|By Martha Sacks, Stacy Endman and Andrea Hunley, for Teachers of Color
Three Teachers’ Perspectives
In the age of Obama, many people believe that racism is diminishing and we are ushering in a new era of change and equality. For many, their vote for the nation’s first Black president became their contribution to eliminating racism. Unfortunately, white liberals with this perspective believe they are exempt from having to truly confront the prevailing racist traditions and oppression that still dominate the power structure in this country. Anti-racist activist, Tim Wise, explains, “…talking about racism and then actually doing something about it are the only ways to make the subject go away. It won’t disappear just because we choose not to mention it.”
This exoneration from confronting racism regrettably plagues the students in the educational system tremendously. The racial hierarchy plays itself out in schools where more white students succeed and students of color still struggle to find their accomplishment. The existence of this achievement gap (which is an opportunity gap, an expectation gap and teaching gap) is very real and continues to thrive. There is an evident disconnect in schools where white female teachers dominate the teaching field and their classrooms are populated with students of color. This division persists because of cultural ignorance, the silence of discussion and the inability to redefine the language of white middle class schooling. Executive Director of the Center for Urban Education & Innovation, Lisa Delpit explains, “Many liberal educators hold that the primary goal for education is for children to become autonomous, to develop fully who they are in the classroom setting without having arbitrary, outside standards forced upon them. This is a very reasonable goal for people whose children are already participants in the culture and power and who have already internalized its codes.”
“Our interactions with our students must be personalized and our teaching must be responsive to their needs. The question becomes how does a white female teacher struggle against the standard in a quest to form authentic relationships with her students and engage in constructive dialogue about race, culture and language?”
Being a teacher of color to students of color poses unique challenges. The pathway to forming authentic relationships takes many twists and turns. With the start of each school year, I become more and more aware of the steps my students take to trusting me and trusting my pedagogy.
When my students of color enter the classroom and see me for the first time they experience immediate excitement. Or, as close to excited as teenagers can get. This first phase of pseudo acceptance allows my students of color to begin forming connections- I’m young, brown-skinned, energetic, and schooled in their media and music. For the first few weeks, I’m a cultural chameleon, my racial ambiguity allows my students of color to enter my classroom and see an ally. This may be the first and only time that they will have a person standing in front of the classroom that looks like them- a privilege their white peers are afforded every day. Upon entering my room, my students of color can let down the wall they have had to build while being instructed by teachers who – intentionally or not – exude white privilege. They can drop their defensive baggage at the door and come ready to focus on learning. My students of color quickly realize that in me, they have found not only an ally, but an equalizer, a teacher who holds them to the same high standards as their white peers. I refuse to perpetuate institutionalized racism by masking lowered standards as accommodations. My classroom is a safe place to excel and there is no excuse not to.
Enter the second phase: resistance. While my privileged students welcome my high standards, my students from traditionally underrepresented groups feel as though I am being hard on them. These students have become accustomed to the reduced expectations they have received from their peers and past teachers. They become combative because they feel I have betrayed the nonexistent agreement that they deserve special treatment. This is where I get frustrated with their uninformed white teachers of the past. Their teachers who offer pity disguised as empathy and attempt to overcompensate for their perceived lack of connection by lowering their standards under the guise of differentiating instruction. This is where I get frustrated with my students’ well-intentioned, former teachers who attempt to connect, but instead cripple. I cringe as these teachers pat themselves on the back for opening minds, but in reality have done nothing short of impose their middle class values and belief systems on a captive audience. My students, especially my students of color, then come to me thinking I’m being unfair, unjust, pushing them because I have some hidden agenda to prove that education is power. I am simply demanding the same high expectations and high standards for all of my students.
