How Not to Address a Student’s Feelings of Unintentional Discrimination

By Shannon Wanna, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate


Editor’s Note: We received the following letter from Shannon Wanna, a Native American and digital marketing expert, regarding her and her daughter’s experience in their Kansas public school. We were tempted to offer educators advice at the end of this piece. But the letter, edited here, speaks clearly for itself: Check your racial bias; don’t be defensive.

Before the start of the school year, I contacted the principal at my daughter’s school to make him aware of the “Teacher Tribe” T-shirts I found circulating on social media. I let him know that I found these shirts to be highly offensive and that I would be particularly offended if any educator wore them at the school. I said I know it would upset my third-grade daughter as well. As Native Americans and members of the Muscogee Creek, Seminole, Omaha, and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribes, we deeply value our culture and traditions. Given the history of Native Americans having to restrict their cultural practices and traditions through assimilation and boarding schools, I said it is inappropriate for teachers to wear shirts with the word “Tribe” or that include images of a tipi and arrow.

The principal responded, addressing my concerns, and spoke to a few of the staff members about this. This was last I heard of it.

One Friday early in the school year, my daughter came home and told me she saw one of the teachers wearing a similar “Teacher Tribe” shirt and that it hurt her feelings. We practice open communication in our household, so I asked her what she wanted to do about these feelings. She said she wanted to talk to the teacher. I have always felt comfortable speaking with any of the staff at the school, as they have always been very open and approachable to my family. So I thought not only should they be aware of how offensive these shirts are to Native Americans, as well as other students and parents, but that they’d be receptive to hearing from my daughter. I also thought this was a powerful way for my daughter to use the leadership skills that she had learned through the Leader In Me program at her school. I am so proud of my daughter for wanting to stand up for what she believes in!

So we went back up to the school around 4:30 pm that day to have a conversation with the teacher who wore the shirt, but she had already left. My daughter still wanted to talk to someone at the school, so when we ran into her second-grade teacher from the previous year, my daughter spoke about her feelings and I provided further explanation on the matter. The teacher had no idea how offensive the shirt was and commended my daughter for being brave enough to speak up, educate and bring awareness to those around her about her culture. This made my daughter feel so much better and at ease. She planned to talk to the teacher who had actually wore the shirt on Monday. I told her we would go in early or stay after school to meet with her.

Then at 7:45 pm that Sunday, I received a phone call from the teacher in question. She said the principal gave her the OK to speak to me about this (I found out later from the principal that he did not tell her to call us). I was expecting a respectful conversation, but she came at me — and my daughter — in a very aggressive and defensive manner. We had respected and trusted the teacher so my daughter and I both felt comfortable talking to her about a sensitive topic. I felt this could be a teachable moment for my daughter and a great way to express her feelings, use her leadership skills, and speak up for what she believes in. I am so very proud of her bravery! Instead of having an open dialogue between a teacher and student and parent, we were subjected to a horrific phone call. The teacher did not enter the conversation to listen or to understand our point of view. She was very defensive. We in no way wanted to make her feel uncomfortable. My daughter simply wanted to have a conversation about the shirt and share her feelings. That was it!

After the teacher stopped interrupting, my daughter was able to express her feelings. She was visibly shook up by the teacher’s abrasive tone and interruptions, but she was able to speak her mind. The teacher stated that she was feeling attacked and her character was attacked and told my daughter that she was hurting her heart to think that she would want to hurt us. She turned the whole thing around to where she was the victim. She said we were making her out to be a racist, hurtful person.

We never said the teacher was racist to anyone. In fact, when we spoke to the other second-grade teacher on Friday, we said we know she didn’t wear the shirt to hurt our feelings. That is why we wanted to have a conversation with her — so she could better understand what the shirt means to us and our culture. The teacher turned this very teachable moment into an attack on my daughter and me. After I explained our feelings about the shirt (noting the painful history of assimilation and boarding schools, etc.) she told us she was still planning to wear the shirt. She said she didn’t find it offensive, and to her “tribe” means community. She was not listening to our point of view at all! I asked her, so you are willing to make a student and family feel offended and uncomfortable at the school. Her response was simply that we will have to agree to disagree. My daughter heard all of this and her eyes immediately welled up with tears! She cried herself to sleep that night. We both did. 

I feel the teacher spoke to my daughter in a way that no adult, especially a teacher, should speak to a child. She said she was going to speak to the whole faculty about this situation to get their take on the shirt. I feel she was threatening us and this was in retaliation for bringing up a valid concern of ours. My daughter used to think of school as a safe environment with trusted adults. And now she certainly sees teachers in a different light. I am heartbroken for my child who stood up for what she believes in, only to be completely shut down by a close-minded individual who is actively teaching children.

The whole incident also makes me feel as if my concerns are not valid.

It has been three months now and the teacher still has not apologized for her actions and has even tried to talk to my daughter at school. I have spoken with the principal and assistant superintendent several times as well as the staff counsel for the school district. I told them all what we wanted was for my daughter to feel comfortable and safe while she is at school. To help this process, we would like the teacher to not wear the shirt to school. Because of the behavior of the teacher during the phone call, I said we would also like an apology for her actions and words. Everyone from the school district (at first) said they could not deliver these to us. They each said we were just going to have to try and move on and that my daughter would probably see the shirt again so she is just going to have to deal with it.

The staff counsel for the school district stated this isn’t an objective offense but a subjective offense — a matter of competing opinions — so they can’t do anything. To Native Americans this is objective. The problem is that most non-natives, at least in this school district, see it as subjective. And given that 99% of the school district is non-native, our voice and feelings do not matter.

Since the incident, we have seen some progress from the school administration. The principal and assistant superintendent have both spoke to the teacher and advised her to not wear the shirt. They confirmed to us she will not wear the shirt to school again. The principal has addressed the school staff on the incident as well as cultural awareness. He is currently working on bringing diversity training to the school for staff development.

Some members of our school community are definitely treating us differently since the incident. People are less friendly. They don’t make eye contact. They turn around when they see us. Some have also unfriended and blocked me from social media.

We live in Kansas and my daughter attends one of the “best” and largest school districts in the state. There is no equity council, diversity committee, or student support for minority students within our school district.

White Educators Teaching America’s “Hard History”

By Brent Locke

As an educator, and specifically a white educator, teaching about enslavement is fraught with the potential for disaster (e.g., Will students get upset when they learn what the enslavement really was? Will the unit create tension among different racial groups in my classroom? Will their parents question me for exposing their children to difficult and uncomfortable stories?). Yet its exclusion from the curriculum would be unconscionable.

To make matters more complex, inherent in the conversation of slavery is the social construct of race. In their introduction to the March 2018 issue of National GeographicBlack and White: The Race Issue — the editors suggest: “Discussing race in our learning environments is critical. Race is one social construct that impacts the everyday lives of all students in this country. We have been warned not to discuss race, politics, or religion, but those very constructs are at the heart of human identity, human conflict, and human healing.”

As a former seventh grade social studies teacher (I just moved out of the country due to my partner’s job and am spending the year writing curriculum), my curriculum content area was American History, and I believed (and still do) there was no story more important to tell than that of how and by whom the country was built, shaped, and consequently how it is now understood. Each year, I was tasked with trying to guide my students in the story of America’s founding, and therefore the story of enslavement, to young impressionable and mostly white students.

As a white teacher working with both white students and students of color, I knew I needed to prepare my classroom for this unit. The most critical part of this preparation was building a culture of respect and empathy, one that allowed for disagreement and discomfort. When that culture was present I knew it would allow for the deepest and most transformative learning to occur. For example, after the unit, a student commented, “Not until this unit did I really understand how America was created.” Because of my own implicit blind spots, I knew I could not eliminate all stereotype threats or prevent students from wandering into often well intentioned but undoubtedly offensive race-related questions or comments. But I knew that we could hold each other accountable for our mistakes and comfort each other when needed. Before the unit began, I would also check in with my students of color to allow them the time and space to prepare for the unit. I explained to each of them individually what we would be covering and asked them what they might need to feel safe and understood. I also acknowledged that, as a white teacher, I might fall short and not be able to meet their needs personally, but that they had the right and were encouraged to seek whatever resources they needed to learn the material in a safe environment, including but not limited to seeking emotional support.[1] This part of the process proved invaluable as I often received difficult and important questions that students were uncomfortable to ask in front of their peers, such as: “Why was skin color so important to slavery?” and “Why did Africans allow this to happen to them?

As the unit began, I asked each student to lean in to the discomfort, first by expressing what made them uncomfortable about the subject. I believe this helped each of them to see, in the broader sense, that everyone struggles in some way with having to learn about this painful part of American history. It also enabled students whose ancestors may have been enslaved to speak more candidly about what they were thinking and feeling going into this unit. Lastly, I explained that my goal was to help them understand this part of our history not only as a matter of horror and shame, but also as a time of remarkable resistance and hope. As the editors at Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, note in their issue on Teaching Hard History, we need to center the black experience. “Our tendency is to focus on what motivated the white actors within the system of chattel slavery,” they write “But, whether discussing the political, economic, or social implications, the experiences of enslaved people must remain at the center of the conversation to do this topic justice.”

 I encouraged my students to question the curriculum and ask why I chose each story and the perspectives from which I taught. If it wasn’t already clear, I wanted them to know that all history and all teaching is biased and they should always feel free to question the stories we tell about our nation and how we choose to teach them.

The question I struggled with, though, was: Where do I begin? I still do.

Teaching the horrors of enslavement and the systemic oppression of a people based on their race is critical to understanding the American story, but in isolation it can create a narrative for students of color, specifically African-American students, that their ancestral story begins in a place of despair. As journalist Shaun King notes: “We must never allow black history to begin in slavery. Just like no point of white history ever begins in the lowest point in white people’s history. Black history must never begin in a place of pain and oppression.” This is a perspective I had not thoughtfully considered or allowed to influence my practice in previous years. As a teacher, I must acknowledge my shortcomings and adjust my curriculum in the future.

 I know from student achievement and student feedback that after the unit’s completion my students had a strong factual and conceptual understanding of enslavement. If I am honest with myself, however, I centered the American story as one of oppressor vs. oppressed, using the excuse that I didn’t have enough time to teach it all. I was proud of teaching the many forms of resistance to the institution and practice of slavery both in micro and macro ways, as well as the exceptional stories of African Americans whose names are remembered in history. But I also must acknowledge that the story I presented to my students was incomplete. It is not enough to prime the enslavement unit with a brief conversation of Africa’s diverse, advanced, and nuanced history in a general context. If I want all students in my classroom to understand both the pain and the beauty in Black history, and therefore in American history, I must not begin at the lowest point. While this perhaps implies that the year-over-year scope and sequence of the history curriculum must be examined, which it should, it is also critical that enslavement be taught with a more nuanced picture of African-American history within the unit.

As my educational journey continues, I find that embracing both the privilege and the history of my race are necessary to becoming an effective educator for each student I encounter. While I can accept my flaws on a human level, I also know that I must continuously work to uncover my blind spots because they continue to prevent all of my students from accessing a truly anti-bias curriculum, and at worst can endanger my students perceptions and perspectives.

Moving forward, I will continue to seek feedback from peers, students, and parents about their experience with the unit. Additionally, I will continue to look holistically at my entire course to examine the amount of time I spend teaching about different racial and ethnic groups and genders — the perspectives with which I present history to my students. Most of all, I know that if I teach this unit again, I will begin with stories and experiences of Africa before colonization. Those stories are essential for students to effectively learn the deep injustices and heroic resistance that came next.


Brent Locke is currently writing early childhood curriculum on social-emotional learning and trauma in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with an international development company. He was most recently teaching social studies, leadership, and cultural responsiveness at an independent school in McLean, Virginia, where he also served as the Dean of Students and Social Studies Department Chair. He previously taught elementary math, science, and social studies in New Orleans, Louisiana, with the Teach for America program. Brent has a Master’s in Education Administration and Leadership from George Washington University.



Teaching Tolerance: Teaching Hard History

nprED: Why Schools Fail to Teach Slavery’s “Hard History” 

National Geographic: Black and White — Discussion Guide for Parents and Teachers

Thirteen Media with Impact: Slavery and the Making of America


[1] This came as a suggestion from Teaching Tolerance’s Issue on Teaching Hard History. See link in Resources section.

Diversity and Purpose-Driven Education

By the TWW Staff


In her new book, Teaching for Purpose: Preparing Students for Lives of Meaning, Heather Malin, director of research at the Stanford University Center on Adolescence, encourages schools to help students find purpose in their lives. Her argument goes beyond mission statements and platitudes. She wants us to focus on both creating purpose-specific programs and developing ongoing classroom practices that support student engagement with the world around them.

While most educators support this general idea, we tend to have a laissez-faire attitude toward students finding purpose in their lives. We tend, in other words, to teach our subjects as well as we can and hope students find engagement, find value, find a purpose that will propel them into meaningful lives.

The central point of Teaching for Purpose is Malin’s argument that we should to be far more deliberate in our efforts. For us at Teaching While White, we certainly appreciate and support her argument. It was also heartening to discover that Malin connects purpose-driven education to racial and cultural diversity — and highlights important research that supports this work in schools.

She notes, for instance, research by Lisa Kiang and Andrew Fulgni, from Wake Forest University and the University of California, Los Angeles, respectively, on the importance of students developing a sense of “life meaning” as an essential element of well-being. Kiang and Fulgni also conducted targeted research on the difference in approaches to pro-social engagement among white, black, Asian American, and Latino students. Doing similar research, Margaret Beale Spencer and her colleagues at the University of Chicago found that “for African-American boys, but not African-American girls, religion and cultural pride are important resources for developing a healthy sense of self.”

For all educators, but especially white educators, this information is important. The findings of these and other related studies, Malin writes, “suggest that openly exploring student purpose in the classroom would offer teachers a valuable window into the lives of their students when they do not share an ethnic, cultural, community, or social class background with their students.”

By getting to know students’ values and what gives them a sense of purpose, educators can also get to know the students’ families and communities better. This sort of supportive connection between school and home, researchers tell us, are central to student engagement and success in school.

What we also like about Teaching for Purpose is the way Malin offers suggestions for engaging students in the classroom around a focus on purpose and community — the how-to part of the work.

We encourage educators to engage in conversations on purpose-driven schools. For now, we mostly want to underscore the school climate research that supports this work. Malin points out that, in schools that provide a positive, purpose-driven environment:

  • People in the school feel socially, emotionally, and physically safe.
  • Instruction is high quality, connected to real life, engaging, acknowledges student diversity, and is evaluated for continuous improvement.
  • Relationships are positive, cooperative, and respectful of diversity.

Do you have conversations about purpose in school? Do you encourage your students to think about their personal and collective purpose? Do classroom activities invite students to contribute their own ideas? Do classroom discussions encourage students to engage with the content in ways that connect with what matters to them?

MLK, The Kerner Commission Report, and Today’s Schools

By Michael Brosnan


As we well know, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There have been numerous reflections on his life and work — as well as on the continuing challenges for the causes for which he gave his life. What has gotten less attention is the fact that this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report, which, following on the heels of the uprising that erupted after King’s death, dug deeply into the question of race in America.

The title of a recent article in Smithsonian magazine, “The 1968 Kerner Commission Got It Right, But Nobody Listened,” burrows to the core of the problem, then and now. The article notes that the unrest and uprisings in 1968 were a reaction among mostly young urban blacks to “bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, unscrupulous consumer credit practices, poor or inadequate housing, high unemployment, voter suppression, and other culturally embedded forms of racial discrimination.” Sound familiar?

The Kerner report surfaced the levels of racism and inequity in our society at the time and made it clear that the federal and state governments were unresponsive to the problem. It also made it clear that the ongoing racial tension was the result of policies established by white-dominated public and private institutions — and maintained by the collective white culture.

