomfortable process. It can be very hard to admit, even to yourself, the things that you have done—and do and think and participate in—that are harmful,” she says. “There are times when I have allowed a student to make a [biased comment] and I haven’t addressed it, because it is sometimes easier not to. … [B]eing aware of something like that, when I know that that is hugely problematic, both for that student and their peers and for me … I have to accept that those are things I have done, so I notice them and don’t do them in the future.”

For Courtney Kallas, a transition specialist who works with special education students in Colorado, the “Me and White Supremacy” workbook encouraged her to check her assumptions regarding what she thought she knew about her students.

“It … really made me understand how I don’t understand [their] situations,” she says. “I may have been working in Denver Public Schools for 13 years, and I may have always been working with youths [who] are marginalized, but that doesn’t mean that I understand what that experience is, and so I have to let them lead and listen to them.”

Doing the challenge helped Kallas relate better to her students in more ways than one. 

“We ask our kids to be disciplined every day and to do things that are really uncomfortable. … [I]f you want to generate empathy for what your kids feel all day, every day, … [the challenge] does that,” she affirms. “You understand what it feels like to be uncomfortable publicly and feel a lot of different feelings, including bad about yourself, and then have to move on and do something with that.”

Kallas, Unterreiner and McIntyre all say experiencing discomfort and accountability better equipped them as teachers—and as agents of change in their schools. 

“I am OK with … saying [to other educators], ‘Hey, what you’re doing right now, it’s not an equitable distribution of power,’ or ‘What you’re doing is really feeding into a white supremacist structure,’” says Kallas. “I have to approach it by personality, how I frame that. But I figure it out. Sometimes I can’t do it on the spot. Whereas I used to just let it go, because I didn’t know how to approach it in the moment, I follow up now and say, ‘Hey, this thing happened, and I didn’t quite understand how to talk to you about it, but this is how it landed.’”

Unterreiner feels strongly that white supremacy will continue to shape educational structures and experiences unless a critical mass of white educators steps up and confronts their racist biases, beliefs and behaviors. 

“Teaching and education and the classroom are all very political things—like life is political—and informed by racism and sexism and white supremacy and all of those things,” she says. “And pretending that it’s not doesn’t mean that it’s not. I think if you’re thinking about doing [the challenge], then there’s no reason not to, other than that you’re sort of afraid to see those things in yourself. And that’s not really good enough reason.”

 

The Challenge Becomes a Workbook―and More

While Saad was heartened by the success of the challenge, she knew that using Instagram alone was not a sustainable model for change. The process was too taxing on her personally, and the potential for meaningful influence was limited by the medium. 

This has to become a tool that people can take with them,” she recalls telling herself. “It’s not just something that you go through once, and then you’re done. ... Because every time something comes up again, you can return back and say, 'OK, today I had an instance of white fragility. Let me dig into why that showed up in that way. What was going on inside of me? How was I clinging onto white supremacy in that way?'

Saad took a few months to fashion the challenge prompts into a PDF workbook, which she posted on her website. It caught on like wildfire, with more than 60,000 people downloading and sharing it within the first few weeks of its launch—and more than 86,000 downloads to date. Saad recently agreed to publish the book with Sourcebooks, and it will be available for purchase in February 2020. 

Saad notes the success of the workbook as an indicator that a growing number of white people recognize that white supremacy exists and are ready to take action in their own lives. 

“And as they do the work, they get the education,” she says. “There have always been—and there are especially now—a lot of books and literature on anti-racism work, on understanding history in context, memoirs, narrative-driven stories. There are very few actionable, practical, ‘How can I actually do the work?’ books out there. I really believe that’s what sets it [apart]. Some people say to me, ‘I’m going to read your book.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, this isn’t a book you read. It’s a book you do.’”

Saad is looking to the future and planning to expand her “Me and White Supremacy” work to new platforms. She launched the Good Ancestor podcast, and she’s looking at how to offer professional development trainings in a way that remains true to the core of her original model.

When she considers why the challenge—in all its forms—has been so successful, Saad concludes that it reflects the basic premise of culturally responsive pedagogy: Ground the learning in students’ lived experiences.

“With ‘Me and White Supremacy,’ I was asking white people the questions. I was not telling them the answers. That shifted things completely,” she says. “Because me shouting into the void and having it either received or censored was not working well for me. ... But me flipping it and saying, ‘I’m going to invite you into this process. I’m going to put a framework around you. I’m going to give you some context and information, and then I want you to dig the answers from within yourself,’ it really took the pressure off of me, and it gave people with privilege back the responsibility of doing their own work.”

Layla F. Saad: An Intersectional Life

“I’m what you would describe as a third-culture kid or a third-culture adult now,” says Layla F. Saad. The mind behind the “Me and White Supremacy” challenge and workbook identifies as black, Arab and Muslim, born to parents from East Africa with roots in the Middle East and raised in Wales.

 

Saad’s UK upbringing gave her a daily lesson in what it was like to feel different from her peers. 

 

“I grew up constantly as ‘the only one.’ The only Muslim in the school and usually one of just a handful of kids of color. Difference and kind of feeling ‘other’ has always been a part of my identity,” she remembers. 

 

Saad eventually moved to the Middle East, where she joined a large multicultural community of expatriates. No longer “the other,” her new surroundings awakened her to the fact that many of her painful childhood experiences were based in white supremacy. She began following the anti-racism work of several black women activists, writers and thought leaders—like Desiree Adaway, Andrea Ranae and Catrice Jackson—and realized she had a lot to offer in the social justice space. This feeling intensified after the 2016 election in the United States and the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

 

“When Charlottesville happened and I saw the images online of the angry white men with the torches, it just flipped a switch inside of me,” she says. “There was something about the energy coming out of them that was so primal. When I think about it now, I still get chills.”

 

Although Saad now lives in Qatar with her family, much of her work—greatly inspired by Audre Lorde—focuses on how white supremacy manifests in U.S. and European contexts. She’s especially excited about the potential for her work to influence K–12 schools, and she recalls how her early years sitting in classrooms shaped her understanding of white supremacy and how it manifests for children. 

 

“I was always treated differently. I worked super hard, I’ve always been a really good student, always the top of my class. But I always also felt like, They don’t really see me, or All the hard work that I’m doing doesn’t matter,” she reflects. “A lot of the conditioning that I had was around ... not just otherness but inferiority because of my otherness. So being black made me less. Being Muslim made me less. That wasn’t something I had words for then, but I do have the words for it now.”

van der Valk is a former Teaching Tolerance staff member and currently serves as the communications director for the Center for Genetics and Society.