As a white man he felt unprepared for working with students of color, but he was sure he was anti-racisim. Until he learned what that really meant.
“Needham, Massachusetts is a predominantly white suburb, but we have a METCO program that allows students of color from other communities to attend our school. So …what experience do you have working with students of color?”
This was my first job interview as a professional educator. I had just finished student teaching and had sent my resume, newly decorated with an endorsement from Boston College, to every Latin program in Eastern Massachusetts. I was visibly nervous, but this should have been the one question I was prepared for. After all, promoting social justice and understanding social contexts in education were both key components of what made Boston College’s teacher training program unique.
Yet when the question came, I was completely unprepared for it. I kept fumbling for something to say, but as a white man, I worried that the words I was about to say would somehow appear insensitive to students of color. So instead, I said nothing, and the interviewer stared at me and forced a smile … until finally, she gave up and moved on to the next question.
I got the job anyway, but I still felt horrible for botching that question.
What experience did I have working with students of color? The real answer: None, and that was precisely the problem. Latin was an elective class that was only offered at predominantly “white schools” in wealthy suburban communities, and the few students of color who attended those schools usually chose to take other languages.
A few months into my first job, I asked the woman who had interviewed me (now my boss), why she thought so few students of color took Latin. She told me that, with more experience, she hoped I could help her figure out the answer to that question and work with her to change that trend.
Then she suggested I take an anti-racism class she was teaching. When I heard the word “anti-racism,” I turned into “that guy.” Just a few minutes prior, I had been so concerned about making my class more attractive to students of color, but suddenly, now all I was concerned about was assuring my boss that I wasn’t a racist.
I had never heard the term “anti-racism,” but like many white men, I found it intimidating. I had asked my boss for help, and she was offering it to me, but I felt like I was being called a racist and that upset me.
(Of course, I wasn’t being called a racist; I was just being offered further suggestions on how to be anti-racist.)
This is one of the major unaddressed problems with how white people view race and racism. To a white American like myself, racism is something that exists in individuals. If we don’t hate black people, we assume that means we aren’t racist, and the argument ends there. When we think of “fighting racism,” we assume that means calling out individuals who make racist statements or engage in racist activity.
So when a sitting congressman shouts “You lie!” at the President of the United States, we say, “That was just one person and you can’t prove it had anything to do with his race!”
When an unarmed young black man is shot by police, we say, “That was just one cop and it doesn’t mean all cops are racist!”
When a black church is shot up by an angry white Confederate sympathizer, we say, “This was one crazy person and it doesn’t mean the confederate flag is racist!”
But anti-racists aren’t interested in the intentions behind individual white people’s racist actions; we are interested in the circumstances that led to those racist actions and the message that those actions send to the rest of the world. When white people feel personally attacked by anti-racism, they get in the way of this conversation in the most narcissistic way possible. They take systemic racism, an issue where there are real victims, and claim that they, the white people being called racists, are the “real victims.”
While old white men are getting hyper-sensitive about a hashtag and a Beyoncé video, black men are getting killed, and black women are being assaulted in their classroom desks, and no, we can’t prove that the white perpetrators were all racists, but I’m not interested in calling individual people racists, including the cop, the teacher, and the vice principal. These are the questions I’m interested in asking:
Why does the teaching profession so disproportionately attract white teachers, even in communities where the majority of students aren’t white? (In California, for example, 71% of teachers are white, serving a population where 73% of students are persons of color.) What message does this send to those students? What message does it send when a school’s population is predominantly black and/or Hispanic, but all the teachers at that school are white? What message does it send when a school in a white community makes such a strong effort to bus in students of color from the inner city, but then struggles to find teachers of color?
I am not saying that white teachers cannot teach students of color, but when all the teachers at a school are white, it reinforces the idea that the school is a “white school,” and that meeting the expectations of the teacher is a form of “acting white.” Might students of color feel like they can’t be themselves at a “white school” and therefore feel like they have to express their individualism by defying the teacher and other authority figures?
Yes, they might, because all teenagers who feel uncomfortable at school express individualism in this way…but when the teenager lashing out is different from us, we focus on her differences instead of relating to her.
Let me offer an explanation that white men might be able to relate to: when we were in elementary school, most, if not all, of our teachers were women. That means that, for most of our developmental years, the people telling us to be quiet, attentive, gentle, responsible, well-organized, and hard-working were all women. For many of us, we then associated those traits (all of which are detrimental to all people’s success) with femininity, and we felt like schools were telling us to act like girls.
The difference between being a boy in a school full of female teachers and being a black kid in a school full of white teachers is that boys (white boys, anyway) are constantly fed encouraging messages about masculinity outside of school. If you are a boy who is good at sports, you are encouraged to be active and playful outside of school, even if the teachers in school give you grief for being too energetic.
Are black children fed these positive messages about their racial identities outside of school? In a world where the first black president is called a liar in the middle of a policy speech, where a black man selling loose cigarettes is choked to death by a policeman, where a teenage black girl is flipped over in her desk over a text message, and where black churches are massacred by white supremacists who romanticize a time when blacks were considered the personal property of whites, my guess is no.
“So, Giorgio, what’s your solution?”
The fact that you think I’m the person who’s going to come up with the solution is just another part of the problem. Nothing will be changed if the entire conversation is just a bunch of white educators hypothesizing about what it’s like to be a student of color. In order for things to change, we need actually to listen to people of color when they share their experiences, rather than getting defensive as soon as we feel we have been called racists.
Furthermore, we need to make men & women of color feel more welcome in the predominantly white profession of education, because this will help boys & girls of color feel more welcome in our schools.
My boss at my first job once told me, “When a student of color walks into my class on the first day, I’m every white teacher they’ve ever had up to that point.” Yes, and for many of those students, every teacher they’ve ever had up to that point was white. So you’re not just having to spend your time building a positive relationship that changes the way that student looks at white teachers; you’re having to change the way they look at teachers in general, and this isn’t something that any one person can do alone, but we can all do a better job.
Photo: Getty Images