“What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the report notes. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, white society condones it.”

The report adds, “White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”

I re-read sections of this report earlier this year, just before I read Creating the Opportunity to Learn, A. Wade Boykin and Pedro Noguera’s book examining racism in the educational system and in our classrooms. If those of us who were young back in 1968 could ever have claimed a certain amount of innocence when it came to race relations, we certainly can’t today. What troubles me is how, in light of King’s death, in light of the Kerner Report, in light of all we say we believe in our founding documents and in our various church doctrine and in our basic moral beliefs, we’ve managed collectively to resist racial equity and justice in the fifty years since. For those of us who are white educators, it may not always be easy to see the ways in which we are implicated in continuing racial injustice. We get up in the morning, go to school, try our best to help the children before us. But it should be crystal clear by now that our systems are inequitable, and that our schools, because they function within these systems, are also inequitable. So it should also be crystal clear we need to improve our efforts. To not do so amounts to a conscious act to support the status quo — which, of course, is racist by design and intent.

Boykin and Noguera write, “Approximately 75 percent of Black students [today] disagreed with the statement ‘My teachers support me and care about my success in their class.’ By contrast, this was the case for only 37 percent of White students and 32 percent of Asian students.”

The authors also note that “meta-analysis of research between 1968 and 2003 indicate that teachers have more positive expectations for White students than for Black and Latino students.”

During the school year, teachers are busy from the moment they wake to the moment they fall asleep. It may be tough to find the time to step back and reflect. Some teachers are also busy in summer — working a second job or teaching in a summer program. But there are often better margins to the day in summer, so I encourage educators who care about social justice (which I hope is all of us) to spend time reflecting on race in America and how it plays out in the classroom — so that we can all be part of the solution. If not this summer, then next.

In addition to fulfilling our civic duties to help our communities, state, and nation be more equitable, here are some summertime suggestions related to education:

  • Read a well-researched book on race in America and reflect on what it means for your classroom. How does this information impact your teaching and your perspectives on the students? How does it impact the lives of your students? How does it shape the culture of your school? Talk about it with other adults in your life.

  • Read a book on multicultural education and reflect on how you might change your practices to support students well across difference, especially race. Is there bias in your curriculum? Should your department or division have a conversation on its commitment to a multicultural education?

  • Take part in a summer workshop that focuses on inclusive education. There are many options out there. The goal is to learn from experienced educators how to create an inclusive classroom and curriculum. If you attend a workshop or conference that is focused on your area of expertise, ask questions and start conversations on the topic of race and learning. Help each other develop skills to teach all students well across race.

  • Reflect on the experiences of your students of color. Would any of them be among the 75 percent of Black and Latino students who say their teachers don’t support them? If you’re uncertain, consider ways you might be able to answer this question more clearly in the future. Along with strengthening your relationship with students of color and their families, consider surveying them occasionally to see how you might serve them better.

  • Develop the practice of teaching all students the skill of self-advocacy. The more that students can ask for help, or ask for clarification about some aspect of a subject, or reach out to adults for advice and support, the better they will do in school and life. Some students do this more naturally than others. But we should aim to teach all students the skill of self-advocacy and make it clear that we are available to them when they need help or have questions or simply want an adult to talk to.

In addition to reflecting on your own teaching and classroom, you might also consider ways you can help your school become more inclusive. The work will vary from school to school, of course. The goal is to consider systemic changes that will improve the culture and climate of the school — and serve all students well.

In some schools, this may involve setting up affinity groups and training teacher-facilitators. In others, it may involve digging into the data about the degree to which students are tracked differently by race. Are you setting up Latino and black students for a lower track than white and Asian-American students? In others, it maybe a matter of developing strong relations with parents of color.

Some years ago, I edited an article about race and education in which the author, an African-American head of school, wrote about the importance of all of us using our “thimbleful of power” to address racial inequities. Now, I find myself using this metaphor often. Like others, I’m sure, I can feel overwhelmed and beaten up by the various cultural forces that support a racist status quo. I used to think I could simply present the facts, highlight workable solutions, appeal to our collective conscience, and our culture would shift quickly. But fifty years after the assassination of MLK and Robert Kennedy, the release of the Kerner Commission Report, and the passing of the 1968 Civil Rights bill, we still struggle to do what is — or should be — obviously right.

I take solace and find hope in all those who are making a difference — who are using their thimbleful of power well. The process may be uncomfortably slow, but I’m sure that, if all of us engage now, we will be in a much better place fifty years hence.


Michael Brosnan is the senior editor for Teaching While White and author of The Sovereignty of the Accidental, a collection of poetry. More information at

Responding to Racism — Learning to Be an Ally to Students of Color

By Beth Davis


At 7 am on a freezing March morning, and a Saturday no less, fourteen undergraduates and I, as the staff adviser, began the long drive from Maryland to Tennessee for an alternative school break focused on relationship violence. Our drive was relatively quiet since most students did not know each other previously. However, our first full day together broke the silence through a series of games, icebreakers, and learning. Before diving into topics such as sexual assault and domestic abuse, we learned about power and privilege, intersectionality, structures of oppression, and responsibilities of civic engagement. Students reflected on their own identity and how it relates to privilege and oppression. This built the foundational knowledge and framework to interpret the service-learning experience as we volunteered at the YWCA, visited a domestic abuse shelter, met with a counselor at a batterer’s intervention program, learned about sexual assault and Title IX policy at the University of Tennessee, and observed a domestic docket at the local courthouse. While these experiences opened our eyes to the many challenges that survivors of abuse experience, the real learning occurred in our everyday interactions and reflections.

Reflections and learning activities brought to the surface students personal experiences with racism, socioeconomic inequality, and sexism. These feelings were raw and always present in our service. Twelve out of fourteen students were people of color and represented diverse income levels. Students were candid with their personal stories of oppression, and their resiliency showed in the way they navigated the longstanding history of racism in the South. We were often in spaces where there were no people of color except for those in our group. To say we stuck out is an understatement. Overall, we were welcomed in the community with Southern charm and hospitality. People on the street approached us to ask where we were from and gave us tips on places to visit. One person even stopped his car to chat with us while we were volunteering outdoors. We had to adjust our norms and push ourselves to be open to strangers, which is an uncomfortable experience for “Yankees,” as we were called by locals.

But then it came: That moment when Southern charm vanished and the legacy of racism reared its ugly head. On our last day, we drove about an hour outside of Knoxville to the Smokey Mountains. One group of students went hiking and a group of four African-American students and myself checked out flea markets along the country roads in the mountains. As we pulled into the parking lot of the first store, the vibe changed as students discussed how to handle a racist situation if it arose and, most importantly, discussed if they were even safe to enter a space that was visibly fueled by white culture. Students decided that they would likely get some stares, but that they would stare right back to show that they were not intimidated. Inside, we found confederate flag memorabilia — from shot glasses, to clothing, to bumper stickers — and there were a series of items with derogatory messages about “welfare queens,” immigrants, and other marginalized groups. Students laughed off these items and were relieved that racism seemed to be limited to inanimate objects.

As we were wrapping up, a friendly sales clerk encouraged each of us to check out the back room of the store before leaving. Entering the room, we found that it was full of what is known as “black memorabilia” — highly offensive caricatures of African Americans that were produced during the Jim Crow era to maintain the racially inferior status of black people. In terms of offensiveness, think Aunt Jemima and then multiple it by a hundred. Jaws dropped as students saw these figures. One student described it as entering “a museum for racist propaganda.” Students felt as if they had walked back in time but were soon reminded that these images are still considered acceptable to a salesclerk who encouraged a group of young, black students to shop through merchandise created specifically to reinforce their inferior place in society and to showcase their history of oppression. Students wondered, “Is this salesclerk completely clueless or is she intentionally trying to tell us that we do not belong?”

To answer that question, as we were walking out of the store, the salesclerk said, “Now y’all behave, ya hear?” To which a student responded with, “We always do!” While this statement might seem innocent, it has a history in the South of being used by whites toward African Americans to remind them of their lower social status. The expression is used to patronize black people as if they are children, to condemn their behavior as inherently bad, and to reinforce domination by whites through constant policing. It is part of the mental colonization process of maintaining a system of oppression. By saying “We always do,” the student was not allowing racism to go unchecked. She countered with positivity, both in her delivery of the response and in a message that reaffirmed the worth of the group. As Michelle Obama would say, she went high when they went low.

I was not as quick to process and respond to the incident as the students. I had to reflect on the intersections of my own identity to appropriately respond. I grew up in the South and being a Southerner is a strong part of my personal identity. My initial thought was to explain to students that the salesclerk was merely saying a common phrase throughout the South and one that had been said to me hundreds of times in the past. However, I am white and that phrase does not have the same meaning or history in its use toward people who look like me. If I had not stepped back to recognize the difference in meanings and interpretations that come from personal identity, I could have potentially responded dismissively and not recognized the prejudice inflicted on students. Additionally, my identity as the older person in the group made me feel like I had to respond with words to demonstrate my leadership as the adviser. But had I said what I was thinking, I could have shut down the conversation and unintentionally been part of the systems and culture that marginalize students of color. With these conflicting identities, I had to navigate how to respond in a way that recognized my personal identity and the privilege that comes with it, while also respecting the different identities of students and their interpretations.

Once I processed everything, I felt it was critical to affirm the student’s bravery in facing down racism and to give students space to dissect the experience through their own lens. With my adviser hat, I let students know that I supported them. At the same time, as a white person in a position of authority, I recognized that my voice could easily dominate the discussion of this experience and that my feelings and interpretations of it were that of an outsider. I can never truly know what it feels like to have to worry if I am safe walking into a store because of the color of my skin or the feeling of being humiliated by a store’s merchandise. Ultimately, I decided it was more powerful to respond by listening than trying to think of the appropriate words. I listened to students dissect the experience and they did so by breaking down the ridiculousness of the items in the store and celebrating the student who responded directly to racism. I let them know that I agreed with them and supported them with a nod or an affirmation. It was challenging to express support for students and outrage at what happened, while limiting my own words. But I found that I did not need to offer any grand words of wisdom or consoling comments to show that I was there for them.

I later asked the student who responded to the racist comment if I could have done something differently to make her or the other students feel better supported or to help them process the incident. She responded that just physically being there was enough for her — that if I had not been there, she would have never entered the store because she knew what she was potentially walking in to. It made me deeply sad to understand how normalized racism is for my students and that they make decisions on what spaces they are comfortable entering based on how they will be perceived, which is something I regularly take for granted. However, the idealist in me is hopeful that as educators we can open doors for students that literally cross racial lines and that by doing this, we can eventually chip away racism so that students do not have to be fearful.

This experience taught me that sometimes you do not have to say anything insightful or do anything special to show students you support them. You just have to be there as an educator, as an adviser, and as an ally.


Beth Davis worked in Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland, where she increased wraparound services and community partnerships, developed after-school programming focused on social-emotional development and college and career readiness, and strengthened family-friendly school practices. Most recently, Davis completed a Education Policy & Strategy Fellowship at City Year. She has spent the past year working on diversity issues at the University of Maryland, where she is completing a M.Ed. in Minority & Urban Education this summer. In the fall, she will be a Ph.D. in Education Policy candidate at George Mason University. 


So, What Do White 4th Graders Have to Say About Race?

By Elizabeth Denevi


As it turns out, a lot.

Twice a month I get to work with fourth graders at a local school. The district has a stated commitment to racial equity and has been considering culturally responsive strategies with faculty and staff. When some middle school students of color reported a series of racial microaggressions, the administration instituted racial affinity groups in 4th grade as one way of addressing issues of bias and stereotypes at a younger age. I partner with an educator of color who meets with the students of color at the same time as I meet with the white students. We also have several multiracial students who move between our two groups depending on their needs and identity.

During our first meeting, I asked the white kids three questions. I put them up on big pieces of poster paper, and they wrote their answers on Post-its. Here were the questions:

1. Where did the term “white” come from?
2. What does it mean to be “white” to you?
3. Have you ever heard any stereotypes about white people?

I have about 30 kids in the group. Three of them had an answer for the first question, something like “our skin is lightly colored.” Most said, “I never thought about it” or “I don’t know.” For the second question, the majority said they had no idea because they had never thought about it before. One said, “I have a specific race.” Here was another response: “Lots of people say that black people were treated worse than white people. So, on the outside, I feel a little glad that I am white, but I feel bad for black people and how they were treated back then.”

The stereotype question elicited a wide range of responses (asterisk indicates a response was given by more than one child):

** I haven’t really heard a stereotype.
** White people are smarter than black people.
** White people can’t dance.
White people are more mean.
All white people are smart.
You can’t be racist against whites really.
White people are better than black people.
White people are bad drivers.
White women: yellow hair, red lips, perfect skin.
All white people have privileges that blacks don’t.
White people are good in essay writing.

I was struck by the fact that these white children, who had a really hard time identifying as white, were aware of many stereotypes associated with whiteness. And as a point of intersectionality, they tend to make many comments related to gender identity and expression along with race and ethnicity. I have also noticed that when I arrive at school, the students are excited for our group. So, here are children who are eager for these discussions, but who tell me they don’t have these kinds of conversations on a regular basis.

Each time we meet, I inquire: Are we getting a better at understanding of what it means to be white? Many of my white students say they are still not sure, but they are seeing things they never saw before. Recently, one white girl ran into our meeting space, anxious to share with me that she had just seen the movie Black Panther: “And, Elizabeth, did you know that almost every person in the movie had brown skin? I’ve never seen a movie with so many brown people. It was awesome!” I consider it a privilege to be on this racial identity journey with these kids. I often think about what it might have meant for me if I could have had these conversations at their age. And I know that if we can get these kids to understand that racial differences are simply that — just differences — they will not attach notions of deficit to those differences. 

Just last week, with all the students in the affinity-group program, we watched a scene from The Eye of the Storm, a documentary about Jane Elliott's Brown Eyes–Blue Eyes experiment with her class of 3rd graders back in 1968. After Dr. King was assassinated, she wanted a way for all her white children in Iowa to understand the significance of racial prejudice. Our affinity groups kids sat riveted to their seats as they watched what happened to the children as Elliot first favored one eye color and then the other. The students exclaimed, “That’s not fair!” and “I don’t like this experiment at all!” We then talked about the power of stereotypes and what they want to do to heed Elliot’s call, “It’s time to kill the stereotypes.” They had great ideas of ways to challenge their own thinking and what to do when a stereotype “pops into their heads.”

As I reflect on all we are trying to do in schools, it amazes me that this program takes only one hour per month. 60 minutes to give these children an opportunity to think deeply about who they are and what that means. I’m lucky to partner with an amazing co-facilitator and two willing school counselors, but when all is said and done, it has been relatively easy to set up this program because there was a will to do it — a clear mandate from school leadership that these conversations matter. Children who participate in racial affinity groups demonstrate higher levels of school connectedness, which means higher achievement. So, it’s a win-win. And I can’t wait to hear what they will say next time.


Elizabeth Denevi is the cofounder and codirector of Teaching While White. She also serves as the associate director for Mid West Educational Collaborative, a nonprofit agency that works with schools nationally to increase equity, promote diversity pedagogy, and implement strategic processes for growth and development. She is also the program director for the California Teacher Development Collaborative (CATDC) summer institute, Equity as Excellence, a unique three-day program for California educators to receive concrete tools, research-based strategies, and guided practice to support equity and inclusion work in their schools. This article first appeared on the CATDC blog.

Teaching English While White

By Jenna Chandler-Ward



Our stars weren't meant for
Their sky. We have never known
The same horizon.