Many of my students have become quite adept at playing the victim. They see themselves as victims of society, victims of the system. In many ways, they are right. We are failing our students. The research shows that black and Latino students are more likely to be referred to special education than their white counterparts. Herein lies our most egregious failure: allowing students of color to believe that they somehow deserve special treatment. I attempt to break this mentality by holding a mirror up to my students and telling them to stop looking around for someone to blame. This cannot be done in a 10-minute mini-lesson. Day in and day out I model taking responsibility for my own successes and failures- teaching how controllable actions dictate one’s path. I share anecdotes of my own struggle with cultural identity, opening up conversations about blurring racial lines and shattering stereotypes. I demonstrate how adversity is not unique to teens and that we must focus only on what we can control.
As the weeks wear on, my students begin the transition to trusting me, and once they come to this realization they move into the third phase: acceptance. It is only when we reach this point that we are able to form authentic relationships and thereby increase learning and achievement.
My students often tell me: “You’re not white. You’re Jewish.” As if there is a glaring distinction between the two. I’ve often wondered why they’ve taken the time to point this out to me. At first, I was convinced it was because of the region of my school. The Westside of Indianapolis isn’t necessarily the center of the Midwest Jewish population. I thought, “Certainly, my students had to be telling me because I was the only Jew to have come into their lives—and my ‘Jewishness’ qualified me for non-white status.”
However, after a few years of examining this quandary, I’ve come to understand that my students’ perception relates to educational-theorist Paulo Freire’s subversion of the traditional educational system. Freire states “Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.” In order for our oppressed students to experience humanization, the educator must instill trust in her students and call upon their creative voice and unique perspective in the classroom. This dissolve of traditional teacher-student relationships lets students know their humanity is treasured and they need to stand up against discrimination and all systems of oppression. I make it very clear to my students that institutionalized racism pollutes their high school institution. It is hidden in the curriculum, dominating the design of classroom compositions, ensuring who goes on and who drops out. It is my goal to be very deliberate about the inequities that plague their lives. Current research indicates that only 50 % of all black students are expected to graduate from high school. These numbers are no accident. The system does not work in their favor. I think it is through this transparency and authentic interaction that the students come to see me as an ally. There are so many teachers who choose not venture into the murky waters of discussing race. It has become somewhat poetic to adopt a color-blind mentality in the classroom. Teachers believe they are servicing students by treating them all the same. Our students come to us with a different history and different needs. It is an absolute disservice to dismiss race as a crucial factor in our interaction with them. Anti-racist activist Tim Wise explains, “It is white denial, as much as anything, which has allowed racial inequity to persist for so long.” See, it’s so much easier not to talk about race. The topic is too confusing, too controversial or too uncomfortable. So the obvious solution is not to talk about it all! And students, who often want nothing more than to use the academic forum to deconstruct their notions about race, are silenced and taught that it’s not a polite subject.
When I began teaching an AP English Language class, I decided to design a unit around the social construct of race. I found out quickly, in my predominately white AP class, that most students were irate when I explained to them the extent and advantage of their white privilege. Many of my white students turned on me quickly, defining my passion for anti-racism as a defect in my character. I knew that I couldn’t completely change their minds, but I also knew a few seeds were planted.
My quest to raise racial consciousness in my classroom, however, is my duty as a teacher. This does not mean that my students of color flock to me and adore me. My relationships with them can often be treacherous. I look like the women who have crippled them, who have patronized them and who have stunted their educational path. I have seen and heard of incidents where teachers have lowered their expectations for their students of color, adopt an attitude of pity and accept mediocrity. I choose, very deliberately, to challenge them and to not always “play nice.” Sometimes they get it, and sometimes there is a lot of resistance to my actions. I have been labeled “mean” or “difficult” because of my quest to dare my students to achieve more. My classroom can often be an uncomfortable space. Yet, I think we’ve played nice for too long in school. Doubt and uneasiness are areas of strength where new insight can be achieved and original understandings are articulated to welcome true justice. My favorite poet, Anis Mojgani, elegantly explains in his poem Shake the Dust, “Do not settle for letting these waves settle.” The pursuit of equity in the classroom is never easy and it is never over.
