A White Educator Discusses Racism…and How To Teach Students About It

Should I remain quiet and simply listen to those who could better teach about the lived experience of inequity in America? Yes, because now is a time to listen. Should I speak instead up and join my voice to the chorus of those shouting for change? Yes, because silence is being complicit. Won’t speaking risk my words being misinterpreted in a world of cancel culture, partisanship, and misinterpretation? Possibly. Will those allow for the types of challenging conversations that make me uncomfortable but ultimately lead to the greatest growth. I hope so. But who am that anyone would listen? No one all that special. Maybe no one will read this and it will serve only as a sign post I am placing down to show where I stood on this day if future generations care. Or maybe to at least a few in your inner circle-and may to even a few beyond it, it may help move some hearts. Okay, so I guess I’ll share.

America is Hurting

White house protest
from the Canberra Times

Right now so many people in America are scared and hurting. Yes, it began with suffering from a pandemic that, for reasons I won’t expand on here, has ravaged the U.S. and NYC, where I live, worse than anywhere else. That illness has disproportionately affected communities of color. Then came a necessary quarantine to prevent hospitals from getting overwhelmed and that has drastically damaged the national economy, again hitting black workers harder. And then there were a series of incidents that read depressingly like a war memorial wall. A list of names Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, Eric Garner…the list could fill pages. And when George Floyd was violently killed by those who are tasked with our protection in a system where harm is also more likely visited on people of color, a volcano of suppressed rage exploded. And now, in the aftermath there are protests, riots, and more violence visited by the police and against the police.

Let me be fully clear. We are well past this being attributed to a few “bad individuals”. It is a repeated problem which points to a system that is wrong. It is a system that has failed and is in deep need of repair. So whatever the consequences are for any of the individuals in the cases currently pending, justice requires fixing the broken system that caused it.

And now I have colleagues expressing worry, though are not nearly in the class of people that needs to worry and it seems selfish to me. Not that expressing fear is wrong. There’s so much in the world now to concern us from disease, poverty, violence, and dictatorial leanings around the world. But let’s be clear, that comparatively, I’m good and most in a similar situation are too. The same can’t be said for so many in this nation.

So I hear the calls for peace and unity when seem so easy to latch onto. Who could be against peace? Except when that peace is just a return to the status quo that has held too many people under its knee literally and figuratively. And unity that continue to subjegate “the other” is a hateful union. True, some are doing so wishing for a genuine end to the centuries of racial animosity and degradation our nation has heaped on blacks, indigenous people, and other people of color (BIPOC), but that return to “peace” will take more than a few weeks and a few marches. So a quick return to “normal” in that context is not okay. It has not been okay. And people who’ve experienced it personally and those who call themselves allies don’t find it okay.

On Protest & Riots

The pleas by some who would discount the current moment by saying that “everything would be fine and get better if only this was all peaceful” seem to have missed all the peaceful actions that have long been discounted and ignored. Occupy Wall Street eventually was just brushed aside with little attention and little change. Colin Kaepernick was demonized by a swath of Americans simply for kneeling. So obviously more is required. If you think a peaceful march is the answer, please tell that to those who marched peacefully across the Edmund Pettus bridge arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You know, one of the few black activists we teach about often in a manner to placate feelings of guilt but without digging into his more challenging sentiments. It’s easy to align yourself with “the Dream” but it is harder to be challenged by the 3 evils.

I’ve heard the arguments. “But that was so long ago and we’ve grown so much since then.” Yes, it was a different time and we have had a black president. And that black president was demonized as other, as not even being a “real American” by the man who now holds that office.

“Yes, but police are better now…cameras…laws…something, something…” Saying that police wouldn’t hurtfully over-respond to peaceful protests now flies directly in the face of police responding with rubber bullets, batons, and tear gas for peaceful protesters NOW! It also discounts the actual words of Dr. King.

“But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Certainly rational thinkers recognize that vandalism, looting, and arson are criminal acts. They are illegal. Floyd’s family condemns it, and few us have more right to anger than them. But what if the vandalism is against a symbol of longstanding racist history? Oh, to be sure it’s still illegal, but is it immoral? And what of the “legal acts” where officers have killed with impunity unarmed Americans, claimed fear, and been released without charges in 99% of police killings? Can that be moral even if it’s legal? How far from equal is our justice?

