Sunday, February 3, 2019

White Teacher, Black Students: How to Support Real Change to a Racist System

Are you a white teacher? Do you accept that the education system is biased against black* children? Do you want to help, but you struggle with how?
If so, I get it. I would answer "yes" to all three of these questions. I'm a practicing teacher (currently in my seventh year) who has worked consistently with minority students in an urban setting. I've seen other white teachers committed to addressing racial issues, and I've seen white teachers refusing to even acknowledge those issues.
As a teacher who has attended PD sessions, I also get the frustration of being told "Don't" a lot: Don't be color-blind, don't use discipline that shames, don't try to force black students to conform into white molds.
“Great,” you say, “stop telling me what NOT to do, give me suggestions for what TO do.”
I don't have all the answers. Perhaps one reason why white anti-racist activists struggle with "do this" is because… and here's my first "do":
1. Do keep in mind that every student is an individual, and shouldn't be treated solely as "black" or "brown" or "white."
 Now, that might seem to contradict the notion of "don't be color-blind," but it's different. When we say we're color blind, we're setting aside everything in a person's identity that's tied to their race.
Racial experiences and identities are important. At the same time, though, just as white people represent a myriad of perspectives, so too do black people, and brown people, and Asian people, and so on.
So when a white anti-racist activist like me comes forward with suggestions, I feel like that's a bit of talking over. I don't want to be taking the microphone away from black people. I don't want to be seen as speaking for every black person. There are likely some black educators who, so far, have read this and said, "Keep going, you're doing fine." There are likely some who, so far, have read this and said, "You just need to be quiet now. You're out of your lane and you're full of it."
Which leads me to the next "do":
2. Do seek out black voices. As many as you can find. You will find contradictions. Expect to find contradictions. Do it anyway.
You might start with Matthew Kay’s new book, "Not Light But Fire." In it, he gives insights on how to encourage healthy conversations on race and racism in your classroom. As an English teacher, he gives solid examples of how to weave conversations into your course material or your daily routines, and how to understanding boundaries and authenticity.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has several excellent essays. Toni Morrison has spent decades giving her perspective. Alice Walker, Christopher Emdin, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Michelle Alexander, Cornel West, … the list of powerful voices goes on.
Black History Month has started: Spend this month (and beyond) seeking out a variety of voices; if all you've done by the end of the month, as a teacher or as a person, is rehashed your knowledge of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Frederick Douglass, you've lost an opportunity.
And it doesn't need to just be activist voices. Black Panther has been nominated for Best Film, and with good reason: It's not "just" a superhero movie, it addresses representation and offers several distinct voices that rarely rise to national attention. If you haven't read "The Hate U Give," do so now.
One of the best ways to get rid of our own implicit biases is to see the humanity of others as much as we can, and one great way to do that is to listen to their voices.
This said, if you enter social media spaces dominated by black voices, such as The Root or Atlanta Black Star, keep your own comments to yourself. LISTEN. The Root's Michael Harriott, for instance, recently wrote a satirical article about how "Bird Box" was about white people's refusal to see racism. In the comments on both the site and on Facebook, he was torn apart by other black commenters who insisted he was going too far, he was misfiring, and so on. Different voices, different experiences, different perspectives.
So we come to:
3. Do try to truly empathize with students who don't look like you do. 
I was taught that there's a difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy quickly evolves into pity, which leads to White Saviorism.
White Saviorism is a temptation for white people who see the situation of urban education, who are frustrated with the persistence of racism, and think the solution is to bring black students into the societal fold. When I started teaching, I was a White Savior.
We empathize with students who are different than us when we strive to understand their struggles from their perspectives. Part of this "truly empathizing" is realizing, though, that we can never know what it's like to be black in America. We can listen to a wide variety of voices, we can listen to our individual students, some of us may have family members who are black... none of this is the same as being black in America.
With all this in mind:
4. Do reflect on how your own practices are biased, through no fault of your own, towards white students. Towards getting students to conform to the expectations of white America.
And if you're listening to enough black voices with an open mind, you'll hear many of them saying that they WANT you, the white role model, to teach their black children how to conform to white society. There was a conversation in the BATS Facebook community last summer about children who say [aeks] for "ask": A black member was adamant that he wanted teachers, absolutely, to tell students to say [aesk].
This is part of why it's so tricky for white people to address race and racism honestly: We want to think that there's one single answer, one single set of "right things to do." There isn't. Certainly by now in this essay, I've gotten more black educators thinking I've gone wrong, that I've misstepped somewhere.
And maybe they'll scold me in the comments. I've had that happen. At some point, I learned to stop taking it so personally, although sometimes I still mess that up, too. So I'll do two at once:
5. Do realize you're going to mess up. Take them as learning experiences, accept your lumps, address, apologize, and adjust, and move forward.
6. Do make it about the students. This is the flip-side of "Don't make it about you."
It's natural to want your feelings protected, for you to want to receive information in a way you find palatable. My first day teaching, somebody wrote "F*** this sh**" on my syllabus and left it behind. I was heartbroken. Someone had taken my beautiful act of shining light and thrown it on the ground.
Then I got over myself. Years later, someone wrote "F*** Hartzer" in black ink on the floor of my room. Okay. Big deal. I politely asked the janitorial staff to clean it up if they could. It was gone the next day.
Black people have been trying to be patient, trying to protect white people's feelings, for a long time. Half a century ago, Martin Luther King talked about the promissory note offered by the Constitution, the one that Lincoln a century earlier had offered to make good. In 2016, Jesse Williams asked about that promissory note yet again during the BET Awards.
Exactly how long do you expect white feelings to be protected, while black people continue to die in the streets?
If it's about white people's comfort, white people won't grow.
I’ll make that personal: If it’s about your comfort, you won’t grow.
This essay was originally inspired by a discussion of how discipline is schools (as well as in “the real world”) is meted out disproportionately against students of color. But I haven't talked yet directly about discipline. Why not?
Because if you do all of this, because if you reflect honestly on how you interact with black students, or other students of color, the discipline issues should take care of themselves: They will be part of the reflection.
Of COURSE you shouldn't just let black students do what they want, to shout across the classroom, to break school property, to not do expected tasks... but you should keep the entire cultural context in mind when you build discipline plans.
This semester, I have about 100 students. I try to work with all of them. I try to get to know all of them. Do some slip through the cracks? Sure, I'm not perfect.
But because I strive to meet my students where they're coming from, instead of where I want them to be, I have fewer behavior problems with them. I can encourage the loud ones to be quieter because I've worked to earn their respect. I don't need to write up nearly as many referrals, and that process is near the end of the road, not the beginning.
I hope that I have maintained humility in this item. I don’t have all the answers, but I hope my experience is useful.
* Note: Much of what I say also applies to students of color who do not identify as black, but because so much our system's racism is based specifically on people of African descent, this item will focus on that. 
Paul Hartzer is a moderator in our BATs closed group and spends many volunteer hours trying to educate our group of mostly white educators, and for that, we thank him!

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