We, White Teachers of Mostly White Students, We Have a Lot of Work to Do

The tragedy of Ferguson, and the much larger tragedy of race in this country in general, will not leave my mind. My thoughts will not quiet. My anger will not lessen. My tears will not stop flowing. And I am thankful that this is the case. I am thankful to be bothered by the injustice that exists in this country.  I am thankful to feel anger about the things that I know are not right even though I do not know how we even begin to fix them.  I am thankful to feel saddened by the reactions of my white friends and family when I bring up these injustices. I am thankful that I am not willing to just move on.

Because the truth is that we, white teachers of mostly white students, we have a lot of work to do.

In the days since the non-indictment, I have craved conversation on issues of race.  I have craved conversations about how education might just be the place to begin fixing the so many things that are broken. As a white teacher, teaching mostly white students, working with mostly other white teachers, I have been met with a lot of resistance by those around me when I have brought these conversations up. I have been told, “Well, we can’t be angry about everything.” And I have been told, “I would feel more sympathetic if the protestors weren’t torching their own neighborhoods.” And I have been told, “Well, it’s not like we can do anything to fix any of this.” And these comments, they have hurt my heart.

Because the truth is that we, white teachers of mostly white students, we have a lot of work to do.

Because yes, there needs to be changes in our legal systems and there needs to be changes in our policing systems and there needs to be changes in our housing systems and employment systems and there needs to be changes that can only be brought about by new laws and new legal protections.

But there are also changes of the heart that need to happen.  And these changes of the heart, these are the ones that can start in our classrooms.

So the truth is that we, white teachers of mostly white students, we have a lot of work to do.

I honestly beleive that all the laws we can ever make, won’t make much difference if we don’t start also working to change people’s hearts and minds. As a lesbian, I know that this is true. I know that every single state in America can make gay marriage legal and guarenttee us equal rights and equal protections under the law and I am STILL going to be afraid to hold my wife’s hand in certain places at certain times.  Because laws, alone, won’t change the way that people see me and my family. Laws, alone, won’t make us safe in places where people still believe that who we are is evil and sinful. Laws, alone, won’t protect my daughter from being teased for having two mommies. Because laws, alone, they don’t change the way people see us. Laws, alone, don’t change people’s hearts.

But teachers. We can start to do that. We can start to teach our white students about the privilege they have. We can start to teach our white students about the power that they have SIMPLY because of the color of their skin. We can help them to see these things so that maybe they will want to start to change them.  We can teach them to listen to those who have struggled and to listen to those who are screaming just to be heard and to listen to those who are telling us that they are fearful that their children will be shot because of the color of their skin and the suspicion that places on their babies. We can begin to teach our children to approach every single situation of their lives with empathy. We can begin to teach our children to respect people for who they are and not who you fear them to be because of the messages you have been surrounded by since birth.  We can begin to teach our children that if they grow up to become police officers, they don’t have to fear people whose lives are different or whose skin is different.

Because I believe that the injustice for Michael Brown began the moment that Darren Wilson pulled up next to him in his police car. I believe that he approached this young man with fear and with prejudice. I believe that the injustice began when Darren Wilson approached Michael Brown much differently than he would have approached a white child in a different neighborhood who had been reported for stealing a box of cigars.

And Darren Wilson, he was once a white student sitting in a classroom just like mine.  And I can’t help but wonder about what messages he received in that classroom of his. Or more likely, what messages he DIDN’T receive in that classroom of his. Because I know that we, white teachers of mostly white students, we don’t talk about race very much. We don’t talk about it partly because we don’t know what to say. We don’t talk about it partly because we fear the discomfort that the conversations might bring. We don’t talk about it partly because we don’t think about. We don’t have to think about it. Our students don’t have to think about it. Because we are white and we are privilaged and it is so easy for us to pretend that race doesn’t matter.

But I, for one, have to be done pretending.  I have to be done being silent. I have to be done letting my students believe that racism doesn’t exist anymore and that the color of a person’s skin doesn’t matter at all. Because it does. It does to far too many people. And my students, they need to know about the issues that exist if we have any hope of ever fixing this mess that we have made.

And so we, white teachers of mostly white students, we have a lot of work to do.