Let me be clear, I am not condoning illegal acts, but neither can we say the law is the wholly accurate arbiter of what is right? Who has even tried to defend harm visited on innocent bystanders or the damage to even black-owned businesses? But while some (including some close people I know) have hatefully spoken misinterpreting her words, I think, Nikole Hannah Jones expresses the dichotomy well. We must be careful with our words and using the same language or words, violence, to describe the illegal destruction of property to the hateful murder of a man for an alleged minor offense by an agent of the state is an immoral equivalence. These are not the same. And historically in this nation the fight for rights has never been non-violent whether we speak of violence at lunch counters in the 50s or the looting and destruction of property from a ship at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston and the subsequent violent revolution that followed.

We fought a war that split a nation and we are in many ways still fighting that same war. Perhaps if someone kneeling had pricked our moral conscience, we would not be here. Perhaps if the marches in Ferguson had made killing from police was more rare, we would not be here. Perhaps if the long litany of recent failings was shorter, we would not be here, But we are here, and wishing it away or instituting even tougher “crack downs” which only exemplify the reason for the protests will not end this. So how do we move forward? I am certainly not the one to answer that. But, as our former president said last night, there are definitely signs of improvement, but there is still so far to go. Revolution is never a one time event.

My Experience

I am unskilled at empathy in the best of times for a number of reasons. And while I have been victim to homelessness, want, and hate at different points in my life, I cannot speak to this moment. Sure I’ve seen documentaries (which I recommend below), but, born a generally straight white boy in an educated middle class family, I can’t understand what it’s like to have someone dehumanize me and wish me dead just for how I was born. My only alienating factor is a disability I have become quite good at masking. So here I will only speak to my lived experience. What else would I do? I cannot even attempt to speak to anyone else’s without it being wholly inauthentic. And I have seen enough people fail when attempting black activist cosplay that I won’t even try it. So here, if you care, is that experience from where I speak.

Background

I am very pasty white middle-aged guy more gray than the ginger I had. And while in my white family growing up I heard stories of semi-vague connections to Native American heritage (apparently a common story among white families in America), my DNA tests speak mostly to English, Irish, and a touch of Nordic and Ashkenazi Jew. My family was by no means wealthy, but my parents were college-educated professionals. Yes, we lived in diverse neighborhoods in Chicagoland, but I heard racially charged statements (and still do) from my extended Midwestern family.

My children and my brother’s family at Sesame Street-I’m often the photographer

I now live with my Brazilian wife who considers herself Latina (but not Hispanic), and she can get pretty dark in the summer, but race in Brazil is very complicated. The short story of that is that it is heavily determined by hair texture. So two family members with the same skin tone (darker than many mixed race African-Americans) can be separately thought of as white or black dependent on hair. So what even is race? It’s deeply personal.

To that point, my younger brother, who is married to a black woman and famously proposed to her in the middle of a news broadcast, lives a different experience with race. His own 3 beautiful children have suffered threats and hate speech, even from other family members. It’s why I remain one of the few family members in contact with him and his wife. Even now his wife, a public figure, gets maligned for “Stirring up racial issues” and “her natural hair”. I support him, but I have no idea what worries he faces over what the world we be for his children. How could I, even if I were more empathetic, with my kids who seemed to have gotten most of their traits from me. The worst my kids have ever experienced was an Asian classmate questioning them about the strange dots on their face (freckles). They lead a blessed life.

In Teaching

I learned what race was for many of my students during my first year teaching. I was engaged in a fun music game where the students were excited to participate. It was a class of mostly male students with learning disabilities whose IEPs noted their categorization of having an emotional disturbance. And yet here I am in my first year mostly lost, but at that moment feeling like a genius having these students so eagerly raising their hands to respond. In the midst of that euphoria I called on one student to respond when suddenly another student who was black called out.

“Hey why did you call on him?” he said.

“Oh, I saw his hand first. Sorry.” I responded.

“No! You called on him because he’s white.”

One of my student debate teams. We got 2nd place the district that year.

I was totally floored and I think the student noticed it. He hadn’t called me racist, but the implication was clear. And all I could think was…but, wait, I’m not racist. I’m definitely not racist. Am I racist? And also, but that student is Asian?! And while I think my trying to calmly recompose myself and respond may have only taken a second or two, it felt like forever.

I said, “First, that’s not why I called on him. And also he’s Asian, not white. But I’ll make sure to get you for the next one if you want.”

