It happens every year. One day, in my classroom in a school that serves a nearly 100 percent African-American population, perhaps after we analyze a profound piece of a Toni Morrison novel, or perhaps after tackling the ideas put forth in Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” a student will say something along the lines of, “Mr. Wright, you’re not White. You’re Gray.”
The implication, I hope, is that the students and I share such a rapport, have constructed such a bond of mutual respect and admiration and trust, that the students feel that somehow we have transcended our racial differences.
Earlier in my career, I would have reveled in those words. They would have tapped into that all too prevalent, and all too misguided, feeling that many young White teachers have of playing the savior for an underserved population. These words would have also opened the door for racial exploitation of me as a White male appropriating elements of Black culture that are not my own as a means of creating an inauthentic connection with my students. I shamefully made these mistakes early in my career.
As a White male teacher, whose goals are to not only teach, but also learn from my students, I need to be aware of, and need to name, the privilege that inevitably blinds me from truly understanding what it means to be Black in America. Standing in front of my classroom of Brown and Black children, teaching texts like “Beloved and The New Jim Crow,” I need to name the loaded reality that a White man is teaching an experience that is not his own.
I need to give my students the space to articulate their views on that reality, to probe its many meanings. As a White teacher, it is vital that I reflect on the visceral realities that exist when a White person of authority is placed in front of a group of young Black and Brown children. I need to name the elephant in the room. I need to name my Whiteness.
I stop the class and bring the students together as a community of learners. I remind them of my love and respect for them. And I remind them of my undeniable Whiteness and the undeniable privileges I receive from such Whiteness. I remind them that my two sons do not have to have the same talk about surviving encounters with police officers that many of the young men in the classroom may have had to sit through.
I remind them that as deep and profound and sincere as our connections are, and how close we come to transcending our racial identities as we learn together, we still live in a society where as soon as I get back into my car, I drive off with all the racial privileges my Whiteness affords.
Sometimes, I see quizzical looks from some of my students. Why, after being given what was likely meant as a compliment, would I take the moment to remind us of our differences? I don’t fully understand the answer myself. I know it creates an uncomfortable space, a space in which White people almost never have to tread; that of acknowledging our Whiteness.
It’s a powerful moment; an imperfect and necessary moment, a moment that I have had students mention years after the fact. It’s not a “PC (politically correct) moment,” nor one that may grace the pages of pedagogical theories, but it’s real. It’s uncomfortable, to be sure, but the discomfort of the moment is emblematic of its necessity. We, particularly White folks, need to have the conversations that make us uncomfortable.