“Race isn’t real. We’re all just human.” That’s the way a lot of white educators think about race. Maybe you feel that way. But if you do, it’s time to rethink your perspective. The reality is, race is real. It matters. And the sooner you can accept that, the sooner you can make a difference. We’re not saying that education alone can solve racism, because, as history has shown, that would be naïve. But when the education community accepts that race is real, we can start to have a real conversation about it.
Several years ago, I was asked to lead a professional development for faculty members at a historically white institution. One of the major takeaways was that we should actively strive to diversify our classrooms and the curriculum we teach. While this wasn’t a new concept to me, I was shocked at the resistance I encountered around the table from the majority-white audience. One woman even asked, “What if I get a student from a different background, and I don’t know how to help them?”
In a recent post , I shared how I learned about the importance of race in the classroom. I learned about it in a way that was not totally comfortable. I learned about it when I had to teach a lesson on the Civil Rights Movement that I knew nothing about. I learned about it because I had no choice. I learned about it when I couldn’t find any resources or information that would help me teach the lesson. I learned about it when, after buying some books, I discovered that I didn’t understand them. I learned about it when I started to research and couldn’t understand what I was reading. I learned about it when I started to write the lesson, and I felt like I didn’t. Read more about a white teacher speaks out and let us know what you think. Critical race theory is the bête noire 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?
This is a space in which many people exist, but what they don’t understand, what I haven’t understood, is that their self-confidence, their unshakable confidence in their non-racial purity embodies exactly the problem, 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 deliberately created by those who have the power and influence to make and enforce laws. 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 racist systems is not the same as being a bigot, someone who enjoys racial privilege and hates 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 must avoid doing this work solely for the sake of performance and must be wary of the disastrous unintended consequences of this work leading to a lowering of the bar for 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 about people questioning the principles of anti-racism, I am reminded of a 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.
As a white educator, I have always thought that race was something that would be handled by my minority students. I’m college-educated, well paid, and well respected in my school district. However, I was wrong. As a classroom teacher who has some privileges in our society, I have a responsibility to myself and to my students to learn more about the challenges they face. I hope my experience will be an example to other educators of how they can start to have difficult conversations in their classrooms to help students reflect on their individual identities.. Read more about white teachers teaching students of color and let us know what you think.