Gina HarKirat Harris: “We are swimming in a sea of racism and even fish don’t recognize that they are in water.”

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Illinois teacher and delegate to the 2015 NEA RA, Gina HarKirat Harris.

– By Gina HarKirat Harris

Maybe it was the fact that we bookended our RA with two NBI’s that clearly demonstrated that we want to put on a face of equality for all but shot down many of the NBI’s that would be steps to addressing the issue.

Maybe it was the nearly 2 hours we spent debating whether we should take a stand against flying the Confederate flag on public schools.

Maybe it was the woman behind me who actually voted NO on the vote for NBI B but said it softly enough that most could not hear.

Maybe it was the woman in front of me who happened to be the only woman of color who when trying to stand in support of NBI 82 was told by her white peers “Sit down, Sit down.”

Maybe it was the sheriff who hovered around me and two of my union sisters of color while we were having a conversation.

Maybe it was the support received for NBI’s brought by white men.

Maybe it was the CLEAR opposition to the NBI 110 that simply asked that we support locals and districts that WISHED to implement Ethnic Studies programs.

Maybe it was the white women that stood up to say that American Indians chose to be their mascots or liked it.

Maybe it was the conversations had at the Joint Conference by white activists who spoke eloquently to the fact that we need to “get uncomfortable” in the conversation about what’s happening.

Maybe it was me personally being told that I shut people down when I say that a person can’t speak to the experience of another.

Maybe it was Fred who stood up for what he believed and didn’t dilute the topic that we needed to address when our room full of delegates clearly were not going to outwardly oppose ending institutional racism.

Maybe we are swimming in a sea of racism and even fish don’t recognize that they are in water or that they need it to maintain the order of their society but when you take them out of it they realize they can’t breathe.

Maybe, right?

But then again this is my perception as a fish swimming in the sea.

We have work to do to understand each other and come together for our students.

Truthfully, we aren’t that different, scientists have demonstrated this, but we tend to view it that way.

We have an opportunity in this time of social media and instant news. We have an opportunity to have the very hard conversations. We started to have them at the RA. A conversation with 10,000 people is difficult. A conversation with the person behind you who voted no is a little bit easier. When I heard her say no, I turned around and said, “It’s a way to declare that we stand for eradicating institutional racism.” She replied, “We haven’t ended racism in all these years, you can’t change people, so doing this is pointless.” To which I said, “There is not an expectation of ending racism. Racism and Institutional Racism are connected but not the same.

This NBI is about institutional racism, the SYSTEMS that are in place that continue to create inequalities in education. Racism is a part of it and when institutionalized we end up with systems where a disproportionate amount of students of color, mostly boys are disciplined or placed into special education. And that’s just one example.” “But you can’t make people not be racists.” “But we can have a platform to begin having the conversations that lead to understanding.” She thanked me for explaining what Institutional Racism is but said she still didn’t think we could do anything about it. She continued to vote no on EVERY other NBI that dealt with race.

Is she a racist? I don’t know.

But I know there is more conversation needed. She is an educator and there is NO DOUBT that when we teach we bring our whole selves into the classroom including our implicit bias. And if you grew up in the United States of America you are a fish swimming in that sea of implicit bias. WE ALL HAVE it to some degree. Our work is to recognize we have it and learn ways to make changes in ourselves first.

Here’s what’s definite, had we not had that NBI B I would not have had that conversation.

I also gave my card to my union sister after her comment about American Indian’s choosing to be mascots. I told her that I valued that she has an opinion and would like to discuss it further, that I would like to dialogue about our difference of opinions.

Will she call me? I don’t know. But I did make it clear that I was open to understanding. You bet.

So let’s get to my point. My point is that we have a long way to go to learn to breathe out of water but we can evolve into it.

Will every one of our members vote yes to end having people as mascots? I’m not sure, especially the way they hold our Stanley Cup winners so dear to them. But can each of us have a conversation or conversations with people around us who hold differing views?


As we celebrated last year the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and as we are about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 I believe it is time for us to recognize that 50 years is not that long, that much has not changed and that we have work to do. We are education professionals, we are charged with teaching our young people to be citizens in a just and fair society.

If we can’t have the conversations needed to begin to get it right then who will?

Breathe, we will evolve.

Peace, love & solidarity, Gina

4 thoughts on “Gina HarKirat Harris: “We are swimming in a sea of racism and even fish don’t recognize that they are in water.”

  1. fred.

    racism towards african americans in this country is EVERYWHERE.

    thank you for having the courage to bring attention to it thru your posts.


  2. Hi Fred,

    I’ve really been enjoying reading your coverage of the NEA gathering and your activist role in it. This latest post is just so, so, so good. Is there a way to post it on Facebook?


    1. Betsy,
      I cross post everything on Facebook and there is also a Facebook button at the bottom of each post where you can post to your Facebook page.

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