         — Clint Smith

I recently went to a reading by Angie Thomas, author of the New York Times best-seller The Hate U Give. If you don’t know this young adult novel, it is about a black teenage girl, Starr Carter, who is caught between the poor neighborhood she lives in and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. Starr also finds herself in the middle of white police violence and witnesses the murder of a childhood friend. This breathtaking novel explores many aspects and complexities of American identity today. Thomas is also a brilliant speaker with tremendous, humor, humility, and grace.

When Thomas finished speaking about how and why she had written this novel, young people, mostly black and brown students, lined up to ask questions. One by one, they stepped up to the mic, thanked Thomas for her book, and said how much the novel had meant to them. I listened to some of the students say that they had never liked to read, or that they had never seen themselves on a page before, and that the experience of reading this novel had changed them. One student said, through tears, that she had never thought reading was for (black) girls like her, until she had read this book.

This kind of deeply felt response to literature should not be a surprise — especially to those of us who teach English. Many of us chose this profession because, somewhere along the line, we recognized the power of good writing to make us feel seen, understood, and human. The written word holds power, and we know this. Yet we also know that not all of our students can find themselves in our curriculum.

Watching student after student of color stand to speak about the effect Thomas’s novel had on them, it highlighted for me the reality that in too many schools — indeed, in most schools — we still haven’t developed any sense of clarity about what we mean by “diversifying the curriculum.” Often, when white teachers talk about varying the curriculum, we do it with a vague sense of helping “other” children to connect with reading, because we know that we should. Most of us stick close to the traditional, and very white, literary canon. When we add a book or a short story by an author of color to the curriculum, it is performative inclusion without a clear understanding of the literary value of these “extra” texts. In fact, we seem to believe that teaching outside of what we personally know comes at the expense of academic rigor — as if there is an objective standard of what is significant.

This is a problem not just because students of color are not seeing themselves reflected in the majority of books we teach in schools. It is also a problem because white students predominantly see their race and culture reflected in the majority of books we teach. What happens when you see yourself reflected at the center of every curriculum over the course of your precollegiate education? What is the effect of continuing to teach the canon to our white students? When we continue to center the white voice in the narratives we read, we don’t just signal to students of color that their personal and cultural experiences are less valuable than that of white students, we also reinforce a mentality of cultural superiority by letting our white students believe that white culture is what is worth knowing.

Teachers are more likely to teach the way and the books that they have been taught themselves. But by teaching books primarily by white authors about white experiences, we put whiteness at the center of our curriculum. By making writers of color adjunct, by ignoring their many and vast contributions, we also let students know that they are not missing anything by not reading these writers. There is no loss in remaining racially isolated and racially ignorant. We lose nothing by being versed in only one literary tradition that continues to be self-referential and builds on the previous “great novels” before its time.

Aside from being totally wrong, we are setting up our white students to continue to be self-referential and unable to look at literature with a truly critical eye. We are reinforcing and perpetuating white supremacy for the next generation of future white teachers and parents.

As  R.O. Kwon points out in her article, 34 Books by Women of Color to Read This Year, “It is easiest to forget the shared humanity of people whose lives we haven’t tried imagining.” When we continue to ignore much of the population by not bothering to imagine our shared humanity, we are growing the next generation of white supremacists. Not just white people perpetuating a white supremacist system, but also actual individual white supremacists who believe they are being discriminated against the moment they are asked to live in a just and fair society. The kind of white adults who are angry when they feel that someone else may get a small slice of what they enjoy. We need to support learning that promotes empathy, and neither deflates or inflates any students sense of belonging in the world. We need all students to enter adulthood with their full humanity and dignity in tact.

What should a teacher look for when picking a book? Here are some suggestions. It is certainly not a comprehensive list, but it’s a place to start. These apply to any grade level and can be applied to race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability, gender, class, or any other aspect of identity.

  1. Most important, the book should exemplify good storytelling. Aside from an interesting plot, the writing is accessible and addresses engaging and important cultural themes and ideas. If it directly deals with a social justice issue, it is not done in a condescending, “poor them” tone.
  2. The book should avoid offensive cultural expressions, negative attitudes, or stereotypical representations. Yes, I am talking about To Kill a Mockingbird and Huck Finn, among other popular English class texts. Unless you are prepared to teach, with Herculean effort, all of the context and history and impact of the N word and demeaning racial stereotypes, you can find other engaging stories and novels that are not written by white authors and that will not racially spotlight or re-injure any students.
  3. Speaking of non-white authors — the author of the book should be from the depicted social group. This can be tricky at times, but in my opinion it is always better to find stories that have a leading character from the same social group as the author. Check the author’s bio for a description of the author’s connection to the group being represented.
  4. The story acknowledges the diversity of experiences within a particular cultural group. As novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us in her Ted Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, it is important to read stories and novels to reach beyond cultural stereotypes to deeply felt lives. Books should avoid the idea that all people of any social group share a singular experience. This is also important to consider across the scope of a curriculum. Do we only see Asian characters in wartime? Are black characters only ever dealing with oppression and adversity?
  5. There are no shortages of suggested multicultural reading lists, too, available through organizations like Common Sense Media and We Need Diverse Books, and through publications like the School Library Journal. The Inclusive Schools Network also offers resources on culturally diverse books worth teaching.

Yes, it takes time and effort to find appropriate texts by grade level that are written by historically underrepresented groups. But not taking the time boils down to irresponsible teaching today. Sticking with the literary canon means we not only have a one dimensional idea of literary merit, it also means we are dividing our students between those who feel unseen, disengaged, and frustrated and those who feel they are at the center of the literary universe. We can do better.


Jenna Chandler-Ward is the co-founder of Teaching While White and teaches English and drama at the Meadowbrook School of Weston (Massachusetts). She is also the co-director the Multicultural Teaching Institute.



The Narrative Battle

 Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt of comments from writer and social-justice advocate Bryan Stevenson in A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality, and the Law (New Press, 2018) — a "no-holds-barred, red-hot discussion of race in America today" among Stevenson; Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; Loretta Lynch, a former attorney general of the United States; and Anthony C. Thompson, a professor of clinical law and the faculty director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at New York University School of Law. It's reprinted here with permission.

For me, the challenge that we face is a narrative battle. I don’t think we’ve actually done very effective narrative work in this country. We had a genocide in America. And when white settlers came to this continent, they killed millions of native people, through famine and war and disease. And we forced those people from their lands. We kept their names. We named streets and buildings and counties and things after them, but we forced them off. And because of a narrative shift, we didn’t say, “That’s genocide.” We said. “Those people are savages.” And that narrative failure to own up and acknowledge their humanity allowed us to think that we hadn’t done anything immoral. But we did.

And then we had slavery and the Civil War. The North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war. The South was able to persuade the United States Supreme Court that racial equality wasn’t necessary. And they actually reclaimed a racial hierarchy; that ideology of white supremacy. And we allowed that to happen for a hundred years. Then we had horrific terrorism and violence, and we ended the mass lynchings with impunity. But those who perpetrated that terrorism and violence won the narrative war. They were never held accountable. And then we got into the Civil Rights Era, where there was this massive, incredible movement led by extraordinary people, like Dr. King and Rosa Parks. We won passage of the Voting Rights Act; we won passage of the Civil Rights Act. But we lost the narrative war.

The people who were holding the signs that said, “Segregation Forever,” and “Segregation or War,” they were never forced to put down those signs. They didn’t wave them around anymore, but they kept adhering to that value. And now we’re living at a time where that thriving narrative of racial difference, that ideology of white preference, has exhibited itself, and now we’re dealing with the consequences of that. We won an election in 2008, but we lost the narrative battle. We actually allowed that president to be demonized and victimized and marginalized because he’s black — not because of anything he said or did. And our comfort with that kind of demonization is, I think, at the heart of the challenge that we face.

So, I want us to be involved in legal battles in court. I want us to be thinking strategically, politically, about how we claim federal government and make local government work for us. But we’ve got to start fighting a narrative battle. We’ve got to create a country and a culture where you are not allowed to say, “I’m going to ban people because they’re Muslims,” and win with that. You’re not allowed to ban people. There will always be people who try to exploit the fear and anger that give rise to these kinds of narratives of racial difference. And I think we haven’t done a very good job. Too many of us have take advantage of the legal battles while leaving behind the narrative battle. And that, for me, is the great challenge that we face.



It’s Not About Being Liked

By Jen Cort


“What can I contribute to conversations about equity, diversity, and inclusion?” I asked my colleagues.

At the time, I was considering leaving my work as a school administrator and going into school and organizational consulting. When I asked the question, I thought I was only looking for affirmation about my credentials and credibility with audiences. But looking back, I now realize on a subconscious level I was looking for affirmation that I am, first and foremost, a good person. I wanted to hear that I am a good white person because I engaged in social justice work my entire life; I am a good cisgender woman because I supported my transgender loved one as he transitioned; I am a good heterosexual woman because I have always been an advocate for LGBTQ communities; I’m a good Christian because I am Quaker and our faith is based on equity and social justice. I quietly celebrated the number of times members of marginalized groups told me I “got it,” I am “legit,” I have a “honorary membership card” in the justice club.

So I was completely thrown when a colleague responded, “You can’t contribute because you don’t get it. More than speaking with us, we need you to listen. I am tired of being the one person in the room asked directly or indirectly to speak for and answer for everyone of my race. I’m tired of having to ask myself, if I should address a microaggression or let it go. I’m tired of hearing white people say that, because they are good — or think they are good — they are not biased. I’m tired of seeing the majority of those in the room only engage in these conversations when they are in a ‘diversity workshop.’ I am tired… just tired.”

I was taken aback. But when I let down my defenses, I could immediately recall times when I showed my lack of understanding. As a young school counselor, for instance, I once had a black colleague who called me out on my implicit bias. Instead of listening, I challenged his statement, cut him off with a litany of comments that are best summarized as my attempt to definitively demonstrate that I am a good person. I pointed out that, as a kid, I grew up on a commune where we focused on social justice all of the time — therefore, I could not be biased. I retold other stories of moments that proved my racial awareness. Looking back, of course, it was clear that I was only trying to make myself feel good. I couldn’t own up to my own implicit bias, even though I know we all have our biases. Even worse, I now realize many of the stories that made me proud were classic examples of white savior moments in which I felt I was being a good white person by “fixing” a situation.

My colleague’s comments made me realize that, if I wanted to do this work effectively, I’d have to let my audiences know that, while I am committed to social justice, while I have certain knowledge and skills at moderating conversations and identifying institutional challenges, I can never fully understand what it’s like to be a person of color. What I can make clear to myself and to others is that I will listen and learn.

Listening and learning does not come easy to those in the dominant culture. Even though I practiced diligently, it still felt like marbles in my mouth the first few times I honestly and openly introduced myself in public: “I am a cisgender, Christian, middle class, heterosexual, married, white woman. Except for being a woman and from the South, I am in majority group in all other areas and afforded innumerable privileges, including that I won’t see my blind spots and won’t learn to see them if they are not pointed out. Please tell me when I bump up against one of your social identifiers and/or convey a microaggression. Please do not feel you have to educate me, because so often you are in the position of educating others, but please tell me if I’ve conveyed a microaggression so I can deepen my own understanding.”

Introducing myself in this manner makes me vulnerable. I used to hope that no one would correct me when I revealed any hint of bias or lack of knowledge or committed a microaggression. If not called out, my “goodness” would remain intact. But I remind myself that if I’m not called out on occasion, I won’t learn — and if I don’t learn, I can’t help change our longstanding system of discrimination on numerous fronts.

The first time I was corrected for a biased comment, I had said to a group of students, “Tonight, we are going to have a forum with all of your parents. What do you think we should talk about?” (I always ask students what we should tell adults). Afterward, a student came up and said, “You should not assume we all have parents.” He was right, and it stung. I could have said that, of course, I didn’t think all students lived with their parents. I could have said that, given the scenario, I was nervous and simply misspoke. Either of those responses would have made me feel better in the moment, but they also would have made the interchange all about me and my feelings, not about the student and his feelings. So I thanked him for pointing out my bias and said I would do better next time.

To best support students, teachers have to examine the impact of their every comment, particularly when their intent and their impact contradict each other. Teachers also need to let students know it’s OK to point out these contradictions.

Workshop participants informing me of my blind spots remains challenging for me. It’s always difficult to be corrected — to have one’s biases revealed. But I practice responding in a manner that makes it clear I’m thinking about the speaker, not about me. To the degree it is about me, I’m focused on my openness to listen and learn. I also accept that this process should be challenging. If someone has the courage to tell me that I conveyed something hurtful, I need to have the courage to listen and to change. This is what we mean by honest dialogue. This is the point.

In leading diversity workshops, one strategy I like to use for listening — and resisting kneejerk, defensive responses — is what I call “one sentence/question, one sentence.” When we are anxious, we tend to fill space with words — prattle on in only a semi-coherent fashion. This practice most often is designed to lead us away from the essence of the moment. Answering each sentence or question with a one-sentence response forces us to stop and listen with greater focus — to listen more than talk. Each response invites more sentences or questions. In the workshop, I ask participants to continuing this dialogue process until the topic at hand is addressed. At the end, however, I also remind participants to finish the discussion with an open invitation to continuing the conservation in the future: “If you want to follow-up on this, we can do so… and if I want to follow-up, how should I do so?” These questions acknowledge that our thought-processes can take time, that many of us will continue to wrestle with the topic in our minds — especially when it comes to the complex, emotionally charged social issues that touch on all our lives — so the respectful thing to do is invite each other to meet again as needed. This is how we learn, how we grow.

I often recall the tone of voice and expression on the face of my colleague when he said, “I am tired… just tired.” He got me thinking. In schools, are we contributing to systemic discrimination by putting the burden of equity, inclusion, and diversity conversations on our few faculty/staff of color?

I strive to bear in mind that we white educators are called to remember the voices of colleagues and students who feel under great pressure because of there essential cultural identifiers — and in response we need to act. We need to sit down (or kneel) in protest, stand up for justice, demand equity and speak truth to power as directly and respectfully as we can. We need to act, unify, challenge, remain restless and alert, demand change. We need to create opportunities for all children, but especially the marginalized, to be visible and use their voices in ways that work for them. We need to do as much of the work as we can and let those in marginalized groups heal and focus on thriving. We must do this without expectations, without wanting others to comfort us, educate us, or pat us on the back. 

When it comes to social justice work in schools, all educators need to act in partnership. As adults, we are collectively responsible for all students. But for those of us who are white educators, a key element is both to learn as much as we can about being inclusive teachers and learn to listen to our students and colleagues. We need to invite students to tell us when we convey a lack of cultural understanding. When we listen, we grow, and when our students talk, they grow. We also need to invite our colleagues of color to tell us when we convey a lack of understanding. When we do, we become true colleagues. We also need to hold each other accountable.

Our goal should not be to prove to others how good we are. Our goal is deeper understanding and greater support for our colleagues of color in helping our institutions become truly inclusive places where both a diverse group of students and educators thrive.

No one benefits until we all benefit together, and that starts with all of us in those privileged areas understanding that by the very nature of our privilege we cast shadows on our beloved brothers and sisters. Changes will not happen until we remove those shadows and bring everyone into the light.

All of us want to know we do our jobs well. All of us want some kind of confirmation. But when it comes to social justice work, those of us who are white need to open ourselves up as much as possible to learning. Open up and listen.


Jen Cort is a clinical social worker and educator. Her educational administrative experiences are as an assistant head of lower school, head of a middle school, and senior administrator. Cort’s therapy background includes serving as a counselor in lower, middle, and upper schools as well as private practice. Her goal is to build capacity such that they have sustainable and systemic programming. Cort consults with schools on revising/enhancing advisory programs and equity, inclusion, diversity, and justice programming.



