I remember the moment clearly. It was my sophomore year of college and we were in a crowded cafeteria. A friend asked me to identify the partner I was working with on a class project, so I pointed him out from across the room.
The conversation went something like this:
Me: He’s over there by the window.
Me: Standing next to that giant plant.
Classmate: Which one? There are two guys.
Me: He’s wearing a yellow shirt.
Classmate: Oh! Why didn’t you just say the Black dude?
See, the person I’d been talking to was a Black woman. Flustered, I told her I didn’t know why I’d avoided the description. But the truth was, I didn’t know I was allowed to say he was Black.
I am a White woman. And like many White people today, I was raised with the idea that you are not supposed to talk about race.
I also happen to be a teacher. A White teacher, who comes from a long line of White educators. And I’m not alone. In fact, 80% of teachers in America today are White, and the vast majority of them are White women. However, 50% of America’s students are students of color—being taught by teachers who don’t look like them. Moreover, our country has a deep history of systematically denying students of color access to the educational experiences they deserve—and that legacy of inequality carries over to today.
Moving Beyond Colorblindness
So how do we, as White educators, support all of our students, especially those who have been historically marginalized? First, we have to begin by addressing the fact that many of the challenges our students face today are the result of years of institutional racism targeting Black and Brown students.
Second, we have to acknowledge our own Whiteness as we develop and/or push forward proposed solutions. This means that to be White teachers who are truly working to create equitable schools, we must accept that our racial identities actually do play a role in what we see and how we teach. In trying to be colorblind, White people have become blind to both racism and to our responsibility in fighting against it.
If you’re an educator you might be thinking “this does sound pretty important, but my school isn’t actively addressing this issue.” That’s OK. In fact, this work can be just as or even more effective when it is spearheaded at the grassroots level by teachers who are given the flexibility, autonomy and leadership required to tackle initiatives that support the students in their classrooms.
A Path to Equity
So if you are like me, a White educator trying to figure out the most effective pathway to creating equity in your school, here are a few simple things you can start doing: Look, Listen and Talk.
- Look. Get curious about your blind spots. Examine your classroom and school spaces for what messages are being sent, and whose voices and identities are being left out.
- Listen. Listen and learn from people of color, but don’t expect them to do our work. There are so many amazing books, talks, articles, blogs, videos, poems, etc authored by people of color with invaluable information about how White folks can be actively anti-racist. It’s important that we follow the lead of people of color, but don’t demand that they do the emotional labor for us.
- Talk. Talk even if you’re afraid of getting it wrong. Because you will. Talk to your students. Talk to your colleagues. Talk to your friends. Talk to your family. Talk to your dog. Break the silence that we’ve all been taught around race and racism. Embrace discomfort, because racism is uncomfortable. And we can’t solve a problem we can’t name.
The truth is that doing this work won’t correct years of institutional racism.
However, as I’ve taken this on at my own school in Massachusetts, I can say for sure that this work has turned up the dial on how my faculty think, talk, and explore our own racial identities and our own biases and how they show up in the classroom.
We all know that teaching is a constant juggling act of priorities. But often we have to choose one to hold tightly for the long haul. Understanding my role in combating racism as a White educator is the priority that I’m choosing. And I invite you to choose it, too.