B is for Blackness, Blindness and Bulletin Boards

Every two weeks, students in my class work on learning how to spell a list of twenty French words.  Every morning when they arrive in class they have to write them out.  The English equivalents of these words, as well as pictures prompts, are posted on a bulletin board in the classroom.  Ever since it was pointed out to me that all the images on my bulletin boards were of White people (See E is for Erasure), I have been trying to include people of colour in my displays.

This is harder than you might think.

Prisma adaptation of ‘King’

Take the word ‘le roi’ or ‘the king’, as an example.  A quick Google search of ‘king’ will get a wide assortment of images ranging from playing cards to Elvis.  Adding ‘on a throne’ narrows the field to images of royalty, predominantly White.  Adding ‘African’ does the trick.  Now I have a selection of images of Black kings.  But it’s not so easy choosing the right king.  For starters, the aim of this exercise is to work on identifying and spelling the sound ‘oi’ in words like ‘le roi’.  It is not to delve deeply into what it means to be a king.  Therefore, I am looking for easily identifiable images, images that shout ‘King!’.

Which leads us straight into stereotype territory.


The stereotype of a king is an old, white man sitting on a throne, wearing a golden crown and perhaps holding a staff or sceptre.  I am tinkering with this stereotype by using a Black man rather than a White man, but I don’t want to stray too far from the stereotype as a whole because this image still needs to be quickly identified as a king.


King Oyo of Uganda

King of Asante Otoumfuo Osei Tutu II

So this first image doesn’t work because the king is young.  This second image doesn’t work either because while there is a crown, it is not made of gold. I want to expand my students’ understanding of who can be a king, but I want to do this gently.  I want to chip away at rigid stereotypes but I don’t want to explode them entirely.  At least not during my vocabulary lesson, when I’m really trying to teach about the ‘oi’ sound.


And that’s why teaching in Anti-Oppressive ways is so challenging.  Oppression is everywhere, including in spelling lists.  Choosing when to address it head on, and when to do so subtly is difficult.  And making these decisions as a White person, whose knowledge of racial oppression is partial at best (Kumashiro, 2000, p.31), means I’m likely to get it wrong.
Ultimately, though, what I’m really afraid of when I am choosing kings, is subjecting these images to ridicule.  I am afraid that I will choose an image that will provoke racist commentary by my students that I will be forced to address during a vocabulary lesson.  So I try to choose the image carefully, avoiding images that will challenge my students’ understanding of the world in drastic ways.


Well… That sounds brutal!

Martin Luther King in the Birmingham Jail

That sounds exactly like the actions of a ‘white moderate’, who Martin Luther King (1963) cautioned is THE GREATEST “stumbling block” in the path to freedom. Am I, at my core, a White moderate? Someone who “is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” (p. 9.)?

This reminds me of bell hook’s story about going to an integrated school, post-segregation.  She and her classmates had to leave her all-Black school and be bussed across town to the formerly all-White school.  The Black students “had to make the journey and thus bear the responsibility of making desegregation a reality” (hooks, 1994, p.24). All the Black students were made to arrive early and wait in the gym.  hooks writes: “I still remember my rage that we had to awaken an hour early so that we could be bussed to school before the white students arrived.” (p.24).  There was to be no mingling of Black and White students before school.  This was done to “prevent outbreaks of conflict and hostility” (p.24).


Isn’t that what I’m doing?  Trying to prevent outbreaks of hostility rather than address the reason for the hostility?  Avoiding addressing racism because it is inconvenient?  Isolating my White students from racial stress (DiAngelo, 2011)?  How wrong is it that I want my spelling lesson to proceed as normal… just with images of Black bodies in the room?


Clearly, avoiding racism is no way to defeat racism.  Can spelling get any more complicated?…


Yes, it can!

‘African American Couple Miscommunication’

Let’s look at my ‘ou’ list which included “il n’écoute pas” or “he does not listen”.  Take this image of a Black woman trying to speak to a Black man who has headphones on.  A perfectly clear image of not listening.  However, I end up not using it because I don’t want to feed the stereotype of Black men not listening.


A White person can just be a person but a Person of Colour represents their whole race. We position White people as “outside of race, and thus the norm for humanity, [which] allows whites to view themselves as universal humans who can represent all of human experience. Within this construction, people of color can only represent their own racialized experience.” (DiAngelo, 2010, p.13).  So a Black man not listening paints all Black men as poor listeners.


Items 17 and 18 of Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege Knapsack address this issue:
17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race. (McIntosh, 1989)


If I post an image of a Black man not listening, I risk having my students attribute this lack of respect to race.


So, White it is…


King Bansah

As for the king, in the end I decide to use this image of King Bansah, or Togbe Ngoryifia Céphas Kosi Bansah, traditional ruler of the Gbi Traditional Area of Hohoe, Ghana.  I overhear no ridicule or racist commentary.  However, I will address racism and Blackness directly and at length in our unit on Black History in February.  For more on this, see upcoming chapter C is for Colour-Blindness.

All this to say that teaching in anti-racist and anti-oppressive ways is not straight-forward even with something as seemingly benign as spelling. It is messy, complex and unsettling. There is no clear, right answer, in fact there are lots of wrong answers. The trick, it seems, is to find the least wrong one.


For more on my approach to the use of images and copyright, see my blog post: Who Owns the Internet?


DiAngelo, R. (2010). Why Can’t We All Just Be Individuals?: Countering the Discourse of Individualism in Anti-racist Education. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies. 6(1), p.1-24.  Retrieved from http://escholarship.org/uc/item/5fm4h8wm


DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy. 3(3), pp.54-70.


hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge.


King, M. L. (1963). Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Retrieved from: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/letter-birmingham-jail


Kumashiro, K. (2000). Toward a Theory of Anti-Oppressive Education. Review of Educational Research, 70(1), pp. 25-53.


McIntosh, P. (1989). “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August, 1989, pp. 10-12. Retrieved from: http://nationalseedproject.org/images/documents/Knapsack_plus_Notes-Peggy_McIntosh.pdf


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