Three Practices for White Educators

1: Ask in every hiring season:

  • How are we addressing implicit bias in our hiring processes?
  • Where are we advertising for positions? Are we attending diversity hiring fairs? Are we working with placement firms that support the school’s diversity goals?

2: Find a partner in your school who can observe your classes. Ask him or her to look for:

  • How often you call upon students by race.
  • Whether you interact differently with students based on race.
  • The messages you provide that support addressing microaggressions by students and teachers.
  •  Signs of racial bias in your curriculum.

3: Think about the students, faculty, and parents throughout your career who have presented the most challenges for you. Asking yourself which social identifiers do they have in common? Find resources for deepening your understanding of those social identifiers and put on your calendar a timeline for exploring these topics further through readings, conferences, webinars, professional networking, etc.

Remember when your bias is identified you several possible options listen, think, own, learn none of which include justification, negating the experience of others, or making light.

The Things They Made Me Carry: Inheriting a White Curriculum

By Thu Anh Nguyen

It was a dream job: teaching ninth and twelfth graders English Literature at the first racially inclusive school in the nation’s capital. I was told that 70 percent of my curriculum was predetermined by the department, but that I’d have control over 30 percent of the curriculum. I was excited to choose my texts, and to make really brave choices. Surely the school knew who they were hiring: an Asian female who went to an all-women’s college, who wrote her Masters thesis in poetry as a study of Asian-American and immigrant identities. I imagined I was hired because I was bringing my unique self to the English department, a self that was in stark contrast to the almost all-white faculty.

Before I could be my brave self, I had to settle in. The first year teaching at any school is challenging. You are trying to master the curriculum, and also understand the students and faculty. You are trying to understand where you fit into all of it.  I was already nervous about the fact that I was not only the only Asian person in my department but also the youngest person. Too many parents tried to slyly slip questions about my college and graduate work into conversations. I felt like I needed to prove myself, so I tried to lay low. I accepted the 70 percent of the curriculum I was given, and even let others dictate the 30 percent that was supposed to be my choice.

In English 12, which was a coveted class that typically only senior members of the department got to teach, I accepted teaching texts such as Beloved, Paradise Lost, The Sound and The Fury, and The Things They Carried. I have loved William Faulkner since reading him in high school, and I learned to love teaching Milton because I like rising to the challenge of teaching difficult texts. But then there was Tim O’Brien’s novel about the Vietnam War. I tried to tell myself that The Things They Carried was hard too, and that therefore I should also love it — all of my colleagues who taught it chose it because of the figurative language, the book’s Bible references. The book allowed them to impress students with words like “chiasmus.” With so many reasons that the book should be taught, whenever I fumbled at teaching The Things They Carried, I thought it was my fault.

My sense of not being good enough to teach that text propelled me to learn more. I spent most of that first year diligently auditing my department head’s classes even with a full schedule of my own, hoping that her love of the novel was going to magically infect me. I took copious notes, and then I tried to teach my classes exactly as she had taught hers. My students were generous and thoughtful, and I honestly don’t think that they heard the false notes that I was increasingly attune to in my teaching. No matter how hard I worked, how many notes I took, and how well I mimicked my colleagues, I never learned to love that book.

I never loved it because I never was able to be myself while teaching it. How could I teach The Things They Carried, which is about what white men carried, and also be a Vietnamese immigrant, the daughter of a man who fought alongside Americans in the Vietnam War, and then was imprisoned for it? How could I teach Tim O’Brien’s version of the Vietnam War that actually has no Vietnamese people in it? When I’ve said this to people in the past, they were always shocked: How can a book about the Vietnam War have no Vietnamese people in it? The main scene that describes Vietnamese people has them symbolized as water buffalo (my white colleagues had a whole lesson built around this water buffalo metaphor as if it was the most exciting thing in the world to discover that the animal represented my people).

Like the water buffalo, Vietnamese people are shot and killed. They have no personalities. No families. They are just the backdrop for American bravery and grief.

One of the main metaphors in The Things They Carried is that American soldiers were not just carrying backpacks full of rations, ammunition, photos from home, and other items necessary to make it through the war, but they were carrying the toll that the Vietnam War took on them. Teaching that text for a year took a huge toll on me. I have never before or since then taught with so little of my heart.

I could not face another year of teaching something that was so against what I knew to be true, so I needed to come up with the solution. That was when I decided to wield the 30 percent teacher’s choice in the curriculum that I was promised. I chose to teach The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Le Thi Diem Thuy. It is a novel written by a Vietnamese refugee about the harrowing journey and resettlement of six Vietnamese refugees in late 1970s’ San Diego. This wasn’t just about using a Vietnamese perspective though. Gangster is beautifully written. In many ways, its broken narrative is a much more realistic reflection of post-traumatic stress disorder than O’Brien’s perfectly crafted allegories. It has a compelling female protagonist who clearly had thematic ties to other characters we read that year, such as Caddy from The Sound and the Fury and Sethe from Morrison’s Beloved. If I sound like I am trying to defend my choice, it’s because I felt like I had to defend my choice. The other three teachers of English 12 that year were all veteran teachers, one was my department chair, and they all had chosen the 70 percent of the curriculum that I had inherited. They had been nicknamed the Holy Trinity, and to me they felt untouchable. Of course, students revered them. They had been at the school for decades, had made the English department what it was. It’s only with many more years of teaching under my belt now that I realize how unhealthy that situation was. Schools need to be wary of setting up new teachers — especially new teachers of color — in impossible situations in which they are alone in a group of long-standing white faculty. I was never going to feel powerful in that situation.

So at first, I wasn’t brave enough to completely jettison O’Brien; I taught some chapters of The Things They Carried alongside Gangster. As I was finally able to teach about the Vietnam War through a Vietnamese family’s eyes, I found my true voice again.  And once I found my voice, my students found me. I still have my student evaluations of me from that year, the ones that said that Gangster was their favorite book we read because it wasn’t like anything they had read before, and it felt real. It felt real because it was real — because it is real to tell the story of the Vietnam War through a Vietnamese perspective. Why hadn’t anyone else before me thought of that? Why would they have?

I honestly believe that no one else had questioned teaching The Things They Carried because no one else was a faculty member who was actually a Vietnamese immigrant. No one else reacted as viscerally as I did to that text. There are so many clear and good arguments for diversifying the faculty of our schools, as there are measurable benefits to having faculty of color.  I also think that schools need faculty of color because that is the only way they are going to find out what they are missing. Hiring faculty of color means that a schools doesn’t just gain new perspectives, but they will have to re-examine long-held ones. Hiring me meant that after my first year teaching The Gangster We Are All Looking For, given the enthusiastic response from students, I was asked to share my lesson plans with my other colleagues so that they too could teach it alongside The Things They Carried. No matter where I teach, hiring me means that an Asian, female, immigrant experience will allow me to look at the curriculum through those lenses. 

When asked about how The Gangster We Are All Looking For reflects the experience of Vietnamese Americans, Le Thi Diem Thuy said:

I will allow that every element in this book came from a personal passion, to wrest Vietnam the place (homeland) back from Vietnam the war, and to show Vietnamese people who carry entire worlds — of grief, of longing, of love — within them, and have something to say about those worlds.  Who they are, what they have to say, and how they say it, is not incidental to the story, it is the story.

We need to make sure that when we tell our students stories, they have the whole story.  Every person in the story has to have a voice. I am honored that my calling is teaching, and that I am able to give voice to people that were previously unheard.  Recently, I met with parents of an Asian student who wanted to hear about my current school’s curriculum. Their specific question was, “How are we represented in the curriculum?” They wanted to know when their child could see himself in something we studied. I felt proud that I was able to answer that I taught Inside Out & Back Again, a novel in verse about a Vietnamese immigrant’s experience. Through that book, I am able to teach about immigration of many other cultures as well. The parents were satisfied, but they also expressed surprise. “How long has this been in the curriculum?” they wondered. “We had no idea.” It wasn’t until I answered them I realized it myself: “We have been teaching it for three years.” Since I started teaching at this school.

Like the backpacks worn by the soldiers in The Things They Carried, teachers are weighed down with the baggage of a pre-existing curriculum, a curriculum that has sometimes existed for so long, no one even knows why it still exists. Maybe the faculty has not changed composition for years, and they cannot see why the curriculum should change. Diverse faculty provide new lenses. Faculty of color in mostly white independent schools offer fresh perspectives. When I was able to finally envision a curriculum that felt true to my experience, I felt a huge weight lifted off of me. We as teachers should not let our students carry the burden of curriculum that does not reflect who they are; we should lighten their loads. We should all feel the weightlessness that comes with being our true selves.


Thu Anh Nguyen is Equity, Justice, and Community Coordinator for the Middle School at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. She teaches sixth grade, and also writes and performs poetry. 


Work Cited:

Books Q&A with Deborah Kalb

What If Being Called a “Racist” Is the Beginning, Not the End, of the Conversation? Learning What It Really Means to Be a White Teacher

 By Elizabeth Denevi


Editor’s Note: The following is an edited version of a chapter from The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys, a collection of essays curated by Eddie Moore, Ali Michael, and Marguerite W. Penick-Parks (Corwin, 2017) It is posted here with permission of the author.


In the mid-1990s, as a young white teacher with a few years under my belt. I took a long-term substitute position because a teacher had quit and the school needed someone right away. The high school class had been meeting for a few weeks, and had just read a short story by William Faulkner. On my first day, I jumped right in. I opened the class by asking what the students’ reactions were to the story so I could get a sense of where the students were in their analysis of the form.

There were three black boys in the class. One raised his hand and said, “I’m tired of reading books with the N-word in them. For my entire life in school, I’ve had to read this word over and over. It’s not right, and I’m not going to discuss it anymore.” He and the other two black students got up and left.

What would you do?

I doubled-down. I thought, “Ah, these boys don’t understand why it’s important that we look at ‘authentic’ texts in English class. We cannot scrub the text of the original language. We must consider the historical context and teach the work of literature as an artifact of its time, and certainly, Faulkner’s time in the South.” Blah, blah, blah. I brought in articles the next day for the students to read so that I could prove to them why it was important to talk about the N-word in English class.

I can sense your groan and/or gasp of breath. I feel it now as I write. I still get goosebumps when I tell the story, evoking the racial stress that still lives in my body.

What did those well-educated, young black boys do? They got up and left the class again. Good for them. They were demonstrating a healthy resistance to racism that I could neither see nor understand.

As for me, I kept right on going. Eventually, the students came back to the class, and we muddled through. I never discussed this incident with them. What I would give for a time machine so I could go back and try to see the incident again more clearly. Twenty years later, the details are fuzzy. But I have never forgotten those young men and what I learned from them.

The socio-cultural aspect of that classroom was invisible to me; I had no understanding of the “cumulative effect” of hearing these slurs in the classroom over and over. For me, it was an intellectual exercise. For these young men, it was an assault on their very being.

While I now know that the greatest predictor of academic success is the teacher’s expectation, I had not established any kind of relationship with these young men; thus, my explicit/implicit bias and privilege were in play. I still shudder at the power I had, but of which I had no sense. How terrifying, right? And how common. I bet there are a lot of white educators out there who could tell a similar story. And that’s what makes it all so systemic and illusory. White cultural bias and privilege was just the water I was swimming in at the time.

Here’s my second example:

A few years later, I was sitting in a parent-teacher conference. A black mom sat across the table from me as we discussed her son. By this time, I had been through a master’s program and had been asked to join a diversity committee. I considered myself a “good” white person, now “thinking” about racism (it was still an intellectual exercise for me). So I was particularly troubled by this young black boy who “was not living up to his potential.” I felt that he could do more, but he was not. I expressed my oh-so condescending concern as, “Look at all I’m doing. Why won’t your son meet me halfway?” — a sentiment I have felt and heard in schools more times than I can count.

This mom looked at me and said in a calm voice, “I think you’re being racist toward my son.”

And what did I do? I doubled-down again. I proceeded to explain to this mom all the ways that I certainly was not racist, how much I had worked with her son, given him extra time. I had not written him off as so many other teachers had done, telling me that I shouldn’t waste my time with him. Couldn’t she see how “good” I was? I defended myself, and my whiteness, just as I had been taught to do by centuries of white superiority and white silence on this topic.

Are you cringing again? Years later, I shudder when I recall this conversation. But I do so — and do so publicly — because it brings me to the central question of this article: What if being called “racist” was the beginning, not the end, of the conversation? What if, instead of offering a ranting defensive of my intentions, I had taken this mom at her word? What if I considered that she might know her son’s experience better than I did? What if I had owned the outcome of my behavior and considered with her how my work with her son was perpetuating racial stereotypes and prejudice? Do you think that might have impacted her son’s experience in my class? In the school? Do you think it would have made me a better teacher?

Here’s what I wish I had known before I started teaching, and what I now try to communicate to all teachers. I want other white women educators to know:

  • that they are white;
  • that being white matters — because, as Parker Palmer notes, “We teach who we are”;
  • that their students see race either implicitly or explicitly; and
  • that our failure to locate ourselves as white and to talk about what that standpoint/position means is doing more harm than good — for our students of color and our white students.

When I first learned that I was white — and I mean really white, not just the abstract concept that I was white with no awareness of my complicity in a system of unequal power — I was angry.*

And I was obnoxious about it. My husband often calls me the “white tornado,” but a bulldozer metaphor works as well. I was going to solve the problem of racism once and for all — a mindset, of course, that also reflects the arrogance embedded in white privilege. The hardest piece for me was getting over being colorblind. I had been carefully taught not to see race or comment on it. It was a huge shift for me to even use the term “students of color” because for me to see and notice race meant, in my mind, that I was “racist.” For me to have identified as really white felt tantamount to saying I was a KKK member. I had no examples of white people who had worked for social justice. I had no idea that, for as long as there was slavery in the U.S., there were white people working to end it. Nobody taught me about those people.

In time, I would learn. In particular, I have been profoundly impacted by the research of John Dovidio and his work to illuminate “aversive racism.” He clearly explains why being colorblind is so pernicious:

When Whites attempt to be colorblind, they tend to be self-focused and more oriented toward monitoring their own performance than toward learning about the particular needs and concerns of the person of color with whom they are interacting. In interracial interactions, this will impair the ability of people (particularly less explicitly prejudiced individuals) to engage in intimacy-building behaviors (Dovidio, 2016).

Those “intimacy-building” behaviors are what lead to strong, connected relationships in schools and to academic success. When we are worried about what we might say or that we might be called “racist,” we’re not paying proper attention to our students of color or helping our white students understand the ways in which they are racialized. Thus, we are not grounding our teaching in who they are, what they know, and what they bring to the table. And when we’re not doing that, we’re not being excellent teachers.

Along the way, there have been additional critical points of learning:


Difference as Difference, not Deficit: The noticing of race is not racism. To understand that my students of color have a different experience is just that — different. Their experience is not a representation of deficit culture (see Luis Moll).

Diversity vs. Multiculturalism: While “diversity” is quantitative, meaning it speaks to differences that can be measured and counted, “multiculturalism” speaks to the quality of life that diversity leads in a school. These two terms are related and connected, but they are not synonyms. White teachers need to not only think about representation, but also consider classroom climate and culture.

Equality vs. Equity: “Equality” means giving all students the same thing. “Equity” mandates that we give each student what she or he needs to be successful at school. Equity pedagogy signals that the playing field is not equal, thus including elements of power and privilege in our analysis of what students need (my gratitude to Paul Gorski, writer, educator and founder of EdChange, for holding our feet to the fire on this topic).

Safety vs. Comfort: White folks will often complain that they feel “unsafe” during conversations related to race when what they are generally referring to is a feeling of discomfort. We have to be willing to wade into this topic with our white colleagues as this “complaint” usually goes unchallenged in white circles. (See Robin DiAngelo’s research for an excellent analysis of “white fragility” around topics of race.)