We returned to the activity without disruption, but I didn’t then address the underlying issue. I had no idea how. In my mind though I came to two realizations. The first that would gain more clarity over the years is that for many of my students race was simply broken down into 2 categories. You were either black or white. Chinese students were white. LatinX students were mostly white except for some Dominican students who were black. They got a little confused when they encountered students from India or Bangladesh with dark skin and straight hair (see my previous Brazil reference). They also encountered confusion when they met other students who had immigrated from countries in Africa (most often Nigeria and Senegal) and where they fit comparatively. I have to say it took a while for me to fully understand their perception, but it was fueled by their lived experience where certain locations and certain behaviors belonged solely to certain communities.

The second thing I realized in that moment was that ignoring race wasn’t enough. I had to acknowledge who my students are and the communities they are a part of. And while I would continue to try and broaden perspectives, I had to recognize that experience. That seems so obvious now that really knowing your students well makes you better, but it was a genuine moment of enlightenment then. I’m happy to say that while I’ve certainly made a vast many more mistakes as a teacher and my understanding is still limited, I never again had students accuse me of being unfair or uncaring like in that moment. But even now, we cannot rest on our laurels. Don’t try to be a savior. You are not. You are not there to rescue anyone. Ne a guide, be an aid, be a caring and compassionate ally. I’ve been lucky to have black administrators throughout my career who could offer me guidance.

An Unequal Education System

I can’t go into all the ways education has been unequal even since Brown v. Board from redlining to white flight, but I’ll give a little local view. I discuss the challenges in my decisions with my children when I wrote about Choosing the Right School and how I vacillated between schools that gave my children broad exposure while also guiding them towards success. Short version: my 2 boys are in public school in Queens, America’s most diverse county in advanced classes. Their elementary school is/was classified as segregated by the city since there were so few white students (read the post to understand that). My older son’s middle school is considered highly diverse partly because it has a majority white students but also at least 15% of three other racial groups. It’s a strange juxtaposition to be sure.

Despite the diversity, New York City is highly segregated and in some ways was designed that way by Robert Moses. I write about our current Chancellor’s efforts at more effectively Integrating Schools in NYC, and the opposition they have met with. Some of those inequities have been even more exposed in the midst of remote learning. But our nation has a long history of of systemic inequity in schools and communities where black Americans who met with success would often be met with violence whether it was the Tulsa Massacre or the Wilmington Massacre where generational black wealth was extinguished or Levittown, NY’s prevention of black ownership. These play roles in education over generations and ties directly into the inequity built into a system where we pay for schools based on property taxes in towns with a history of racist housing policies.

Andrew Johnson forced to cut his hair

But let’s look at some of the subtler modern racism in our schools. There are several individual examples apart from the broader inequities between nearby schools. We can explore the antiquated “whites only” dress codes that force students like a wrestler in NJ with ethnic hair styles to be publicly humiliated when their forced to choose between their culture and their academic career. Or maybe we can look at which students are more frequently called on vs which are more likely to be suspended or receive disproportional punishment. In that we see clear inequity in the system. An much of that may occur may occur in schools and district with few teachers of color. So how can the students feel connected to a system that doesn’t represent them. So in those ways, many students are beginning with deficits, so there is a lot of work necessary just to get back to the start.

Teaching To racism

Teachers were already struggling to connect with students during remote learning and now that is exacerbated by the tragedy and strife we now endure. How can you comfort your students if you can’t be with them? How can you build connection when you feel so separate physically and, perhaps, culturally?

4 multicultural hands

I am not going to say much specifically to this and would much rather point you to information from better sources. In New York City we have held implicit bias trainings and have a push towards Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education which asks schools to value and the varied experiences and needs that students carry with them into classroom whether it relates to race, culture, language, disability, or anything else. I will say it requires empathy and connecting with students. That doesn’t mean you have to pretend to understand or like the things they do. Don’t be inauthentic, but do be caring and flexible and someone willing to listen. And as this article so eloquently states teachers cannot be silent. But it’s not just about sharing stories f oppression, but we should also regale students in stories of victory and empowerment encouraging them to rise to above every challenge.

Resources

The NYC Schools Chancellor put out a statement on NYC students standing together for justice that is a bold continuation of his previous anti-bias efforts along with resources for families. In addition to some specific resources I will list below, I want to point you to some quality compendiums including a collaborative Wakelet of Shared Anti-Racist Resources highlighting black voices (curated by Tisha Poncio), an NYC document for talking about race with children, a general document of anti-racism resources, and a fully curated 2020 Curriculum Resource Guide and Google Drive (from Ian Lawrence) filled with anti-racism materials including posters, BLM coloring books, multilingual resources, and more.

