By Jenna Chandler-Ward
Just because we might choose not to acknowledge or name race doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Early in my middle school English teaching days, I started to realize that I only talked about the race of an author, or how the author’s race and culture impacted the writing if the author was a person of color. So I started to experiment by announcing white authors as white when introducing a new novel to my students, and by adding discussion questions about how the author’s race might impact the story and writing style. Somehow, I thought this would be a bigger deal than it was. For the most part, my students took it in stride, as though it were perfectly normal to name whiteness. Perhaps my delivery of this information was matter of fact, and so it did not seem an oddity. Or maybe the act of taking something implicit and making it explicit is something many of us crave.
As Lisa Delpit explains in Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, “We all interpret behaviors, information, and situations through our own cultural lenses; these lenses operate involuntarily, below the level of conscious awareness, making it seem that our own view is simply ‘the way it is’.... We must consciously and voluntarily make our cultural lenses apparent.”
When white teachers avoid naming whiteness, when they remain silent about race when race is clearly a factor in the classroom or curriculum, they are in fact teaching ideological and institutional aspects of whiteness. In effect, they are saying that whiteness is the norm (there are “authors” and there are “authors of color”) and that racism is either imagined or not worth talking about. The silence is a de facto denial of privileges and oppressions. I often hear teachers object: How do we add the objective of naming whiteness to our curriculum when we already feel overloaded with teaching skills and content? It’s a question worth addressing. But we also need to be clear: By not making the privileges and assumptions of whiteness explicit, we maintain white as “normal.”
I get that it’s not always easy for white teachers to lead discussions about race, especially when they have had little or no practice. For their summer reading, my sixth graders read Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson. After we discussed the novel for a few days, I asked, “What if this book were called White Girl Dreaming? Would it be a different book?” Instantly, an African-American boy raised his hand. “It could not be the same book,” he said. “When you are Black, forgetting about racism is like trying to forget a song that plays on the radio twenty-four hours a day. Even when you want to forget it, it is still playing.”
With this perspective on the table, we started a conversation, gingerly dipping our toes in. The class began to discuss how, when you are white, you can choose to forget the song — to ignore the impact of race. Although I could feel some kind of energy, or excitement, from my students of color — that we were actually discussing this — I became worried that I was making my white students feel guilty, so we quickly moved on. I had the power in that room as the teacher, and I shut down the conversation.
I can say that I honestly feel much better equipped to have these conversations with older students. Yet I also know that, just like my sixth-grader who made this heartbreaking analogy, my younger students are already aware, sometimes painfully aware, of racism and privilege. But I was afraid that I could not control the conversation. I was afraid that someone could say something hurtful. I was worried that in my white ignorance, I could make things worse for my students of color in a racially imbalanced classroom.
In her article, “‘I Don’t Want to Hear That!’: Legitimating Whiteness through Silence in Schools,” Angelina Castagno argues, “These silences and acts of silencing create and perpetuate an educational culture in which inequalities are ignored, the status quo is maintained, and Whiteness is both protected and entrenched.”
I had silenced my students. I had prioritized protecting the white fragility of my white students over encouraging the eagerness of my students of color. I wonder now if my white students were actually that fragile or if I shut things down for my own projection. How were my own feelings influencing my teaching? I think these fears are very common and can even derail a conversation led by a veteran teacher who is trying to address racism in her classroom, school, and community.
We all mess up. We all need to try to do better next time. This was a seemingly small moment in my classroom. By writing this, I have been given the luxury of reflection, which is something that I think is structurally missing for the professional lives of most educators. But we need to pay attention to the little moments and reflect on them. We need to think about how our feelings, worries, cultural comfort levels, and identities influence our teaching. We need to unpack the myriad ways our curriculum is already shaped by race — and how we want to respond.
A few weeks ago, in that same sixth-grade class, we discussed how we knew that the characters in A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, were white. That same African-American student said, “Because they don’t mention it. They don’t mention it because they don’t have a problem with race. People only know about race if they have had a problem with it.” This time, we did wade in. We discussed this in detail. Was segregation in effect during this time period? If so, what was its impact on the characters in this story? How did we know the author was white without a picture of him? What are the effects of white people never naming their race? The conversation was not perfect, but we had it. We, as a class, had built up our race muscles over the year, enough to wade into it and not turn back.
How can we make the naming and acknowledging of racial power imbalances commonplace? How do we normalize it in our classrooms and schools? If you have strategies or a model for making implicit bias and racism explicit in your teaching, please share them in the comments section. Tell us what you know!
Lisa Delpit, Other People's Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, New York: New Press, 1995, p.(151.)
Angelina E. Castagno,“I Don’t Want to Hear That!”: Legitimating Whiteness through Silence in Schools, Anthropology & Education Quarterly, v39 n3 p314-333 September, 2008.