Intent vs. Impact: While I cannot crawl inside your head and know your intentions, I can see, hear, and feel the outcome of your behavior. If we spent even half as much time owning and dealing with the outcomes of our behaviors as we do defending our intentions, we might actually create classrooms that are equitable.

I am deeply indebted to a whole host of white educators who have dedicated their careers to illuminating whiteness and the inequities created by racism. We have inherited a carefully crafted structure by which white people avoid, ignore, challenge, and collude in any way possible to avoid being seen as “racist” — better known as the “Scarlet R.” This kind of “white talk,” as writer and educator Alice McIntyre describes, keeps white teachers from learning why our awareness of our own white identity is so critical to being excellent teachers.

I’m also grateful to the educators of color with whom I’ve had the privilege to teach alongside of, learn from, and speak with. In particular, I’m grateful to Randolph Carter, an inspiring black male educator and father of two black boys, who first asked the question that serves as the title for this article.

And speaking of titles, at first, I struggled with the title of the book in which this essay first appeared. I wanted it to be “The Guide for White Women Who Teach.” Yet, if the three contributing editors had not posed their preferred title, "The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys,” I might not have remembered those black boys I mis-taught. If white women can learn how whiteness impacts their teaching, it will certainly benefit black boys. But most important, it will allow white women to be excellent teachers for all students. It will allow them to be educators who are wise to the fact that racial identity has, and will probably always, impact teaching and learning in profound ways.


Elizabeth Denevi is the cofounder of Teaching While White and the Associate Director for Mid-West Educational Collaborative, a nonprofit agency that works with schools nationally to increase equity, promote diversity pedagogy, and implement strategic processes for growth and development.

*This happened while I was reading four authors: Beverly Daniel Tatum, Janet Helms, Ruth Frankenberg, and Peggy McIntosh.



To better get at what it really means to be white, take this challenge. For one week, try to include people’s racial identity each time you use their name. For example, “I had lunch with Ali, my white friend, and we…” Watch how people react. I couldn’t make it through seven days. By Day 4, white people (not people of color) were so challenging, I gave up. What would it mean to make it seven days? 30? A year?



Elizabeth Denevi & Mariama Richards, “Diversity Directors as Leaders: Making the Case for Excellence,” Independent School (2009).

Elizabeth Denevi & Nicholas Pastan, “Helping Whites Develop Anti-Racist Identities: Overcoming Their Resistance to Fighting Racism,” Multicultural Education (2006).

Elizabeth Denevi, "White on White: Exploring White Racial Identity, Privilege, and Racism,” Independent School (2004).

E. Denevi, "Whiteness: Helping White Students and Educators Understand Their Role in a Multicultural Society,” Independent School (2001).

Robin DiAngelo. “White Fragility,” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol. 3 (3) (2011).

John Dovidio, et. al. “Included but Invisible? Subtle Bias, Common Identity, and the Darker Side of ‘We,’” Social Issues and Policy Review. Vol. 10, Issue 1 (2016).

Ruth Frankenberg. White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (1993).

Paul Gorski. Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty. New York: Teachers College Press (2013).

Janet Helms. A Race Is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being a White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life. Content Communications (1992).

Peggy McIntosh. White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies. Wellesley, MA: Center for Research on Women (1998).

Alice McIntyre. Making Meaning of Whiteness. Albany: State University of New York Press (1997).

Luis Moll, et al, Ed. Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms. New York: Routledge (2005).

Parker Palmer. The Courage to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers (1998).

Howard Stevenson. Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools. New York: Teachers College Press (2013).

Beverly Daniel Tatum. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Basic Books (1997).


Recovering from “the Anesthesia of Power”: Conflict and Healing in Dialogue

By Shanti Elliott 


“For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society. Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.Audre Lorde


“You don’t buy it, do you?” I said to my co-teacher, Marcus Campbell.


I was smiling anxiously.

He was not smiling.

“And I do,” I said. “I’m trying to train myself not to, but I still do.”

We had just shown a video to our class of graduate education students. The video highlights a racial conflict between representatives of First Nations people and a group of Canadian reporters. One of our students had blamed the conflict on “white entitlement.” Although we can’t see the reporters in the video, we know they are white because of the response from the First Nations speakers facing the camera.

Marcus asked our class, “Where do you think entitlement comes from?”

The first response came from Leann, a 23-year-old white woman: “Ignorance.”

 In the video, a white female reporter phrased a question in a way that drew a pained and angry reaction from the First Nations people who had called the press conference. Like Leann, I believed that the white woman didn’t know she was causing pain. Marcus did not believe this.

This difference of perception created an opening for me to explore how racist complicity can form and spread within and between white people. I am a white female and Marcus is a black male. By analyzing my own response to this moment in my teaching through the lens of what Mab Segrest, in her essay, “Of Soul and White Folk,” calls an “anesthetic aesthetic,” I want to learn about emotions and historical consciousness in antiracist pedagogy. I center this inquiry on a graduate education classroom discussion of a moment of conflict in which strong emotions, rooted in histories of trauma, reshape a context that is raced white. The interchange in the video puzzled the white reporters because it registered as neutral to them — and most likely to most white audiences — but which evoked a history of oppression to First Nations people in the space.

“Stop Talking!”

Here’s what happened. On June 30 of this year, during Canada Day festivities, First Nations women leaders held a press conference to demand that the government prioritize its investigation into the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The leaders emphasized that extreme violence targeting Indigenous women meets with public indifference. In so doing, it continues the legacy of settler colonialism and ongoing systemic racism. In the newsclip that we viewed in class, a white female reporter asks, “How can he [Prime Minister Justin Trudeau] be blamed? You don’t think anything he’s doing is helping the situation? Is he an improvement over [former Prime Minister] Stephen Harper?”

The women leading the press conference were outraged by the implication of these questions. Spokesperson Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, quiets the reporter, saying, “You don’t know how to communicate,” and demands that the reporter change her tone. She reminds the assembled reporters that they are guests in this space and they must speak with respect. She observes that racist behaviors in the room are continuous with a history of racism in the Americas: “You haven’t changed, because you haven’t started your own healing journeys!”

When things quiet down, she asks if anyone else has a question. A white male reporter speaks up, promising to speak respectfully. But his question is basically a rephrasing of the previous one: “Are things better now than under Stephen Harper?”

Ms. Wabano-Iahtail observes that the reporters are playing out the customary patterns of white fragility — the white man defending the white woman’s right to her question. “Who,” she then asks, “defends our rights? Five hundred and twenty-four years of genocide; who has stood up for us?”

The reporters are pushing for a narrative of progress. They don’t acknowledge the wracking pain of the Indigenous people in the space with them, people who have seen many of their daughters killed and generation after generation decimated, belittled, colonized. The trauma of oppression is present in this room, active in this moment. Ms. Wabano-Iahtail cuts off the reporters: “No! Stop talking! This press conference is over!”

Ignorance as Oppression

After watching the video of this anguishing interchange, our class processed what we had seen and heard, taking note of the importance of tone and place and historic relations between white people and Indigenous people in North America. The students had just read Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and they were paying close attention to humanization and dehumanization, both within the press conference and within themselves as they watched.

We sought to discuss the people, words, and history in the video with respect, conscious that we were watching the video out of context. We were trying to counter the conventional emotional distance of the classroom with our personal responses of outrage and love.

Expressing strong emotion in a setting like a university classroom, where the unspoken norm is coldly intellectual can feel awkward, unnatural. But Ms. Wabano-Iahtail’s rebuke to the reporters made us realize that a response that avoided touching the historic and present trauma of the First Nations community was racist. She traced out a boundary that had been invisible to the white reporters, and in doing so forced us as listeners to pause and reflect.

When students broke into small discussion groups, I checked in with Marcus about Leann’s comment that entitlement comes from ignorance. The video had been upsetting; it had reminded him of other press conferences he had watched on TV over the years in which black people on either side of the microphone had been publicly disrespected. These memories had been painful. Then, when hurtful behavior was ascribed to ignorance, no one had spoken up to challenge what this really meant.

Though we start our class with readings that help us talk about the difference between intent and impact, I, like many of my white students, am still ready to see racist attitudes as emerging from ignorance. “I’m not sure how to get through this block,” I said to Marcus. “My default response is still to assume ignorance.” I have acted, spoken, and thought out of ignorance countless times. I have made a habit of dismissing the impact of other white people’s behavior by calling it unaware.

From Thinking to Thinking-and-Feeling

I am learning to resist the gravitational pull of my assumptions. This means fighting my natural response; it means believing in the experience of others more than in my own judgment — at least when it comes to these racially charged moments. Since my mind doesn’t want to do this, I have to tell it that it doesn’t really know. An emotional lurch quickens the process. Conflict, grief, anger — the feelings that are hardest to face — fling me past my limits.

It’s only when I force myself to listen to the pain of a person like Ms. Wabano-Iahtail, when I force myself to remember the historical, generational, lifelong, constant trauma that Latina/o, African-American, Native-American, Asian-American, and Middle Eastern people carry, that I’m able to shift my perspective and realize that attributing racist acts to ignorance has the impact of minimizing their suffering.

Ms. Wabano-Iahtail’s repeated command in the video, “Stop!” helped me to stop.

When I stop and push myself through a slower thinking-and-feeling process, I realize that people who come from historically targeted backgrounds have inherited a pain that flares acutely when it meets racism. When the racism is denied, questioned, or ignored, the pain spreads rapidly. In the press conference my class watched, the focus was on the excruciating issue of violence against Indigenous women, and the government’s inadequate response. The reporter’s question about whether matters had improved under Justin Trudeau’s government glossed over the deep trauma the First Nations leaders were feeling, voicing, and acting on, regarding this issue and related matters of residential schools, the Indian Act, and so many other ways in which the genocidal history of white supremacy has continued to impact First Nations people in Canada. As I think this through, I begin to hear the disrespect in the reporter’s question, the dehumanization it allows and perpetuates. But this takes me a long time. It was not my first reaction.

The colonialist mentality, a black student in our class pointed out, still dominates, prescribing not only policy but also interchanges like the one we were watching. “I don’t know if it sounded this way to you,” he said, “but to my ears it sounded like the reporters were saying, ‘Haven’t we done enough for you?’”

I recognized it once he said it, but I hadn’t articulated it. I had watched the newsclip many times by the time I showed it in this class, and I felt troubled and confused. Moments like this make me question my own responses. How did my student hear a colonialist message that I didn’t? Why is my co-teacher pained by watching scenes like this in a way that I am not? Why do I accept ignorance as justification for racist behavior? Why am I OK with my own confusion? What’s wrong with me?

Amnesia, Anesthesia, Contradiction

Mab Segrest, as I mentioned earlier, writes about the “anesthetic aesthetic” that blocks dominant-culture people from pain, awareness of their own responsibility in systemic violence, and their own consciousness — how they think and feel about systemic violence. She studies the emotional atrophy of slave-owning white people, as an example of white numbness in the face of violence against people of color. “Necessary to the slave system was the masters’ blocked sensation of its pain,” she writes, “an aesthetic that left him insensible not only to the fellow human beings he enslaves, but to the testimony of his senses that might have contradicted ideologies of slavery.”

Inner contradiction, denial, and systemic violence blunt our feeling capacities and our health: “The affective void from which feelings and perceptions have been blocked in oneself and cast onto Others,” Segrest writes, “is the space where addictions arise.” The damage of disconnection and distance, Segrest argues, isn’t just direct, physical, or historical. It is hardwired in white people like me and there is much in white supremacy culture that maintains it.

Recovering our human connectedness through focused inner work and outer action helps us to heal ourselves and our world. “Action expands perceptions,” Segrest writes, “because it shifts and enlarges our point of view and our capacity and motivation to process bigger chunks of reality.” Though we have inherited a destructive disease, white people can reverse the racism that “encodes itself in our consciousness, closing the doors of our perception.” We become more whole as we sit with the pain that we have for so long pushed away. We can reclaim our souls, planting our mental and social processes within the affective life of feeling, respect, and mutual responsibility.


Shanti Elliott is an educator and activist with 25 years of experience supporting antiracist work in schools, universities, and organizations. Her 2015 book, Teaching and Learning on the Verge: Democratic Education in Action, is available from Teachers College Press. A version of this article appears on Elliott’s blog,

Why Race Should Remain a Factor in College Admissions

By Michael Brosnan


A recent New York Times article noted that an organization named Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard University for race discrimination in its admissions practices. Such lawsuits pop up occasionally. But the twist this time is that Asian Americans, not whites, are the ones who feel cheated.

The article’s lead focuses on an Asian-American student, Austin Jia, who was rejected by Harvard (which has a 5.4 percent acceptance rate) and ended up at Duke University (which has a 9 percent acceptance rate). Jia, as it turns out, isn’t taking part in the suit. He was just willing to speak about his feelings of deep disappointment. Although he also says he likes Duke, it’s the idea of working hard to be an outstanding high school student only to be rejected at institutions that hurts. Jia was particularly upset that students with lower GPA’s and SAT scores were accepted to Harvard.

Edward Blum, the president of Students for Fair Admissions, told the Times, “It falls afoul of our most basic civil rights principles, and those principles are that your race and your ethnicity should not be something to be used to harm you in life nor help you in life.”

While I agree with the statement, I wish Blum would turn his attention to the serious forms of institutionalized racial discrimination in housing, jobs, public precollegiate education, the criminal justice system, health care, and elsewhere that actually do cause harm to many and help others because of their race. But in the case of Harvard, making admissions decisions based on a host of qualities and qualifications, including race, does not amount to harming people or to giving others unfair advantage.

Does it hurt to be rejected? Sure. Is it discrimination? No.

The students involved in the lawsuit say they are taking part because they feel Harvard policies amount to setting quotas for the number of Asian-American students admitted each year. They believe that if admissions came down to “merit” alone, far more Asian Americans would be admitted.

For its part, Harvard’s admissions office makes it clear that it does not have quotas for any group. At the same time, Harvard defines “merit” more broadly than the simple ranking of students by GPA’s and standardized test scores. Similar to the admissions office at just about every competitive college and university, Harvard seeks each year to build a freshman class of students who (a) have the ability to succeed at Harvard, (b) are truly interested in what Harvard has to offer, and (c) bring something to the mix that will make Harvard a highly engaging learning community.

There’s a good reason for Harvard to do this: learning in a diverse community is better than learning in a monoculture. This is not wishful thinking; it’s an empirical truth.

Also, since graduates of colleges and universities will be living in a multicultural nation and world, they are better off learning in a diverse community when possible. This is particularly true in an era in which our precollegiate schools are highly monocultural, created and maintained in large part by real acts of racial discrimination.

College and universities have more or less painted themselves into an uncomfortable corner by seeking prestige. They do this because perceived prestige drives up the pride of association and, thus, corresponding interest and financial support. But by sidling up to the likes of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, colleges and universities tend to give the impression that SAT scores, GPA’s, AP courses completed, etc., matter most in the admissions process. They also play the less-than-admirable game of encouraging as many applications as possible, knowing that having a very low acceptance rate makes them appear special — elite, important, desirable.

But Harvard and other colleges and universities also balance these less-than-admirable practices with some quite admirable practices and other fairly practical ones.

If Harvard is going to have a biology department, a Celtic studies program, a business school, an education program, etc., it obviously needs to admit students who are interested in these various programs. In 2016, only 5.4 percent of the students admitted to Harvard were undecided about their majors.

