The Premise

I don't know how to start a blog without the self-evident declaration that I'm starting a blog.  So here it is: I'm starting a blog.

My name is Mike Spangenberg.  I'm a white guy from Minneapolis.  I'm 34 years old, married, and have a three-year old son.  I have been working in education for over a decade, including as a classroom teacher and administrator in both traditional district and charter schools.  But there will be plenty more time to talk about me.

In this space, I plan to write about the things I spend my time thinking and talking about.  I'll write about race, class, identity, and power.  I'll write about history.  I'll write about education.  I’ll write about our country. I’ll write about Minnesota.  And I’ll probably write about various and sundry other topics as well.  As a white person who is always working to develop his critical consciousness and historical context, who is working to unlearn so many dominant narratives, I'll write here, above all, to learn.

For white people, like me, it is essential that we push not only to engage in conversations about race, identity, and power, but to challenge the very foundation on which our understanding of the world is built.  We have to always question the premise.  And it's from this notion that this blog draws its name.

In the wake of the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, I've found myself engaging in conversations (both in person and online) with lots of different people.  I’m hardly the first to point out the disparate responses on social media by white people and people of color.  My timelines have been full of posts about Ferguson, police brutality, and racial injustice, mostly by people of color (with a sprinkling of posts by justice-oriented white friends throughout).

And given the echo chamber most white people live in, this paucity of protest should not be surprising.

Among white people who did speak out, too many posted awful things unworthy of a link.  One of the things that has struck me repeatedly from so many white people is, despite the uncanny consistency of the six eye witnesses who have come forward, the almost instinctive, reflexive defense of Darren Wilson and the Ferguson police. 

I had this on my mind when a very good friend, who teaches almost exclusively white students in Cleveland, emailed to start a conversation about talking to her students about Ferguson and racism in America.  What I suggested to her was that she push her students to interrogate their own perceptions of the police.  What were their experiences with police?  What messages had they received as kids about police?

When I was a child, an early “talk” my parents gave me was that if I was lost or in trouble, I should look for either an adult I knew or a police officer.  Seriously, it was like, family member or cop.  One’s essentially as trustworthy as the other.

I suggested my friend push her students to consider that their experiences are not the experiences of many Americans with the police, specifically Americans of color, even more specifically black Americans.  For black parents, when they talk to their children about police and authority figures, they have to have a very different conversation than parents of white kids.  That conversation has to involve how to not appear threatening in spite of your skin color, how to keep your hands in plain view so a jumpy cop doesn't start shooting, and how to be hyper-deferential.  And communities of color have a long, long history full of reasons to distrust the police.  Indeed, early in our country's history, U.S. Marshals were deployed to capture and return freed slaves under the Fugitive Slave Act.  That famous Marshal star can mean something very different to black people than to most white people.

And we know that that history isn’t history at all.  That, in fact, police continue to exert wildly disproportionate violence against black people.  And that even when police are blatantly caught abusing people of color, they just lie and lie.

For most white kids, the messages they receive about police are positive, and those messages are reinforced by positive imagery and positive interactions with police throughout their life.  For kids of color, the messages they receive about police are cautionary, and these are likely to be reinforced by hostile interactions with police, with friends and relatives having disproportionate contact with police, with friends and relatives being assaulted by police, and on and on.

This conversation with my friend led me to consider the premises my wife and I are already fostering for our three-year-old son.  If the advice I was giving to my friend was how to help students interrogate the assumptions through which they were viewing the world, how might we prevent our son from building some of those assumptions in the first place?

How might we subconsciously (but very effectively) teach our kids premises that will lead them to come to racist or discriminatory conclusions when they’re older?

For example, if we teach our son that all police are heroes who protect us, who everyone can always trust, then we should not be shocked when he grows up, sees someone being abused by the police and says, “well, that person must have done something wrong,” because he’d be operating from the premise that the police are always good and trust worthy.  And we would have taught him that.

For another example, if we teach our son that if you work hard in school and listen to the teacher, you will be successful, then we should not be surprised if he grows up, sees kids of color being failed by an educational system, and concludes that they must not be working hard or care about education.  Because the premise he’d be operating under is that the system works if you work.  And we would have taught him that.

In this space, I hope to openly question all kinds of premises and assumptions.  I hope to engage people of all different backgrounds, and especially white people, to question with me.  And I hope to learn as I go.

One important note before I conclude.  I’ve been thinking about starting a blog for months, maybe even years.  And one of the reasons I haven’t before now is that I know that in many ways it is inherently problematic.  It’s problematic for me to be centering my white male voice in conversations about race and identity.  It’s problematic that I am likely to have access to some audiences because of my privilege.  But, in the end, I balance those concerns with the reality that the number of white people speaking up against racism, systems of oppression, and white supremacy is embarrassingly small.  And the reality is that this is a white people problem.

I have no idea if this blog will go anywhere, or if it will be lost to the countless forgotten corners of the internets filled with false starts, abandoned intentions, and next big things.  Maybe my mom will be my only consistent reader.

But wherever it goes or, or goes not, I'm diving in head first, committed always to pursuing truth.  Discomfort be damned.