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.

 

ACTIVITY:

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?

 

References:

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).