If Harvard wants to have successful sports teams — and it does — it needs to consider athletic ability as an admission factor, at least for a percentage of students. It also considers the geographical mix of students — which currently includes every region of the nation and numerous countries — knowing that a diversity of regional perspectives will deepen learning. For obvious reasons, along with other colleges and universities, it also pays attention to gender.

Harvard, as reported in the Times, also wants to admit students who have “the ability to work with people of different backgrounds, life experiences, and perspectives.” This cultural mix includes socioeconomic status and race. For reasons that reach back to the founding of this nation, race is the most challenging and challenged criteria. Some will argue that it’s fairer to have race-neutral admissions policies and simply let the racial mix be what it will be naturally. But it’s clear that race-neutral policies would, in fact, favor whites over other races. By examining the “whole person,” as Harvard does (as best it can, given the flood of applicants each year and the limited time to review each application), a college can determine college potential, readiness, commitment, academic interest, extracurricular interest, etc., and in doing so build a dynamic community of learners.

Harvard, in short, argues that to ignore race would diminish the “excellence” of a Harvard education.

I agree.

The one admissions practice, at Harvard and elsewhere, that is worth debating is the practice of admitting legacy students — children or close relatives of alumni. But even here, in being critical of the practice, the tendency is to suggest that Harvard is playing some sort of sneaky, elitist game. It’s not. The legacy students who are admitted are all qualified for admission — but not all qualified legacy students are admitted. The problem of top-tier colleges and universities admitting the well-educated children of alumni, as one article points out, is society’s problem more than Harvard’s. Which is to say, in the United States today, money provides greater access to quality precollegiate education. Wealthy children also have greater access to test preparation, opportunities for extracurricular activities, as well as access to high-quality health care and food. The wealthy are good at placing their children in top colleges because money provides huge advantages. If we are really concerned about this, we should show greater concern about the growing wealth divide in the nation and reexamine our commitment to quality public education across the socioeconomic spectrum.

At Teaching While White, we believe that the best way for colleges and universities to have fair admissions policies is to consider a broad range of qualities and qualifications. We also believe that this holistic approach is the right way to ensure the best possible learning community. Given this, our goal is to encourage and support white educators in serving students well across the range of races and cultures in their preparation for post-secondary education. When it comes to lawsuits such as the one by Students for Fair Admissions, we also encourage white educators to be clear in their support for racially diverse school communities — why it’s both educationally and morally right. This means understanding and articulating the value of racial and other forms of diversity in learning. It also means being willing to engage in conversation with those who claim discrimination. The research is clear: diverse school communities are better learning communities. As the research also makes clear, creating and supporting diverse learning communities is also a moral imperative because of historical and ongoing racial discrimination that primarily hurts black and Latino communities.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, also writing in the New York Times, makes the latter point crystal clear: “Affirmative action has proved to be one of the most effective tools for expanding opportunity and promoting diversity for students of color. Race-conscious admissions policies have made campuses across the country more representative of our society. In doing so, they have helped remedy inequality created by centuries of discrimination.”

Ifill also points out that affirmative action efforts have not resulted in equal access for black and Latino students — which nationally is around 5 percent in top-tier colleges and universities. As disconcerting as this is, black and Latino students fair even worse in states that have abandoned affirmative action policies.

We get that Asian-American students who are rejected by some of the top-tier colleges and universities they apply to would be frustrated. But we’d also note that Asian Americans have the highest percentage of educational attainment. According to a report from the Brookings Institution, “While 36 percent of whites, 23 percent of blacks, and 16 percent of Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree or more, 54 percent of Asians do. Furthermore, while 14 percent of whites have advanced degrees, 21 percent of Asian Americans do.”

Much of this, no doubt, is attributable to individual effort and cultural commitment to education. But there are other factors involved, including access to better precollegiate schools. The quality of school one attends in elementary and high school, it turns out, has a huge impact on college attendance. This is true even within the Asian-American community.

“The huge inequalities between people in different racial categories are s of the most pressing challenges for public policy in the 21st century,” write Nathan Joo, Richard V. Reeves, and Edward Rodrique, of the Brookings Institution.

Holistic admissions policies do far more to address these inequities than race-blind policies, which have the tendency to maintain the status quo. Those who dig deeply into the data will see this — and should encourage Harvard and other colleges and universities for doing what they can to contributing to a more just and vital nation.


For the Record:

Harvard’s class of 2021 is 14.6 percent African American, 22.2 percent Asian American, 11.6 percent Hispanic and 2.5 percent Native American or Pacific Islander, according to data on the university’s website. It’s not a precise representation of the United States, but it’s certain a fair one.

Duke University is about 14 percent Asian American, significantly lower than Harvard’s. On the other hand, Asian Americans currently make up 5.6 percent of the U.S. population — which means they are overrepresented at both Harvard and Duke.

Emily Choi, an Asian-American student at Harvard, was asked by the New York Times about her experiences at Harvard. She replied: “I firmly believe in affirmative action. The diversity at Harvard has been key to my learning, and I think that if there weren’t so many people of different backgrounds, I wouldn’t be forced to think about things in new ways.”



“Speak White”

By Julia Donnelly Spiegelman

It is a typical school day, and my middle school students are learning to express themselves in French. As they converse, I flit from table to table, listening and offering word suggestions, quiet corrections, and explanations. My aim is to be their guide and resource, affirming and challenging them — in contrast to my own experience learning French in school, where teachers had mainly ranged from ineffective to authoritarian.

Still, in quiet moments, I feel a nagging fear: “What am I actually teaching?”

My students would say “French.” As the only teacher in my discipline at a small private school near Boston, to them, I am French and French is me. Never mind that I am a white, Jewish New Englander who began learning the language in middle school. Of course, my real goals are more complex. At best, I hope to create opportunities for my students to discover themselves and others through authentic communication about the inherent similarities and differences of being human. Through the study of another language, I reason, comes cross-cultural understanding. Foreign language teachers often operate under the assumption that exposure to different ways of living, eating, celebrating, and communicating naturally leads to understanding different viewpoints. But I could not stop wondering: How much of my teaching is actually deepening a form of cultural superiority and elitism, justifying centuries of colonialism, and even reinforcing a doctrine of white supremacy?

About five years into my teaching career and halfway through a master’s program in French, my exposure to multicultural teaching principles, peers and perspectives from different Francophone backgrounds, and a good dose of post-colonial theory left me unsure of whether what I was doing was actually good for students. Yes, I had been hired to teach French, and they were definitely learning it, but my mind was buzzing with questions.

For one, which French? The study of linguistics teaches us countless words to describe varieties of language considered inferior by those in power. Definitely no “pidgins” or “creoles” or “dialects.” No Haitian, no Québécois, no Congolais. The French I teach is what might be called “French French” — the name of the language identical to that of the colonial power. No “accents” or “regionalisms,” either — no sign that you are “from” anywhere in particular. I knew, without being told, that I had been hired to teach “Parisian French.” But even this phrase is vague and troubling. Which Parisian? A teenager from Saint-Denis with Algerian-born parents, or my host mother from Neuilly who, in grooming me to speak “le bon français,” also warned me to hold onto my purse in neighborhoods full of “les Noirs et les Arabes”?

Perhaps the bigger question is why French? What are the realities throughout history that led to the spread and continued prestige of the “French” language as the supposed language of culture, class, and diplomacy? What of the French language being used as a weapon to systematically dominate and eliminate countless languages in North Africa, West Africa, and the Caribbean, erasing culture and identity to such an extent that, even decades after independence, the mastery of French is still required for economic opportunities?

The more I struggled with these questions, the more I felt stuck in my teaching. I realized that the reality of my own education and choices was that I could not proficiently teach any variety of French other than “standard,” despite having grown up just hours away from Quebec. All of my direct cultural experiences had been in and about France, and despite providing some opportunities for research-based culture projects, I didn’t trust myself to teach in depth about any other Francophone countries without risking the possibility of misrepresenting them or, worse, otherizing them. I also realized that the reality of my job as a private school teacher was to train my students to have access to further elite education and opportunities, and so I felt professionally obligated to teach them a form of French that would open these doors for them.

Yet it felt wrong to move onto the next chapter with my seventh-grade class without addressing questions of justice in what we were learning. I decided that if I couldn’t yet find a way to remove the underlying messages of cultural and white supremacy in my curriculum, I could make them explicit by talking about language and power with my students.

So I switched gears, put my curriculum aside, and started an honest conversation.

I started with “Speak White,” a poem by Michèle Lalonde (1968) recommended by a Québécoise friend. The phrase “speak white” is a racist insult used by English-speaking Canadians to shame French-speaking Canadians for using their language in public. In her poem, which she delivered powerfully at La Nuit de la Poésie in 1970 and which switches between French and English, Lalonde powerfully describes the construction of the English language as superior and the French language as inferior, as well as the social, political, and economic realities of each group in Canada at that time. She tells of the exploitation of the Francophone working class under a system that is supposed to be fair (“Tell us again about Freedom and Democracy!”) and uses her experience of oppression to denounce imperialism and colonialism worldwide. I challenged my students to dig into the descriptions of each language and people, and of their roles in society.

In class, we spent time discussing the link between language and power, and the students were eager to share their experiences, observations, and questions. What are the different factors that determine how you speak in different circumstances? Which kinds of speaking are perceived as “correct” or prestigious? Which are perceived as “incorrect” or lesser? Who decides this? How do different ways of communicating relate to aspects of identity such as race, class, and gender? Which ways of speaking are accorded more or less power, and how does that play out in terms of access and opportunity? Concepts that I didn’t learn about until college — such as linguistic registers, code-switching, sociolinguistic variation, assimilation, the perceived or constructed “legitimacy” or “illegitimacy” of different linguistic forms — were well within the reach of my middle schoolers.

In a class of eight students, I had a racially diverse group: two were black, one Latina, two white, and three identified as Asian or multiracial. While discussing these ideas in theoretical terms was interesting, I wanted to give students a chance to both express their own and hear each other’s varied personal experiences related to power, privilege, and language.

I asked my class: Have you ever been told to “speak white”? I asked them to think, write, and share about a time when they have been told to speak “properly” or “correctly.” What were the words or phrases involved? What were the reasons or feelings behind such corrections and how were they received? And finally, how do these different kinds of speaking play out in society, especially in terms of identity development and opportunity?

Every student had an answer. One, who had learned English in kindergarten, described her embarrassment when her peers made fun of her for mispronouncing words. She wrote: “I was lucky that I started to learn English early, but my mom, who started speaking English when she was 24, still has a heavy accent and has trouble with grammar. These kinds of things affect opportunities like job offers and other things like that.”

One student whose family is from Haiti wrote about having to learn to “speak white” in private school interviews: “I have been told to speak properly by my mother, my aunt, and my older cousin. It was a long time during my life when I was practicing interviewing for private schools. My mother would always tell me, that since you’re not white, you have to try harder then ever before, starting with your language and/or vocabulary. I didn’t really feel anything by it, I was just annoyed I have to go through the interview process. We all have different sides to us and so the language you use with your friends is different than the language you use with family members. And speaking creates a lot of opportunities for people, and so the way you talk is important.”

One white student, who had experiences of being teased for her pronunciation, concluded that although it happens, it’s unfair for people to be judged by how they speak: “I think that how you speak, and where that language/variation of that language came from determines which is inferior, and superior. I believe that people make too many assumptions about someone’s identity when hearing them talk. I have been told that I must have grown up in Europe, Australia, or New York, and as funny as that sounds, all of those assumptions are completely incorrect. Sometimes you can piece together small parts of people’s identity but you shouldn’t rely on it because, like me and lots of other people, it isn’t true.”

I wanted to prioritize student voice and choice as much as possible in the final project of this two-week unit. Several students chose to make visual art, incorporating text and images from Lalonde’s poem in some moving multimedia work. One wrote a series of haikus in French and English called “Speak Black,” addressing the bias against black communities and urging his fellow black students to “Speak Black, go to school / Be proud because of your voice / Meet friends and be you.” Another student drew a cartoon that showed a child being continuously corrected on his Québécois French until he assimilated to “standard” forms of speaking. A number of students did research and presented in French on different topics related to language-based power and oppression, including minority languages in France and how the French government systematically worked to forbid and shame regional languages like Alsacien, Breton, and Provençal into near extinction. One student chose to learn about African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and presented about the linguistic construction, stigma, and policies related to AAVE. I remember her lighting up while reading about vocabulary specific to black communities and saying, “No wonder nobody at this school understands when I say ashy!” She paused. “How do you say that in French, anyway?” We looked it up together.

Whiteness was the invisible force in my classroom that shaped our norms of communication and learning. As a white teacher of a discipline that has been rendered powerful through white supremacy, I was inadvertently reinforcing white, colonialist linguistic norms at the expense of other ways of speaking. I was not neutral; I was complicit. That I have only just become aware of it does not prevent my students from being harmed by, or harming others with, the racism and classism that underlie our latent beliefs in linguistic superiority.

But here’s the problem: these prejudices don’t just live in my French classroom. They are embedded in the foundations upon which our education system is built, and they bleed through constantly in the ways in which language is modeled, evaluated, praised, and policed in our schools. Most important, they impact the access students have to opportunity. From self-identified “Grammar Nazis” to public speaking classes to refining the essay, students are constantly being told to “speak white” in order to be respected as competent, intelligent, and (the perpetually racist supposed-compliment) “articulate.”  The identity development and achievement of all students, and particularly students of color, is at stake when we let systems of linguistic supremacy remain unchallenged in our schools.

What if our classrooms and schools affirmed the validity and beauty of different language practices instead of enforcing a single norm?

As teachers, and especially white teachers, we need to be self-aware, critical, humble, open to new perspectives, and ready to evolve our craft in a way that affirms the diverse linguistic practices of all of our students. Jamila Lyiscott, in her article “Your Pedagogy Might Be More Aligned with Colonialism Than You Realize,” offers three ways to develop “linguistic pluralism” and turn your classroom into a “linguistic celebration”:

1)   check your attitude about the multiple language practices of your students,

2)   check your students’ attitudes about their multiple language practices, and

3)   put voice before form.

By working to truly know our students and widening our definitions of correctness and legitimacy, we can work to be part of a cultural shift that embraces and empowers diverse voices rather than seeking to assimilate them.

I am far from finding the answers in my own practice, but I am committed to educating myself and working to make both my classroom and my school more equitable. Most of all, I am constantly heartened, challenged, and inspired by my students. The fact that we can work together to see linguistic bias, name it, and have honest conversations about it gives me some hope that they will be able to challenge the messages that they receive and use their voices for greater awareness and justice.

I hope they will speak up loud.


Julia Donnelly Spiegelman teaches French, Spanish, and Social Justice at the Meadowbrook School of Weston (Massachusetts). An alumna of Bryn Mawr College, she is currently a graduate student at Middlebury College. She is a faculty member of the Multicultural Teaching Institute (MTI).




Calvet, Louis-Jean. Linguistique et colonialisme : Petit traité de glottophagie. Éditions Payot: 1974.

Delpit, Lisa. The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom. The New Press, New York: 2008.

Lyiscott, Jamila. “Liberation Literacies: Teaching for Social Justice.” 10/26/16

Train, Robert W. “Language Ideology and Foreign Language Pedagogy.” French Applied Linguistics, Ed. Dahlia Ayoun, 2007, pp. 238-269.



Nikole Hannah-Jones Named a 2017 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow

By the TWW Staff

Because we work in the field of education, we pay attention to the way that education is covered in the press Sadly, what we find, for the most part, is disappointing. Even the New York Times, one the nation’s best newspapers in all other respects, often treats education as an afterthought.

If our leading newspapers dedicated half the amount of energy to education as they do to sports, we’d have a far more robust and well-informed public conversation on how we educate our children.