And this work, it might be lonely because there are a lot of people who will disagree with me.  There are a lot of people who say that fifth graders are too young to have these kinds of conversations. There are a lot of people who say that there isn’t time to have these kinds of conversations in school. There are a lot of people who will tell me that I am not qualified to have these kinds of conversations with my students. And they are right.  There isn’t enough time and I don’t know what it’s like to feel the sting of racism.

But I am connected to people who do. If we really want to say that being a connected educator is so important for our students, then this is the time to prove why. This is the time to reach out and use our connections to do better for our students so that they can do better for this world.

I was lucky enough to be able to host #5thchat on Tuesday of last week. Our scheduled topic had been social justice and having tough conversations with our kids. After the non-indictment on Monday, I knew that we had to change our topic to focus on Ferguson. And we did and it was incredible. There were so many powerful voices and I walked away from the chat that night really believing that we teachers, all of us, no matter what color we are or what color our students are, we have a power that we must choose to use.

And during the chat someone brilliant suggested that we put together a Skype panel discussion on racism for our students to watch and to be a part of. We invite people who know what racism in this country feels like and looks like to share those lessons with our students. Because I cannot speak from my place of privilage on what it feels like to judged by the color of my skin. So I have the responsibility to find others who can share those painful lessons because if I have any hope of changing the way that my students see race, I have to first show them the many problems that exist in this country surrounding race.  So I began a Google Doc to try to organize some kind of Skype panel discussion. I don’t know what it will look like yet or even how one goes about organizing this kind of a thing, but I want to try anyway. I want to give this to my students. I want to do more for my students.

Because we, white teachers of mostly white students, we have a lot of work to do.

If you are interested in helping out with this panel discussion. If you feel as if you have stories to share that might help show our students the problems of race in our country. If you feel as if you might be able to help us pull this all off. Please go here and let us know what you can share or how you can help.

I know that this one small act is not going to change the world. I recognize that I am not going to bring about justice or equality or fairness to this world. But I don’t think that is my job. My job is to help the children sitting right in front of me so that they have a chance of growing up with understanding in their hearts, with empathy for others in their souls, and with the ability to recognize the privilege that they have so that they can use it to make this world a better place.

25 thoughts on “We, White Teachers of Mostly White Students, We Have a Lot of Work to Do

  1. Reblogged this on Whispering Songs and commented:
    This is a beautifuly written piece I HAVE to share. I love it. Thank you for being such a wonderful teacher. I hope you crusade the way to give teachers the permission to really teach important topics that aren’t covered in a textbook.

  2. White teachers of mostly white students, we DO have a lot of work to do. LOVE this post. You are a fantastic writer! One point…I think we must be tactful when “teach[ing] our white students about the power that they have SIMPLY because of the color of their skin.” On that particular point, I think it’s important that we provide the stories and the frame for students and have students come to that conclusion on their own, hopefully through discussion with peers. We can facilitate such a conversation, but I do feel that on that particular point, teachers and all responsible adults should be careful of their word choice. What we share with students is incredibly impactful and we shouldn’t belittle the impact of our word choices.

    I love your ideas and I’m fully supportive of them! Thank you for this inspiring post.

  3. What a brave post. Thank you.

    Something I notice in my classroom (1% of our student population is considered a minority)…even though I have an extensive classroom library with a well-stocked “multcultural” shelf, very few of these titles are signed out.

    I could do more. I can book talk those titles more frequently. I could suggest them. I could read more of them myself in plain view of my students…because what better way to start conversations than through a good book?

    I have more work to do.

    Thank you for the nudge.

  4. “Because I cannot speak from my place of privilage on what it feels like to judged by the color of my skin.”

    Wrong. You are judged daily on the color of your skin. However, as a white person, you are less likely to be judged negatively. We are all judged based on our appearances. Let’s open up a discussion on “judging a book by its cover” where we discuss how we are judged by our age (teens and the aged), our relative beauty (what is beautiful?), or ethnicity (I don’t ascribe to the theory of race). What is an American? What does it mean to judge–both positive and negative? How can we live up to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words?

