I’ve been working hard at anti-racist teaching for over a decade. I’ve learned some things. I see things I didn’t see before. I hear things differently.
I’m not finished, not an expert, not perfect. Many days, I’m not even all that good. But I don’t spin my wheels so much anymore, don’t get so stuck. I have leaders I trust and they pull and push me when I need it, and I’ve gotten myself out enough times to find my own way every so often.
That said, I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately with people who are newer to the work (as well as some with expert teachers). A lot of them are stuck. They get that there’s a problem, but struggle to see it in their work, or have no idea what to do about it.
Video: Tom Talks With Teachers of the Year
This has been sort of equal parts powerful and frustrating. The frustration, of course, is my own damn problem. It doesn’t help to be upset that people aren’t understanding stuff that I didn’t used to understand, that I understand now only because I was lucky to have patient and brilliant people around me when I was trying to learn. I try to be that teacher for adults, but I struggle.
To be real, I need to constantly check my ego in these conversations. I’ve been in buildings where equity work was treated as property, restricted to those who “got it” in a very certain way. They were this in-crowd, who sat back and passed judgement on anyone who wasn’t there yet. Eventually, I checked whatever boxes needed checking and was welcomed in, patted on the back, sworn in as an Equity Sheriff.
I’ve never completely shaken the “I get it and you don’t” attitude of those years, but I’m trying. It’s hard because I feel strongly about it. It’s hard because when I’m at my best, it feels desperately urgent, like the building is burning down around us, and it’s easy to feel like no one else sees the fire.
But if I’m honest with myself, this is work that is important to do well. As good as it feels to be with the group that “gets it,” they already get it. They gave it to me, and it’s not like I’m giving a whole lot back. People who have been doing this work longer than me, the people of color and indigenous people who are leading this work, may appreciate me for being a White dude doing pretty good for a White dude, but they don’t need me to tell them how I think racism works. I’ve been having conversations lately though, with a lot of teachers who might.
So I’m doing a lot of reflection, thinking about the teacher I was when I started, a teacher who thought if I just threw some random rap worksheets in the poetry unit, I had done my job. The teacher who thought anti-racist meant not expecting my kids of color to achieve at high levels, and telling them they did great anyway.
I’m trying to think of what I didn’t understand then, and what I needed to understand before the “what next” would make sense.
Start With Church
OK, at its very simplest, here’s how I see our problem.
First, we have to understand that White culture is a very for-real thing. We have to understand that not all White people act in all White ways, right?
Because that’s how culture works, and how studying culture works. Defining culture means taking general things that are generally true, things that are often found or valued. When we’re talking about dominant cultures (so, like, cultures that are most accepted or enforced), they’re even harder to see because the culture doesn’t feel like a culture, it feels like reality, the way things are. The way things have to be.
For me, it helps to think about church. I’m not a believer, and I do not go often, but the example of church does seem to help. Most people, for example, have an idea of what it means to be a Black church, you know, a church that is mostly Black people in a mostly Black community. So, it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine that there is such a thing as a White church (in fact, it’s far more common)—a church with mostly White people in a mostly White community. Now, not all Black churches are the same, and neither are all White ones, but we can hold a general idea of what is likely to be true when a place is described in that way. You with me?
So, when a preachery-fancy-guy (or whatever word is the right one) is saying lots of good stuff at a Black church, members of the congregation will often show their approval and engagement by responding verbally. If the fancy guy up front is giving his all and is met by a totally silent audience, this is a sign that things are going wrong.
But the opposite is often true in a White church. Talking makes people uncomfortable and is seen as rude. Yelling out, “Shame the devil!” in the middle of a sermon is not an appropriate way to show engagement or interest in a White church. White people will say, “Well, that’s…hmm. That’s different.”
During my first years of teaching, I was often uncomfortable during staff meetings because of this exact cultural difference. Another teacher in my building would often respond during meetings. Someone would be talking or presenting to staff, and from behind me, she would “Mhm” really loudly. The presenter would make a point about how kids are important or something and there my coworker would be, THAT’S RIGHT-ing from the back.
I hated it.
It made me super uncomfortable. I worried there was something wrong with her. I wanted her to be quiet because that’s what you’re supposed to do in a staff meeting, especially if someone else was presenting. But that’s because I’m White and was used to White places.
I learned. And eventually I learned to be worried if I was saying something and she was staying quiet. I even tried to respond out loud when she was saying something I agreed with, but I still struggle to get louder than that White-guy-who-just-heard-a poem-he-really-liked grunt thing, that “unnh” we do from the top of our throats. I tried. I still try.
Why does this all matter? Because the culture of our schools is, overwhelmingly, tied to that same White church in our heads. Our schools are White spaces.
That’s a big idea. It’s worth sitting with for a while, I promise. It’s also one of those things I just know to be completely true, I promise.
So, that means that in countless big and small ways every day, any student whose own beliefs and actions and perspective and communication styles and experiences do not fit neatly into White cultural norms will be at a disadvantage, will have tension, in countless big and small ways every day.
Take a Moment
If you’re not with me up to there, stop. Do not pass GO. I need you to be with me there.
White cultural dominance in schools is harmful. If you don’t agree, I need you to talk or read or think or whatever you need to do to get there.
Spend a few days walking around your school wondering how true it is. Try to see it. It’s hard to see, and harder still to change because it’s the way we’ve always done things, the way things are done.
But that’s the work, and the work is uncomfortable.
It’s also way harder in class because there just isn’t a right way that works for every kid. There is no handbook of cultures that will bypass the work of getting to know and trust each of your students and adapting to their needs. There is no right way that works every day. It’s messy and inconstant and imperfect, but that doesn’t mean that the work isn’t there.
Each of us can pick our “What’s next.”
We can look at the way we grade, the way we instruct, the rules we enforce and how we enforce them, we can look at what actions we assume signal engagement or disrespect or understanding.
We can take apart our practice, brick by brick, and examine each one for how our own culture and bias is evident.
Sure, it helps to have help. But this is also something we can do alone, without anyone making us do it. We can start small and never stop.
These Videos Will Help
If you’re ready to do more, you can also start by listening more. There have recently been two remarkable and powerful video series released that feature many people of color talking about race and education. I strongly recommend you spend time with both, sit with them and use them to start conversations with your colleagues and communities.
The first, NNSTOY’s Equity in Education video series, was just released today and features many members of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year in an illuminating and insightful discussion. These teachers, as well as the leaders of EduColor, are the compass I use to orient my own work.
When you’re done with all those, check out Getting Real About Education. This series, posted on Education Post, features teachers, students and parents sharing their joys and frustrations with being Black in America’s schools.