That said, there are a handful of writers who impress us with their in-depth writing on issues related to education. One of them is Nikole Hannah-Jones — an investigative journalist who primarily focuses on issues of racial injustice for the New York Times Magazine, but who does so often through the lens of education. So we were thrilled to learn that Jones was named as one of the 24 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellows for 2017. First of all, it’s great to see a journalist receive the prize. But it means even more to us to see a journalist who focuses on education acknowledged for her insightful work.

In giving her the award, the foundation made it clear she deserved the fellowship for “chronicling the persistence of racial segregation in American society, particularly in education, and reshaping national conversations around education reform.”

Because we are committed to helping white educators develop their cultural competencies in an effort to create highly functional, inclusive schools that work well for all students, we encourage white educators to read Hannah-Jones. Among her writing to date are three essential articles on education:

“Have We Lost Sight of the Promise of Public Schools?” is an in-depth exploration of the ongoing dismantling of public education driven by the commodification of education, white opposition to school desegregation, and the politics currently informing the U.S. Department of Education.

“Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” uses the occasion of finding the right public school for her daughter as an opportunity to deeply explore the machinations of segregation and correlating inequity in funding and political power in the New York City schools.

“The Resegregation of Jefferson County,” explores efforts in Alabama to undo the hard fought gains for school integration following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. The article offers both a detailed history of school segregation in the South as well as an exploration of the complex struggle to protect integrated schools today — in this case, through the efforts of one town, Gardendale, to form its own school system. “What the Gardendale case demonstrates with unusual clarity,” Hannah-Jones writes, “is that changes in the law have not changed the hearts of many white Americans.”

Hannah-Jones also makes it clear in her writing, however, that there are many who defend and support and champion public education as essential to our democratic health. As she puts it, “If there is hope for a renewal of our belief in public institutions and a common good, it may reside in the public schools. Nine of 10 children attend one, a rate of participation that few, if any, other public bodies can claim, and schools, as segregated as many are, remain one of the few institutions where Americans of different classes and races mix.”

Hannah-Jones is hard at work on a book about school segregation called The Problem We All Live With, to be published this fall. We’re sure this, too, will become a must-read.

Also on the MacArthur 2017 list is photographer Dawoud Bey, who teaches at Columbia College Chicago.

About Bey’s work, the MacArthur Foundation writes, “Dawoud Bey is a photographer and educator whose portraits of people, many from marginalized communities, compel viewers to consider the reality of the subjects’ own social presence and histories.”

We would add that his images are stunning works of art. The quality and composition are exquisite. He not only has a way of capturing a moment but also of revealing the deep humanity of each subject.

As educators, we are particularly taken by his Class Pictures, large-scale color portraits of students representing a wide economic, social, and ethnic spectrum from across the United States. 



Getting Names Right

By Ali Michael


Whiteness isn’t everything. You can’t necessarily tell what kind of person someone is just because you know he or she is white. But in this society (U.S.) in this moment (2017), the fact of being white is not meaningless. A great many white adults — the majority, in fact — grew up in communities that were racially segregated. This means that most white people know a whole lot about white people — how they talk, how they dress, what they find fun. It also means they know less overt things, things that don’t even seem like knowledge. For instance, white people can quickly distinguish white people, and remember white faces, better than they can people of other racial backgrounds. This is the byproduct of growing up segregated. White people know a lot about white people.

On the other hand, white people tend not to know much about people of color. This is particularly clear for white educators working with students of color. At the Race Institute for K-12 Educators, when we have panels of students of color speak about how race matters in school, the students’ responses usually comprise a litany of the microaggressions they experience. They are generally not experiencing overt racism, but they are routinely “surprising” people with their academic achievement, being asked to speak for their group or defend the actions of others who look like them, having their public image shaped largely by racial stereotypes, or being addressed by the name of a classmate of the same racial background.

The name thing is what I want to address in this piece. It seems so small, but it is so big. Names are connections to family, to culture, to community, to the core of our selves. It’s important to get them right, to pronounce them correctly, to honor them. Diversity educator Alethea White says, “I still remember every teacher who mispronounced my name.” When white educators get the names of black students wrong, or when they confuse one black student for another black student, they are committing a microaggression.

Microaggressions have a few notable characteristics:

  1. They are often not intended to be hurtful. Sometimes they are intended to be compliments. Sometimes, like when we use someone’s name, we simply intend to be respectful.
  2. They gain their power from their cumulative effect.
  3. They usually communicate a larger social message that is offensive.

Getting someone’s name wrong isn’t inherently offensive, although it is usually awkward for both parties. It has a distancing effect. It makes you wonder, “Maybe I didn’t know him (or like him) as much as I thought I did.” Last year, I called another Hebrew school parent by the wrong name in passing, kept walking, realized I did it after getting in the car, and then felt embarrassed every time I’ve seen him since. It’s awkward!

But when those of us who are white educators get the names of students of color wrong, it is more than just awkward. It is a microaggression. Why? Because it is something that has happened repeatedly for students of color. In schools with a predominately white teaching staff, many students of color are called by the wrong name (often the same wrong name) on a regular basis. And the underlying social messages are clear to the students. When you call an Asian-American student by another Asian-American student’s name, you communicate age-old tropes such as “All Asians look alike” or “Asianness is not normalˆ or “I can’t tell you apart.” The weight of those tropes, coupled to the weight of the cumulative effect, is what transforms a mistake into a microaggression.

Recently, I organized and led a Race Institute for K-12 Educators in which students spoke about the pain and alienation of being called by the wrong name. Afterward, we separated the teachers into affinity groups where the discussion turned to names. One white teacher who must have been in her late fifties said, “I get everybody’s name wrong. I get my own children’s names wrong! Names are hard for me and they get harder as I get older. I just explain to kids that I’m bad with names. I’m the worst with the blonde kids who are the same size and shape and have the same haircuts.” Others seemed to agree and to empathize.

And then it hit me. This is it. This is why it’s so hard to make change in schools. It’s hard because each individual white teacher, even the ones who want to make positive change, can justify the microaggressions they commit a thousand times over with what they believe are legitimate excuses (busyness, age, sheer exhaustion), good intentions (almost always positive, loving, caring), and logical explanations (I do this with everyone). But the microaggressions we commit are not just a lack of attention to politically correct language. They are actual microcosms of our bias and our conditioning.

When we struggle to remember the names of our students of color, this is about more than aging. In fact, in most cases, it’s primarily about living in segregated worlds. It’s literally about white educators seeing black students as looking alike, seeing Asian-American students as looking alike, and seeing Latino students as looking alike — while seeing white students as individuals. It’s evidence of living in a society in which race is used as a primary organizing principal. It’s about growing up in segregated communities in which one is used to certain conventions around naming, conventions that do not prioritize originality or uniqueness. It’s about being able to distinguish between white people better than between Latinos or Asian-Americans or blacks because of sheer exposure to white people and white people’s names.

The weight of all of this hurts students of color. It also hurts our schools and our communities. And I don’t know how quickly we can change it. But I think we have to start by recognizing that it’s not a question of whether your racism is big or little.  Every form of racism, including microaggressions, both reflects and perpetuates racism.


Ali Michael is co-founder and director of the Race Institute for K-12 Educators and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. More details at


The Role of Teacher Unions in Urban Districts


By Michael Rebne

According to Linda-Darling Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University, we are entering a crisis that is decades in the making. Aside from seeing fewer college graduates choose teaching as a profession, retention of those who do choose it is also a problem. The reason for both, according to Hammond, stems primarily from a lack of teacher autonomy in the classroom. Teaching doesn’t feel much like an appealing profession when states increasingly aim to control what teachers do minute by minute in the classroom.

The low interest and high attrition rates hold true for both white teachers and teachers of color. The latter statistics are particularly troubling, given the already too-low percentage of teachers of color — driven in large part by racial discrimination in hiring practices — and the increasing need for such teachers. When teachers of color are hired and retained, research shows, they make a big difference in the educational experiences of students, particularly in urban districts with a high percentage of students are students of color.

I teach at a public high school in Kansas City, Kansas, with a high percentage of students of color and know firsthand the value of engaged teachers, especially teachers of color. The problem of hiring and retaining teachers, therefore, has got me thinking about how those of us already committed to the profession, especially those of us in urban districts, can best collectively advocate for a teaching force that feels supported and that serves students well.

One solution is for school districts to embrace and work more collaboratively with teacher unions. The reality that unions have been in decline for decades is no surprise. Much of this is attributable to “right to work” laws — which allow teachers not to join or pay dues — and similar policies that make it increasingly hard for unions to function well.

But perhaps equally important is the need for the teachers unions themselves to define their relevance to both students and teachers. In particular, as schools become more diverse the need for unions to hire and support teachers of color and to work with white teachers on behalf of their increasingly diverse student bodies is essential.

For white teachers working in schools composed primarily of students of color, opportunities to learn are endless. Last spring, for instance, I had a conversation with students about their prom experience and the beautiful mix of what these students called “Black and Mexican” music. I asked them about white music and whether they ever listened to it. They laughed and talked about how white music was good for sleeping. Some, however, also admitted that they enjoyed all kinds of music.

More important, my students have also talked to me about racist incidents they encounter in the community, how neighbors would yell at them — often referring to them as “you Mexicans” — to stop walking through the neighborhood on their way to school. They talked about exploitation at work, too — how they’re taken advantage of and made to feel as if they need to work six days per week or more in order to keep their jobs. These are jobs their families often depend on for survival.

The election of Donald Trump and subsequent efforts to ban Muslims along with constant threats to build a wall on the Mexican border, not to mention Trump’s support refusal to condemn white nationalists, has students demoralized and earnestly wondering if they’ll be seized and deported. How can I tell them they are safe when many reports show otherwise?

Once we teachers show that we are interested and willing to listen, students are eager to educate us about what is true and not true about their cultural and family experiences. These can be rich conversations. I always walk away better understanding my kids and the world we inhabit both separately and together.

Obviously, teachers need to know their subjects and have an overall good grasp of child development and classroom management. It’s important for teachers to be aware of new developments in the field. But I think schools and districts and state departments discount the value of a teacher’s relationship with students. In their recent book, Schooling for Resilience: Improving the Life Trajectory of Black and Latino Boys (Harvard Education Press, 2015), authors Edward Fergus, Pedro Noguera and Margary Martin make it clear that for most students learning is relational.

The conversations I have with students about their lives are repeated many times in many ways throughout the school year. They add up to a wealth of knowledge about my students. And this type of knowledge is invaluable when it comes to deciding how to approach a concept in class or choose the right text to present. It’s the knowledge that I and other educators draw on when we decide when to push our kids to the limit and when to step back and let them drive the pace of class. It helps me determine, for instance, when we can have a Socratic discussion about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or about a recent commercial rocket test. It helps me know when we need to discuss what happened in the community the previous night in order to move forward.

Undoubtedly, teachers of color, who have experienced the kind of racism and discrimination many students have experienced, and who can share similar cultural touchstones, are even better at relating to their students. Indeed, educators who come from similar communities to those of our students need less time to build the kind of trust and understanding that it takes white educators like me to build. This is a huge benefit to the students as well as to colleagues willing to learn from these experiences.

The question that weighs on my mind is how our teachers union can (1) best support the hiring and retention of teachers of color and (2) help white educators develop their sort of cultural competencies needed in order for inner-city students to thrive. Part of the answer lies in getting greater clarity about the purpose and role of our union. The union feels it needs to prove it is interested in engaging with district mandates. Unfortunately, this perspective runs up against a demand from educators that unions focus on protecting their rights and autonomy. This tension has put our union at a crossroads. We understand that our students not only benefit from the recruitment and retention of teachers but especially from the recruitment and retention of teachers of color. We need to decide if the teacher experience we mean to preserve for our kids and ourselves is best protected though recognizing ourselves as a professional organization that focuses on intelligent autonomy and teacher retention or on serving state mandates regardless of teacher and student experiences.

A more pointed and related question is do we entrust our districts and large educational organizations like the Gates Foundation, Teach for America (TFA), Marzano Research and others to decide the best way forward for our kids? Established by white people and a decidedly white perspective, these organizations seek to fulfill white needs to find, as Barbara Applebaum claims, “moral innocence” rather than a commitment to grow through uncertainty and vulnerability. Gates, TFA  and Marzano all feature language in their histories that highlight their white founder/s passionately seeking answers to problems in oppressed communities that, the story goes, no one has had the gumption to seek before.  

In contrast to this, teacher unions are highly localized, already organized, and in a position to honor the experience and expertise of classroom teachers and protect the autonomy of the professionals within them. At our high school, we have met and organized in small heterogeneous groups that have allowed us to plan for larger actions that involve diverse groups for both our school and district. These groups have yielded teacher-speakers at board meetings and thoughtful letters to the editor that have advocated for greater teacher autonomy and benefits.

The work of “ed reform” organizations like the Gates Foundation imply that the most valuable knowledge is centered outside of the teacher and comes from another wiser source. The problem is that these sources are often centered in organizations that themselves are run by operators who come from a white-racialized experience. The teacher, regardless of racial background, will always be located closer to the source of knowledge and experience.

By channeling our energies and passions on quality schools, especially for students of color, and by advocating for more teachers of color and great teacher autonomy from broad, corporate, and packaged district-wide initiatives, we can both protect the pedagogical approaches that are best for our students.

If we are to have a significant positive impact on student outcomes and increase the numbers of teacher of color in classrooms, it makes sense that our unions work to protect and preserve the experience-driven wisdom in the classroom rather than become organizations designed to fulfill the dubious motives of for-profit education publishers and supposed “reformers.” As unions sensitive to the needs of diverse teachers, we can successfully advocate for autonomy and the freedom from restrictions to do our best work for kids.

My experience, in short, suggests we cannot afford to transform ourselves into passive professional associations that seek only to curate outside pedagogical knowledge that bow to mostly white and corporatist perspectives on teaching. We need to activate our local unions to truly organize and bring in the viewpoints of teachers of color to open up real conversations about teaching and learning.


Michael Rebne teaches science, engineering, and composition at Wyandotte High School, a public school in Kansas City, Kansas.


What’s Your Pledge?

 By Melinda Tsapatsaris


Note from the TWW staff: As we start back to school in a cultural climate in which too many whites have turned their backs on racial justice or have been outright hostile to people of color, we were happy to receive the following essay written by Melinda Tsapatsaris, head of school at The Westland School, a progressive independent school in Los Angeles. Her voice and leadership emerge at a time when so many leaders in both public and private schools are, at best, mute on the topic of racial justice and, at worst, asking teachers not to engage in social/political discourse that may make white kids uncomfortable.  

At Teaching While White, we want to see all teachers engage their students in conversation about race and racism. In particular, we want white students to better understand the racial history of this nation and the ongoing racism that targets people of color so that they can see themselves taking part in the fight against racism.

Melinda Tsapatsaris’s pledge here has inspired us. We hope it will encourage educators everywhere to make their own pledges for justice. We also want to thank Rasheda Carroll, an amazing educator and director of equity and inclusion at Wildwood School in California, for connecting us to Melinda.


My Pledge

I find it necessary to state my intentions and create a pledge as a white, antiracist activist. My purpose is to synthesize my beliefs and goals for myself as a citizen who cares deeply about social justice, to inspire others, and to demonstrate my support for and solidarity with people of color during this time in the country when overt racism and modern racism are prevalent. This is an imperfect list. It’s me, though.

