I Thought Talking About Race in the Classroom Wasn’t Important. I Was Wrong.

Race in the Classroom

When I was in high school, I took a race and gender class that completely changed my perspective on life. In the class, we read some of the most powerful, challenging, and thought-provoking literature I’d ever seen. It’s the only course I ever took that made me so angry I wanted to throw up. I remember feeling so uncomfortable that I almost didn’t want to read it; but I did. And it was worth it. I remember writing a paper and being so enraged that I had to put the pencil down and walk away. But I kept writing. I wrote it, and it was worth it.

I grew up in a very white neighborhood, and attended a very white school. This lack of exposure to students of color wasn’t a choice by any means – it was a result of being born into a middle-class family and being raised to believe that the life I had was the best life I could have. (Around 85% of the students at my high school are white, compared with 74% of the United States population.) As a result, I didn’t have many experiences where I was made to feel like an outsider. Despite that, I was always aware of my race. I was aware that if I wanted to date a person of color, I wouldn’t have many options. I was aware that my brown skin

Ever since the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act, the teaching of controversial topics, such as race, have become more and more prevalent in the classroom. Initially, I was against this measure, believing that it was a waste of time to talk about such subjects. Now, I must admit that I was completely wrong. The reason I have come to this conclusion is due to the fact that just by having a class where race is the topic has made me more aware of racial issues.. Read more about a white teacher speaks out and let us know what you think.word-image-2947 Critical race theory is the scapegoat of scared white America. So this is my own account of how a privileged white man learned critical race theory, became anti-racist, and found the liberation that comes not with absolution, but with truth. A few years ago, I attended the first of many training sessions on cultural context with my colleagues. I was aggressively distant and reflexively defensive. I felt like I was being told that as a white person I was automatically prejudiced and maybe even racist.

I felt like I was being told that my life was so privileged, that my life’s path was so clear, that all my accomplishments were not due to my hard work, but due to the advantage I was supposed to have because of my white skin. I felt that way even though most of my family lived in the early 20th century. The first person to come to America in the 19th century was involved in centuries of American slavery. I had worked for years in a school with students who were not like me and now I was told that my existence was a condemnation of the students I had taught. In the next session on cultural context, I had reached my limit. I wasn’t being racist.

I was a progressive liberal who always voted Democrat and never said the N-word. Why did I have to attend these sessions when I had so many other things to do? If we want race to play no role in our society, why are we still talking about it? It’s a space in which many people exist, but what they don’t understand, what I don’t understand, is that their confidence, their unwavering confidence in their non-racial purity is symbolic of the problem itself, because it means a refusal to listen and a total refusal to learn. But the truth cannot be denied for long, and for me it was revealed through the lives of my two sons.

My sons have allowed me to see the world around me through the lens of the systemic nature of American injustice. When Trayvon Martin was killed, I saw through my father’s eyes that my boys would not have been followed and killed because they were suspects. When I saw Eric Garner choking in public, I looked through my father’s eyes and saw that my boys didn’t have to worry about the police killing me when I walked out the door. As I watched my above-average, overqualified students being denied access to quality higher education simply because they couldn’t afford it, I looked at the situation with the eyes of a father who knew his sons’ education was already well taken care of.

More importantly, when I looked for schools to send my children to, I saw that the wealthiest schools served the wealthiest neighborhoods and communities, with families owning their own homes, while the least wealthy schools served poor renter communities that had been systematically denied access to mortgages for generations, blocking access to wealth accumulation, homeownership, and quality education. I saw all these things, and the truth became clear to me: These injustices do not happen by accident. What we need to understand, and what critical race theory teaches us, is that systems and policies do not just fall out of the sky; they are intentionally created by those who have the power and influence to implement and enforce them.

In America, the vast majority of people who had the power to create systems and policies were white men. Not surprisingly, the privileges derived from these policies and systems primarily benefit white men and, by extension, white families. To enjoy the fruits of this system is to be complicit in racism, and here people turn a blind eye to what they see as a personal attack. But being complicit in the system of racism is not the same as being a bigot, someone whose enjoyment of racial privilege is tied to the hatred in his heart for people who are not like him. And while many would rather put this conversation aside, the truth is that when it comes to racism, you either support it or actively fight it.

The cycle of racism, Beverly Tatum teaches us, is an assembly line at the airport. You will be touched by this project whether you follow it or not. Neutrality to systematic evil means accepting it. Only if you are against it, act against it. But educators who claim to be anti-racist have their pitfalls. Schools and teachers should avoid doing this work for the sake of performance and be wary of the sinister unintended consequences of this work, which have the effect of lowering the achievement threshold of their students.

Lisa Delpit, in her indispensable book Strangers’ Children, reflects on the phenomenon of well-meaning white educators hijacking their anti-racist work at the expense of the students they seek to serve, noting that a critical thinker who lacks the skills demanded by employers and universities can only fight for financial and social status in a powerless underworld. Studying this topic is difficult and challenges almost everything we take for granted about ourselves and our families. But ignorance is not bliss, it is illusion. Bliss is seeing the truth and being able to let go of the appearance of perfection. I’m not a perfect anti-racist.

I am complicit in the American system of racism. And I strive to always be learning, listening and teaching. But when I read people questioning the principles of anti-racism, I am reminded of the quote from James Baldwin. We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of humanity and right to exist. We can agree and disagree about teaching practices, student expectations, and school culture. This debate is necessary to ensure that best practices are actually selected for individual schools. But if who we really are doesn’t allow us to teach, support, nurture, love and fight for black and brown children, then we have to do something else.

When I was in college, I was extremely involved with my campus’s Black Student Union. I had a lot of great experiences through the group, like presenting at an NAACP conference, and meeting my best friend. But I had a lot of bad experiences, too. Like the time that I walked into a classroom and saw a white student wearing a t-shirt that read “Black Women Can’t Be Racist.” That was the first time I ever talked about race with my classmates, and it definitely wasn’t the last.. Read more about dear white teachers and let us know what you think.

 

About the Author: Prateek

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