Unlearning Cultural Truths, Replacing Them With a Pursuit of Equity
by Amber Audrain, Director of Alignment & Schools Investments
My racial consciousness development has been a journey with periods of progress, regression, clarity resulting in leaps of understanding, pitfalls of my own making, and everything in between. It has been a process of unlearning embedded cultural truths and of finding my place in education and the broader fight in pursuit of antiracism.
A critical period of learning for me started in college. Having grown up in a mostly white, working-class town, I believed that experiencing poverty as a child made my journey as hard as anyone else’s. My hometown carried this sense of sameness, an “all-in-this-togetherness” that helped protect the psyche of a low-income community that had to rely on itself for survival. My community developed a closeness in being forgotten, in sharing the experience of limited resources, limited choices, and limited exposure to the rest of the country. But this tone of togetherness failed to extend itself past whiteness. While society often views class as the nominal divider of our day, communities like the one I grew up in show the glaring holes in that belief. At its heart, the interdependence critical in my community where the “boot-strap” philosophy was at its strongest was unable and unwilling to make room at the table for people of color. This ultimately served to perpetuate white supremacy and bigotry.
Philosophy often makes the distinction between objective truth and personal truth where objective truth is a foundational concept of how the world is or works and personal truth is merely a belief you hold that others need not share nor subscribe to. Moreover, personal truth is often culturally passed down. The roots of my own personal truth are that while I grew up in a place of poverty, my path and my opportunities were different because of how I presented to educators, to people in power, and to the world. There was something ground-shifting for me about the realization that limited resources and access in a small community was an insubstantial barrier when compared to my peers of color who faced deeper barriers that my identities never carried for me. I have no doubt that my life path would look vastly different if the only thing that changed about me was my racial identity.
In college, I majored in psychology, an interest I’d developed from a tendency to analyze people and their behaviors, choices, and motivations. My psychology, philosophy, and sociology classes exposed me to vastly more diverse settings than my hometown and provided a space where I was pushed, denied easy agreement, and forced to sit in discomfort to learn. In high school, I was the gifted and talented kid. The kid who thrived in academic settings and therefore was invested in by educators and other adults. But I was never forced to confront my worldview, my assumptions, or what the logical implications of those beliefs might be. My stances and views were taken as fact, partially because they upheld and affirmed the cultural norms of my space and my peers.
It all forced a mental reckoning when I arrived in classrooms where the discussions and my classmates’ experiences directly belied the cultural truths of my upbringing. Cognitive dissonance arose as I realized my community’s value for togetherness came with a strong backbone of bias, and that these were deep in me despite intentions and assertions that I’d left them behind.
From that dissonance, growth occurred. Through exposure and hard conversations, my understanding of the world expanded and created room for the truth that while communities like mine struggled, and while many of my peers would never make it out, our world is steeped in norms that ensure people of color will always navigate the world with far more hardship. I finally started questioning my assumption that everyone started from the same place. I interrogated the cultural lexicon I had been handed and began to form a new language for myself and for my truths.
Just a few years out of college, my professional life shifted to a focus on education. Which led me to confronting another cultural truth I inherited. The idea that education was the answer and that gaining access to a good education meant you would have strong life outcomes. Education had been my solution. It provided options and choices where otherwise I’d have had very few. My initial professional choices were saw mills, secretarial work, or the local grocery store. Gaining higher education meant my choices included anything I could envision and had the aptitude to achieve. And that mobilized me to believe the same could be true for every kid. But years working in education has led me to understand that wanting good schools for every child isn’t enough on its own. Beyond the quality of our schools, the rigor of the curriculum, or the pathways to postsecondary credentialing, multiple systems work to bar students from accessing the lives they dream of. Where before I would have said, “Education, full stop,” I have learned to say “Education, yes; and also….”
For me, nobody exemplifies the vision of “Yes, and..” more than The Mind Trust School Fellows I’ve had the incredible pleasure to work with. Some of my happiest professional moments have included seeing our new cohorts of School Fellows in a room together for the beginning of a Fellowship year, knowing that they are going to grow and push each other and develop schools and models that will deeply impact kids. Yes, schools with strong rigor and the unassailable belief that all kids can learn and succeed, and also models that see children as whole people that aim to celebrate their humanity, their identities, and wrap around them with holistic supports and exposure to a world of opportunity. In an education landscape that often focuses exclusively on remediation for marginalized students, equity and justice are found in schools offering exposure and opportunities that white students have as a matter of course.
In pursuing antiracism in my work, I am continually reminded of the need for iteration. It’s a common concept in education. You hypothesize, you try something new. Maybe it works. Maybe it fails. Maybe it works halfway. So, you design refinements, ways to improve and to hone in on the goal. And you try again.
I embrace holding firm to objective truth—the idea that every human deserves to live a life of dignity and opportunity—and allowing my personal truths to be flexible enough to catch up to my values if they prove out of sync. I don’t get it right every day but I’ll be out there tomorrow, doing my best to grow and to create a space for kids that says “Yes education, and also….”