Self-Reflection

Some other good places to begin include the Guide to Allyship, the Anti-racist starter pack, Facing History and Ourselves, and an article on 75 things white people can do. Then there are some awesome TED Talks and media you can digest including Danger of a Single Story, Daddy What’s a Racist, and, surprisingly I know, the Joe Rogan and Daryl Davis conversation. If you want something that speaks specifically to your role as an educator there is Becoming a More Equitable Educator: Mindsets and Practices or you can read some good books like For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too or Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?.

Instruction

We have to begin with students who are hurting, but it cant be whitewashed social-emotional learning. I have spoken before about teaching about tragedy and 12 ways to create a safe space for students, but we do need to address the core issues. We must first meet a child’s psychological needs and then we can move towards equitable instruction for all on race. And remember, as i said before, ignoring race won’t cut it.

A Sweet Smell of ROses cover

A number of educational companies are also sharing free resources like the News Lit Project sharing on the right to protest, PBS Learning Media’s content on Confronting Anti-Black Racism, BrainPOP’s offerings that explore institutionalized racism and profiles in activism. It can begin early with books for young children that explore race. I have liked using A Sweet Smell of Roses, Hair Love, and Ellington was not a Street. You can also have them attend the KidLit Rally for Black Lives tonight or get granular with High School Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand, and Respond to Social Injustice. There are also a number of movies that address racism that have portions that are good to share with students like the documentaries The 13th I Am Not Your Negro which are both quite good. If you’re looking for something more aligned with pop culture there’s the classic Do the Right Thing and I was really moved by The Hate U Give.

SUmmary & SOlutions?

We are not and have never been a perfect nation. People are still alive who lived through forced segregation, internment camps, McCarthyism, and the modern lynching. But can we not be better than this? The horribleness of our festering national wound of racism cannot simply be placated. As Malcolm X said “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.”

So what can heal that wound? I am certainly not the expert. I recommend the work of activist DeRay McKessen. We have to change both attitudes and actions. We already have cameras everywhere and studies show the body cameras don’t change police behavior or stop the George Zimmerman’s from escaping justice. And while implicit bias training and community policing have improved some attitudes, it hasn’t change behaviors. Having more officers of color helps, but it requires a third of the force to be black and that’s a rarity and unsustainable. As he and others have shared, there are 8 policy changes that could at least address the issue of police violence. They are:

  • Ban chokeholds and strangleholds
  • Require de-escalation (i.e. communicate with subjects, maintain distance, and otherwise defuse tensions where possible)
  • Require warning before shooting
  • Exhaust all other means before shootings
  • Duty to intervene (officers must stop other officers from excessive force and report)
  • Ban shooting at moving vehicles (that’s safer for everyone around)
  • Require a use-of-force continuum (this limits the weapons depending on the situation)
  • Require comprehensive reporting (every time officers use force-report that)
The 8 can't wait policies

No, reforming our laws and our schools will not end racism. Some argue that the 8 steps above are not enough and that only a full defunding or reimagining of policing in America will be sufficient. They may be right, but that the conversation has moved that far is meaningful. Teaching about tolerance and connecting students across cultures will help, but it won’t end racism. Racism lives in the hearts and minds of those insecure and looking for a scapegoat. Rooting out all racism will be near impossible, but we can move our nation towards becoming a place where the darkness and depravity of racism dare not show itself in the light. And maybe the words of Langston Hughes will finally ring true as we can Let America Be America Again.

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

One thought on “A White Educator Discusses Racism…and How To Teach Students About It

  1. Arnold I hear you! You did not choose D75, it chose you. I do remember a young music teacher caring, compassionate and loving. There was a student who hadn’t spoken for two years, you gave him a mic and, he sang to the song Itsy Bitsy spider. Trust love and caring are very important to our population! Virtual learning obstructs all three. I hear you loud and clear, Our D75 children are deprived of what helps them thrive to see, hear, touch, the caring that teachers like yourself give them everyday. I’m touched by your words, and, to anyone that knows you, I’m a first hand testament of your selfless teaching. The divide of color is evident, our classrooms are like a microscope where we see the (them) our society often. Many of us have family, that are the (them) the media, co-workers, community leaders talk as if invisible. Virtual learning have made D75 teachers invisible to our invisible population. Who will look at them, who will give them the microphone. I can go on but, my tears do not allow me! Arnold I hear you/ but, I can’t see you! This must be the thoughts, the words of the population that chose you!

    Liked by 1 person

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