Dear Student of Color...
I should start with a warning that I’m probably going to say the wrong thing. I know this because I often say the wrong thing – not just with you, or with other students of color, but in general. Saying the wrong thing is something of a specialty of mine.
In this situation, however, the wrong thing is more daunting than usual. Here I am, an old white guy – one of a hundred or so Caucasians staffing this school, except for one assistant principal, one para, the security guard who subs when the regular guy is gone, and of course most of the custodial staff. And I want to talk to you about race – as if I have the slightest credibility to do so. You’ll feel partially obligated to listen, but I have no idea how it will actually be received or understood.
I'd like to apologize for – well, everything. I don’t mean this sarcastically or melodramatically, and under no circumstances am I interested in riding the liberal guilt train through your limited time here and expecting you to know how to respond. I’m pretty sure, though, that I’ve said or done things in our short time together which validate everything you find annoying about old white people, or perhaps add whole new things to the list.
It’s just… I try to avoid allowing racial subject matter to carry stigma or the wrong sort of power into my classroom or my interactions with students. Embarrassed whispers and the rushed clichés do little to improve our understanding of one another or anything we’re trying to learn.
I’m also trying to stay out of the sandtrap of comfortable white avoidance. It’s dishonest to simply steer around anything inflammatory, or reduce loaded issues to pre-compartmentalized tropes. It’s far too easy to reduce the most important human realities of social studies, literature, or history to abstractions with far less power to confuse or scare us.
We distance ourselves from the strange creatures all those centuries ago capable of Indian Removal, Slavery, War with Mexico, or Japanese Internment Camps. I’m not ignoring that in some ways we’ve made huge strides towards equality and mutual respect and kumbaya – but we’re afraid to confess man’s eternal drive to camp with “us” and go to war with “them”. We tell ourselves you’re not developmentally ready to question or explore the evolutionary, social, political, or fiscal aspects of our collective urge to form teams and fight over land, food, women, cultural norms, or oblong inflated pigskins.
I’m sure in my efforts to be transparent and ‘real’ I’ve often only managed crass, or clichéd, or awkward, or just… wrong. I may make things worse as often as better, but if the alternative is to avoid these discussions altogether, I’ll keep taking that risk.
I apologize for my muddling, though, and I hope you recognize my intent if not my navigational skills.
As to race or other elements which make people more interesting, most of my understanding is second-hand. Through no control of my own, I was born a straight white male, and a fairly conservative one at that. As my preferred political party lost their collective minds over time, I drifted towards a kind of libertarian idealism… but one willing to settle for liberal efforts until some sort of educational revolution makes self-sufficiency a plausible –
You know what? I’m rambling, and I know from our last quiz that most of you don’t actually know the meaning of half of the things I just said.
What I’m getting at, though, is that it wasn’t until I started teaching that I started really caring about and trying to understand why some students act this way or that, while others are more likely to do such and such. In the abstract I have limited patience for talk of the ‘culture of poverty’ or ‘racial identity development’ – I just want anyone without a clearly defined disorder to make some effort to do their work, show a little mutual respect, and not be, you know… annoying.
But my students aren’t abstracts. Like you, they’re right here – with names and personalities and wants and needs and everything. And most of the time I really like them. My beliefs or opinions or emotional reactions to abstracts or groups of abstracts were no longer helpful.
I found I could care deeply about my students and still not ‘get’ them, which made it difficult to really fulfill that whole touch-the-future teacher thing.
That’s not always because of race, of course. White kids can make no damn sense plenty of times, and there are limitless reasons why I may grasp one kid’s world more intuitively than another’s. But clearly there are… trends. Visual clues who I’d ‘get’ and who I’d not. Even outside of class, stuff I’d hear or read began to resonate differently because they were suddenly not about abstract types of theoretical people but MY KIDS.
As you continue to read and learn and experience things, you’ll discover that “us” and “them” loses its endurance when real faces and names enter the picture. You know from our last unit how important it is to demonize and “other”-ize the enemy in times of war. Without effective propaganda and group buy-in, it’s rather difficult to get super-excited about shooting someone in the face or blowing up their family. You may have noticed that even in ‘shooter’ video games you’re generally mowing down masses of generic scary looking –
I’m getting distracted again. I’m sorry. I’m not sure I’m doing a very good job here.
I guess what I want you to know is that I’m trying. I’m reading books about racial dynamics and adolescence and trying to understand more about cultural norms and common experiences without reducing you or anyone else in my care to a category – the Asian, the Mexican, the Beautiful Strong Dark Black Girl. I’m on social media listening, asking, and sometimes annoying those I think useful. I don’t mean to annoy, but they can handle themselves – they’re of age and not my personal responsibility.
You are, at least while you’re here.
I hope you feel free to speak to me about anything related to… you know, stuff. Feel equally free NOT to speak to me about it. My ignorance may impact you, but it’s not your responsibility. You don’t owe me lessons on your world – you’re 14. That’s also why I won’t actually have this conversation with you. It’s just me and my Eleven Faithful Followers on the interwebs.
One more thing, though – something I probably WILL approach you with before the year is out. You know we have a pretty diverse group of students here. We’ve talked in class about what a huge advantage that is for us collectively, and I mean that – it’s not inspirational fluff like most of what we fill you with. But you’ve probably also noticed that, as I referenced above, we have a painful scarcity of teachers of color. I assure you the mass of old white folks running things really do mean well, but we’re somewhat limited by being, um… a bunch of old white folks.
As you move through high school and decide where to go for college… as you discover the strange mix of amazing options and inexplicable hurdles which await you… please consider teaching.
You’re one of my best – and I don’t mean “for your race” or whatever. I mean you’re quality - period. You’ll have more options than I could have imagined at your age. I’m not telling you not to follow your calling if it lies elsewhere. I’m certainly not telling you money and professional respect don’t matter, because they do – and you won’t get much of either if you teach anywhere in this beloved state.
But what you could do, if you’re so led, is to be that teacher you didn’t have. That example, that reference point, that option, that important part of the equation that we’re not nearly close enough to at the moment. I don’t know if I can promise you’ll change the world in the kind of dramatic ways we see in the movies, but – at the risk of being a little cheesy – we all change the world by what we do while we’re here. We all make “a difference”, for better or worse.
Consider making this one, better than me, for the ones who’ll be you when you’re me. Consider being amazing for them in small, thankless ways, because I wasn’t, or couldn’t, or just didn’t.
Thanks for hearing me out. You should head to class.