  • I pledge to practice self-focus. To voraciously read texts written by people of color and white antiracist activists (articles, nonfiction and fiction books alike) that expand my perspectives, push my thinking, and keep me striving to be an empathetic, lifelong learner.
  •  I pledge to aggressively call myself out on my own biases and prejudices and to continue to unpack the ways in which I have caught racism.
  • I pledge to pay active attention and seek to understand the political, economic, psychological, and social-emotional significance of oppression on people of color.
  • I pledge to bring up “uncomfortable,” not-light topics with other white people at cocktail parties and other gatherings.
  • I plan to stay active in organizations committed to equity and inclusion. This includes local AWARE meetings that put together white folks in intracultural groups to dismantle their privilege and seek out ways to develop antiracist identities. As Malcolm X stated in The Autobiography of Malcolm X: “I tell sincere white people: ‘Work in conjunction with us — each of us working among our own kind.’ Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach nonviolence to white people!” I also commit to being a part of ongoing training through Visions Inc., an organization that promotes change on the personal, interpersonal, cultural, and institutional levels through intercultural and intracultural groups.
  • I commit to being a parent who doesn’t avoid talking about differences, especially racial differences, with my white children. I will expose my children to an array of literature that expresses stories from many different perspectives.
  • I will also model to my children the importance of not avoiding contact across differences. I pledge to “get proximate” across differences, as writer and activist Bryan Stevenson espouses. I commit to being aware of the “bubblefication” of my world — to be aware of the “danger of a single story” that novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so brilliantly warns us about.
  • I pledge to continue to work with young people in schools (from all political backgrounds) to help them use their minds and hearts well: to share their perspectives with confidence, to weigh and grapple with other perspectives, to use evidence to back up their opinions, to collaborate with grace even when they are frustrated, to value the arts, to have a keen sense of their own moral compass, and to always be motivated to serve their communities.
  • I pledge to remember that people, specifically other white people, are where they are in terms of understanding the impact of institutional racism — and as such I need to lean into uncomfortable conversations to disagree when necessary, but not to blame or shame them. For me this means not shutting down those who say, “No, all lives matter!” but engaging, questioning, and approaching them with curiosity, compassion, and firmness — both in person and on social media.
  • I commit to being part of communities that value diversity and multiculturalism, so that I am surrounded by individuals who care deeply about serving the common good and striving toward social justice.
  • I commit to organize, to call my state and federal representatives and express my opinions. I will volunteer for campaigns that matter to me.
  • I will continue to pray for President Donald Trump because Lord knows I don’t know what else to do about him. I will actively critique his disregard for institutional oppression, worry about his mental health and decision-making capabilities. I will not mock him.
  • And as Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” So I pledge to dance.
  • I will practice self-care. As one of my friends who is active in the white antiracist community shared with me, quoting from another, “It’s actually not a marathon. Practice self-care when you need to because it’s a relay race. Rely on others to run with the baton, too.


Take Away: So, what’s your pledge? What commitment to racial justice are you willing to make? The beginning of the school year is such an important time to be intentional. If you have a goal you are willing to share, please leave a comment below. To help in the conversation, we also included some related resources for educators. See our list of Foundational Texts and Being an Ally in our Resource section.




I Am Charlottesville

By Jenna Chandler-Ward


Once again, there is shock and outrage from my community, the white community — this time about what took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this week. I grew up in Charlottesville, and as recent public displays of racism became visible there, I was immediately taken back to my childhood. As I watched the terrorist attack unfold on TV, I saw white supremacists march across the campus of the University of Virginia, where I used to play as a child. I saw the counter-protestors assemble in my old church. I saw the wounded being taken to the hospital where I was born. As saddened as I am by it all, I’m not shocked. In fact, to me, this violent outburst makes perfect sense.

The University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, has recently made public the ways in which slavery both created and maintained the university up until the Civil War. Many black people in the community still call the university “the big plantation.” And though many in our country still do not like to acknowledge this about our beloved founding father, and though he attacked the British for bringing the slave trade to the colonies, Jefferson owned more than a hundred slaves at the time he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Though he penned the line about all men being created equal, he owned more than six hundred slaves in his lifetime. Once Jefferson understood that abolition would in fact cost him actually money, he became remarkably silent on the issue.

In 1959, the elementary school I attended (named after Charles Scott Venable, a Civil War colonel) chose to close its doors rather than integrate as the courts had mandated. Later that year, the school re-opened under court order and admitted a group of African-American children that became known as the “Charlottesville Twelve.” One of the twelve, Eugene Williams, has reflected on the impact of this and other integration efforts: “What comes to mind, still to this day there is no real thought-out plan to desegregate. That’s why our schools are not measuring up academically and providing a good education for all students.” Looking back after a lifetime fighting for civil rights, Williams says, “It’s just so interesting the snail pace of progress, and all the roadblocks to doing the right thing.”[1]

Other area businesses, such as local hub Buddy’s Restaurant, also closed their doors rather than serve black people in the community.

When I attended Venable in 1974, there were two faculty members of color, including my Japanese music teacher who taught us cotton-picking songs in music class, such as, Jump Down, Turn Around, Pick a Bale of Cotton. I understood, even in first grade that there were separate rules for white students. I felt the preferential treatment even then. The school's current website boasts that the school is part of the University of Virginia neighborhood, which in part it is — facing university-associated buildings on one side. On the other side, however, is a distinctly black neighborhood that gets no mention. The city, like the school, had no plan for how to desegregate.

In 2009, the Charlottesville City Council publicly apologized for resisting desegregation back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I read the apology online in my classroom and started to weep. The racial confusion I have felt from such a young age came from these years at this school and in this community- what did it do to the students of color?

Now, in 2017, many in the nation are surprised that such a morally abhorrent racist display could take place in such a seeming liberal, university town. Yet the city, the state, and the country have never fully brought to light their racial crimes. History has been distorted, whitewashed, and (for many) forgotten. This community — and indeed the nation — has never fully uncovered all of the systems of oppression. By obscuring them, too many of us allow ourselves to believe racism, racial oppression, institutional segregation, and a host of racial inequities are things of the past. In doing so, we who are white remain complicit in these ongoing injustices. We who are white, even those who express anti-racist views and would never take part in bigoted, hateful rallies like the one in Charlottesville, have been remarkably silent over the year. In doing so, we’ve fooled ourselves into think things are OK.

We white folks need to stop wondering why this has happened, and instead, look inward to examine the ways in which we — and, yes, this includes liberals — continue to benefit from our own lack of reflection, from our silence. Although this recent event took place in the South, racism is not just a product of the South; the rest of the country often feels immune to public displays of racism. They think it can’t happen “here.” But it can, it has, and it will.

As I prepare to return to the classroom for another school year, I am thinking not only about how I should teach about racial hatred in our country, but also about white silence; because we need speak truth to power in order to reconcile. But then I also want to teach my students about white role models who were and are true allies and activists. Until we show our students something more than white folks wringing their hands over virulent racism, saying, “What can I do?” white students will only see anxiety, shame, and guilt as response options.

Might there be a time when kids can rattle off the name of white abolitionists and white civil rights activists with the same speed as we say Frederick Douglass, MLK, and Rosa Parks? Activism and allyship are learned skills that require practice, just like math or grammar. How can I give my students opportunities to practice these skills? How can I tell my students that the civil rights era is not over? As activist Shaun King has said repeatedly, “If you ever wondered what it would be like to be alive in the Civil Rights Movement, we are living in that time, RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW.”

Perhaps most important, we who are white teachers must address what happened in Charlottesville and what is happening around the country. To be silent is another form of whitewashing. Not talking about it for fear that it is too complicated for kids to understand or too difficult for us to talk about, only leaves white students out of the conversation. Students need to have these conversations in order to become informed and racially literate, and also to be less vulnerable to the gratification of feeling superior — a position built upon an ideology of lies.

No doubt, teachers have had to figure out age-appropriate ways to have other difficult conversations with students. The key to success is wanting to have these conversations. So how can white teachers not become roadblocks to doing the right thing when it comes to addressing racism? What is the cost of having difficult conversations about race with students? What is the cost if we don’t?

Please leave comments below about how you are planning to address recent events when you get back to school.


Jenna Chandler-Ward is the co-founder of Teaching While White and teaches English at the Meadowbrook School of Weston (Massachusetts). She is also the co-director the Multicultural Teaching Institute.

Looking for guidance on how to respond to events in Charlottesville? A few resources for teachers are available on the TWW Resource page.



Reshaping the Liberal Conscience: A Reflection on Jason Sokol’s "All Eyes Are Upon Us"

By Michael Brosnan

I grew up in the New York metropolitan area, went to college in Boston, and have lived most of my adult life in Maine and New Hampshire. This makes me part of a region known for its political liberalism. With its “Live Free or Die” motto, New Hampshire is the least liberal place in the Northeast, but in the last two presidential elections, it went for Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. It currently has an all-Democratic — and all-female — Congressional delegation in Washington.

I admire much about the region’s aspirational politics, but I’m also aware that, when it comes to race, there’s a troubling gap between the ideals espoused in Northeast liberalism and the reality of life. Another way to put it: The Northeast is as racially divided and inequitable as any region of the country. This was true in the mid-20th century. It’s true today. As a New Englander who has spent time working on social justice issues, I find this reality disconcerting. How is it that the region can elect numerous African-American politicians — mayors Thirman Milner in Hartford, and David Dinkins in New York; Senator Edward Brooke in Massachusetts; seven-term Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm in New York; and Governor Deval Patrick in Massachusetts; among others — and yet its major cities have remained centers of racial tension and persistent divide?

In 2004, Steve Clem, the executive director of the Association of Independent Schools in New England, pointed out to me that New England’s independent schools, while mostly progressive in philosophy, were coming up short when it came to appointing heads of color, hiring and retaining teachers of color, and enrolling students of color. He had asked me to write a research- and solution-based monograph to help schools move forward with their multicultural ideals. So I studied key research on inclusion in education, interviewed dozens of school leaders who were having success in meeting espoused diversity goals or who had important insights into steps all schools could take, and then wrote not one but three monographs. In my naiveté, I assumed that having these documents in print and online — with plenty of references to successful practices — would transform schools within a couple of years.

Now I know differently. But even so, the forces of resistance to racial equity and integration in the Northeast puzzle me. By all accounts, we should be in a much better place.

So it was with interest that I picked up a copy of Jason Sokol’s 2014 book All Eyes Are Upon Us: Race and Politics from Boston to Brooklyn. Sokol explores the irony of a region that professes to be racially welcoming and yet remains racially divided. Sokol doesn’t have the answers, but he does punch holes in the Northeast’s mystique about itself as a racially welcoming place and makes it clear that those of us who live in the region have been “unable to fully turn the page” from a racist history to a present that embraces pluralism.

What attracted me to Sokol’s book is that he narrows the focus to New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts — three of the nation’s most liberal states. Sokol, an associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, makes a clear distinction between racism in the North and the South. James Baldwin, for one, observed that “it has never been the North’s necessity to construct an entire way of life on the legend of the Negro’s inferiority.” Yet African Americans migrating north in the decades after the Civil War, in Sokol’s words, “swapped the South’s racial hell for the Sisyphean futility of the North.” There was, in other words, a deep cruelty in the promise of a better life in the North.

If you are inclined to think, “OK, that was then, but surely things are better now,” Sokol and others would tell you it’s only in a matter of degree.

What Swedish scholar Gunnar Myrdal observed about America in the 1940s holds true today in New York and New England: “ The ordinary American follows higher ideals and is more of a responsible democrat when he votes as a citizen… than when he just lives his own life as an anonymous individual.”

The gaps between professed ideals and practices have led us to our current situation. Many in the Northeast have worked hard for racial equity in each generation, but Sokol surfaces the start-and-stop pattern of such efforts. In the late 1930s, to take an example from the field of education, the good citizens of Springfield, Massachusetts, embraced the Springfield Plan — essentially a plan to teach a multicultural curriculum in integrated public schools. The plan was influenced by John Dewey but created by John Granrud, a Columbia Teachers College graduate and superintendent of the Springfield public schools. Granrud was asking schools to do what many of us are asking schools to do today: teach democratic engagement as a means to curb racial and religious prejudice created in the broader culture. The impetus for this plan was the need to respond to the racial segregation in Springfield itself, but also to the growing nationalism that was sweeping the globe, which gave rise to Hitler and Mussolini as well as, in this country, the conservative America First Party led by Gerald L.K. Smith.

The Springfield Plan was born of the progressive belief that our strength is our collective diversity. The plan got lots of positive press in the Northeast and led to spin-off programs in Brookline, New York City, Denver, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Portland (Oregon), and elsewhere.

Somewhere between then and now, however, most of the hard-won progress slipped away. One might predict this in a region of the country that espoused separation of the races and promoted one as superior to others, but why and how did this happen in the Northeast? What combination of cultural, political, and economic forces overpowered the Springfield Plan and other efforts at equity and justice? Why is racial inequity still a central issue of contemporary life — given all that we know and believe?

I could walk readers through Sokol’s book, which takes us up to the election of Barack Obama and the accompanying hope, once again, for societal transformation. But I think you get the point. Why did Brooklynites embrace Jackie Robinson on the field, but resist integrated neighborhoods? How could Boston vote twice for Edward Brooke, the first African-American U.S. Senator since Reconstruction, and then be the site of intense resistance to school integration? How did New York City, our nation’s most pluralistic city with an African-American mayor, become a hotbed of intense racial violence in the 1980s? Is it inevitable that the Obama presidency, which did give many of us hope, would give rise to a white supremacy backlash?

Sokol’s job is not to answer these questions, but to help us see the ongoing irony of a region that likes to think of itself as culturally progressive. There are many other writers, of course, who address this problem and its cultural staying power — including James Baldwin and his contemporary counterpart, Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as researchers such as Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Cornel West, bell hooks, Beverly Daniel Tatum, and Pedro Noguera. The stories of the effects of the ongoing racism are laid out in the literary works of Richard Wright, Zora Neal Hurston, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, and Gwendolyn Brooks, and in contemporary writers such as Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Colson Whitehead, Nikki Giovanni, and Claudia Rankine. Numerous writers, including Tim Wise, Debby Irving, and Peggy McIntosh, have written thoughtfully about white identity and privilege as well as the persistence of white supremacy. Many journalists have also tackled the contemporary version of racial inequity and tension, including Jamelle Bouie in Slate, Radley Balko in the Washington Post, Tanzina Vega in the New York Times, and, again, Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic. This is just a surface list of hardworking writers who long for, work for, a more just society.

What I want to see happen, however, is for the majority whites in this region — if not the entire nation — to play a more active role, to not only read these works but also open up this conversation in a more public way, take it to heart. In particular, I’d love to see white educators get more engaged in the conversation — given that they are key gatekeepers of future culture.

What struck me personally about Sokol’s account of racial tensions and inequities in the 1970s and 1980s is that I was a young adult at the time. I was aware of some of these issues — certainly the bussing battles in Boston when I was a college student in the city. But I don’t recall having any deep conversations with other adults about it. Any conversation stayed on the surface — in which we expressed dismay and vaguely wished for something better, then went off to do something else. If all of us who are white and of a certain age had embraced this conversation back then, if we had done our homework and engaged in cross-racial dialogue and connection, if we had explored what it means to be white in a white-dominant culture, if we understood that a commitment to social justice was not only the moral thing to do but also the best path to fulfilling the American promise, we would all be in a better place today. Since we can’t change the past, I hope we can open up the conversations today — in our homes, schools, churches, newspapers, and elsewhere — so that thirty years hence we won’t be reading another painful, well-researched account of how, once again, we fell woefully short of our aspirations.

When it comes to racial justice, what I want, in particular, is that those of us who call ourselves liberals, or progressives, or even simply Democrats to read and talk intelligently and openly about race. In order to bend the arc of history with greater moral force, we first need to know what the arc is made of — and what we’ve personally contributed to it.

Sokol concludes his book with this observation: “On the matter of race, the Northeast has been a place at war with itself.”

Let’s each do our part in ending this war.


Michael Brosnan is the senior editor at Teaching While White.