Until I had my first international experience, I didn’t have a race. Or at least, I didn’t know I did.
It was when I returned home from a summer of living, studying and working with students in Latin America that I realized how flawed my understanding was of race in education.
My teacher education courses and professional practice provided opportunities for me to throw around terms like “cultural competence” and “multicultural equity,” but those concepts were not ingrained in my instruction when I became a teacher.
I was teaching students who looked like me and thought like me, whose experiences largely identified with my own, even though the actual students in front of me looked very different. I was doing a disservice to my students, and I did not even realize it.
As a well-intentioned White educator, I never had to really think critically about race. The scholar, Peggy McIntosh, defines Whiteness as “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks,” providing those who possess it with unseen advantages in navigating the social fabric of society.
My own privilege had allowed me to be blinded to this for essentially my entire life, so after I returned home, I began to think more critically about things like cultural competence, Whiteness and the need for equitable instructional practices.
I wrote my thesis on this reflective process, eventually realizing that my experiences had radically changed my educational philosophy and approach to teaching. And such changes were necessary if I truly wanted to “promote success for all students”—a bumper sticker of a phrase which I had memorized and nearly perfected, even without actually understanding what such a concept meant in real life.
So what, exactly, did these changes entail, and how can other White teachers enact them for the benefit of their own diverse classrooms?
Color Blindness Is Impossible
Every human being has their own culture, their own community, and their own story, and the values we have acquired from such backgrounds should inspire us and fuel us in our pursuit of further knowledge.
Education is an inherently cultural experience, and those who take a “colorblind” approach to learning and teaching are missing the point: Culture is meant to be seen and respectfully appreciated.
Failing to “see color” does not advance equality in our classrooms; it simply leaves students stripped of a fundamental piece of their identities. The cultural capital that students bring to class every day serves as prior knowledge that should guide and facilitate further learning, and teachers play a crucial role in establishing the environment in which this can occur.
Color Doesn’t Automatically Equate to Victimhood
White educators often have misperceptions of diverse education. Yes, it is true that some students face difficulties that we can only imagine. No, it is not okay to treat these students as victims.
While it is true that teachers have the potential to change students’ lives in ways beyond measure, we must be careful to check our savior complexes at the door each morning before homeroom lineup.
These students don’t want “saviors”: They want effective teachers, and that’s a big difference. We can appropriately advocate for our students without placing ourselves in the center of their situations; we can motivate them to succeed without framing ourselves as their saviors.
Every student may need a hero, but our job centers squarely upon equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to become heroes on their own accord. As White educators, we must support the fact that any campaign for social justice is not about us, nor should it ever be: Our focus must rest upon giving voice to the voiceless and then listening to what these students have to say.
Listen Rather than Assume
Culturally competent teaching does not mean writing raps or talking in slang with students. (Such an approach is at best ineffective and at worst offensive). As Missouri State University scholar Kim Stormer, puts it, “You don’t have to sell your BMWs. Simply ask the kids how they want to learn what you are teaching. Don’t assume that you know their culture; learn their culture.”
Culturally competent teachers are naturally good listeners. It does not matter if you are familiar with your students’ cultures at first; as you teach to their interests and learning styles, you will quickly learn from them as well. The key to preserving cultural competence in your classroom does not rest in any single activity or lesson: Cultural competence is a mindset.
The difficulty of all of this lies within the fact that, as White educators, many of us have been sheltered from the need to think about such things as cultural competence, privilege, or inequity as a result of our privilege. I openly acknowledge that I am among this group, though I will continue to reflect, critique, and converse with other educators and students about my instructional practices.
In spite of all these biases and shortcomings, I will remain committed to holding high expectations for all students, and I will continue to work toward equitable practices that will facilitate students’ abilities to meet these expectations and experience success.
And that’s something my students should know about me.