The majority of my students are Latino. Initially, I am confronted with some resistance from my students. They tend to quickly pigeonhole me as simply “a white teacher,” as someone who dismisses their experiences and is therefore ignorant to their daily challenges. This is not to mean in any way that they are disrespectful, but rather just guarded towards me. Like most students in the first few weeks of school, they test me to discover how much I really care about them not just as my students, but as individuals. However, as the semester rolls on, the students begin to warm to me and eventually greet me with a reciprocal relationship of authentic understanding. Reaching this level of understanding requires time. Just because I am a white teacher does not mean I am not genuinely empathetic to their challenges as minorities. I share my own experiences as a religious minority. I tell stories of challenges I faced in high school, how I was treated poorly for being a minority too, and how I dealt (or in some cases, didn’t deal) with the adversity. It does, however, mean that I cannot fully understand their experiences as racial minorities. My “minority-ness” is something I can hide, which is in some ways a privilege. I am able to determine when I share the fact that I am not always part of the majority group. My cultural identifier is a choice. Regardless of the choice, I can appreciate my students’ experiences and we share those experiences and find that common ground.
I allow conversations about diversity to occur in my classroom as needed, as teachable moments, and equally importantly, I model how to address intolerance now as an adult and in current situations. For example, last year a video segment was shown on our school’s closed-circuit television station that interviewed some of our English language learners talking about various topics: how our English as a New Language (ENL) Club prepares students for college and what the students’ viewpoints were about immigration. In some of my students’ classes, slurs were made about these interviewed students as the segment aired. Comments such as, “She can’t even speak English – how is she ever going to go to college?” and “We don’t want you here. Go back to where you came from” were stated. Unfortunately, the teachers in these classrooms did not address the situation. This lack of action sent the message to my students that 1) the teachers agreed with the racial comments and/or 2) the teachers didn’t care enough about the ENL students to even address the situation.
I initially told my students that I didn’t think either of these options were actually the truth. I said that I believed the teachers simply did not know how to address the predicament, thus sending the message through their silence and lack of action that they agreed with the statements. Although my students understood it on an intellectual level, I don’t think they truly believed it. This being the case, I called for one of our Assistant Principals to come to the class to speak to the students about the situation. I modeled for my students the importance of having a voice when they are faced with adversity. If we don’t speak up, and inform others of acts of injustice, then we can’t expect others to change their behavior. We are then simply perpetuating the situation. The Assistant Principal listened to their concerns and validated their emotions. More importantly, it made her even more aware of the need for cultural competency training among our staff. She shared the situation with the administrative team in our school and a seed was planted. This example of intolerance contributed to laying the groundwork for the implementation of cultural responsivity training for our staff, which is an initiative on which we are working more diligently this year than in years past.
In hindsight, I realize that though extremely well-intentioned, I actually defended my colleagues’ lack of responses and gave them the benefit of the doubt by saying they did not know what to do. While it may not initially seem like a destructive action, what I really did was ask my students to act more as the adults in the situation than the actual adults simply to expedite the resolution. Isn’t it odd that I have more faith in my students to address situations of intolerance simply because they have more experience with it than adults? My statement in reality perpetuated the exact situation I am trying to diminish. We need to encourage and teach adults how to address acts of intolerance and conduct appropriate conversations about race. Why should children have to suffer because adults are not expeditious in addressing these types of acts?
Students need to have their voices and their experiences heard and validated. These are the incidents that define us as young adults and help to shape who we are. Students need to feel safe in confronting such issues. Adults and students alike need the guidance and the tools in conducting these difficult conversations. Just because I am a white teacher does not mean I am unable to provide that support to my students or to my colleagues. — TOC
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This article originally appeared in our partner publication, Teachers of Color Magazine (www.teachersofcolor.com) and appears here by permission. Please do not reproduce further without obtaining permission from the source.