    “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

  5. We are mostly white teachers, but are we teachers of mostly white students? Given the changing demographics in our country, that premise holds true in fewer and fewer places.
    I began my career 34 years ago in Yuma, Arizona. I was one of three or four white folk in the room. I had no clue how to teach minority students. I had no idea how to teach ELL students.
    Now I’m a cultural minority (non-LDS in a predominately LDS community) but that is changing. I teach many NA students and an increasing number of Hispanic students. My NA students don’t want to be defined by their race, but they do want people to know the injustices that continue to define policy toward indigenous peoples.
    Maybe white teachers of mostly white students need to begin with the question, “Why am I teaching mostly white students in a mostly white geographical location?” Of course, one reason is we want the best paying jobs we can find; we often want the “easiest” or most academic student population; many choose private and/or charter schools over inner-city schools. Until we white teachers face these choices, these realities, I worry our discussions about race won’t ring true with our students, especially those whose skin color isn’t as white as our own.

  6. My approach to this is simple. No one is born to hate or distrust period. Yet through the course of life at age of kindergarten we are bombarded with white exceptionalism. Told time and time again how and what the “White” man has done for the world and told practically Nothing about contributions from “others”. Some such as Martin, Malcolm, Marcus and Frederick make it into the his-story books but with and little check mark beside their name of being locked up in jail.
    We are told over and over again how George Washington was such a great man, while at the same time glorifying the “Founding Fathers ” of which were mostly slave owners. How is That?
    If his-story books were written that contained the truth, the above example not withstanding, perhaps future generations would be much more less inclined to look at skin color as a character flaw.
    Perhaps if the movie makers would stop potraying persons of color in such negative light 95% of the time our children will have a chance to see each other in truth as being creations of God or for some coming from the same primordial ooze. Stop telling people that Mozart was white when you know that he was a Moor. Straight up BLACK. Or Cleopatra born and raised on the throne in AFRICA as some white woman. She was BLACK. How bout Alexander Dumas. It is highly this African-Frenchman that was writing about his Black father was dreaming in white when he wrote the “Three Musketeers” Or perhaps we should start with the First Continental Congress that was first chaired by a Black Edison’s design to give us the one we use today. What about the refrigerator, air conditioning,traffic stop light and the CELL Phone. All these things could not or may not have come about without the brains of Black people.
    So if you want to start a change, change the books to reflect a complete story and not one that perpetuates white privilege and superiority. We are one people of one hue of blood all born the same way and in my mind and heart with the Blessings of God.
    Nothing can change unless the TRUTH be told for more than 28 days. Thank you for reading this and God’s continued Blessings to you All, 1 ❤

    • For some strange reason my comment above was not completely posted in its entirety. What is said about Thomas Edison goes like this. Thomas invented the bulb/vaccum that that kept the filament lit for a short while but a Black man made the filament. and still another Black man created the bulb that we use today. We created all those things mentioned above but it is not engrained in the curriculum of everyday history as to give us and you the privileged time to reflect upon what we can truly have. Unity, trust and above all Love for one another. Thank you again for your patience.

  7. I read your piece to four classes today; stunned silence in all of them. I am a white teacher of mostly white students with mostly white colleagues in an area that is majority brown. Browns don’t come to school for a variety of reasons; white ignorance of their struggle could be one of those reasons.

    Thank you so much for these words.

  8. I pray you aren’t an English teacher. And, if you teach at a public school, please let us know so that we might have a word with the superintendent. If you can’t see that this is not the example to deify, then I question your critical thinking as well as your writing.

    • Glorifying Mike Brown is like supporting George Zinnerman. It is a choice based on irrational emotion and racialized decision makimg. The injustice didn’t start when Wilson pulled up. The problems started when he robbed and assaulted a business owner. They escalated when he scream vulgarities at a cop. They passed the point of no return when he assaulted the cop and grabbed for his gun. In a similar situation the outcome would be the same for a person of any color. By ignoring these obvious facts and continuing to catarwaul emotionally against any reasonable credulity, you do a great disservice to people with an actual agenda of change. I’d recommend that you think carefully about persuasion and let your emotions summer down. You may even consider the aura of grandeur that you wrap yourself in.

  9. I appreciate your position as a white teacher of mostly white students. I am a white teacher of mostly brown and black 5th grade students. And am struggling as to how to deal with their pain and their next steps. How to re write their stories before someone writes them off. Would your panel discussion help my students of color? They live this story and need to see the possibility in their lives beyond the age of 18. This is a white teacher’s call for help.

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