#WhiteSilence, Teacher Edition

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In the current conversations regarding racial parity – especially in regards to public education – there are a number of strong, persuasive voices trying to stir awakening, promote understanding, and challenge perceptions. Some focus on human stories, some are heavy on statistics and graphs, and others weave analogies and throw together a pretty good meme now and then. 

Some are teachers. Some are not. Some are even white.

Looking Under Couch CushionsStrange, though, in a system overrun with white educators, that we don’t see more from a demographic otherwise quite active on social media. There are retweets, and comments, and a few blog posts, but nowhere near what the raw numbers would suggest.

Why?

In the interest of trying to shine a little Vitamin D on this issue, I’m going to audaciously speculate – based partly on personal experience, partly on conversations with others, and partly on sundry perceptions and me just making stuff up over the years.

1) Any conversation on race in which a white person participates seems to require so many disclaimers – “I’m not a racist” being the most obvious, but still awkward to verbalize. “Some of my best friends are black” is a classic – and yes, people actually still say this.

“I’ll probably say this the wrong way, but…”

“I’m not saying ALL __________ (insert group identification about which one is about to generalize) are the same, but…”

Or even:

"Yeah, I get what you're saying, but…”

Their 'buts' make them nervous. The bigger the 'but', the bigger the potential problem. Often they choose to just… not.

To keep this post under length, I deleted two paragraphs of my own disclaimers. I'm not sure what that means in terms of irony.

Dan Quayle Speaking2) Reasonably educated white people – teachers – are terrified of saying something wrong. Not merely incorrect, you understand, although that’s problematic as well, but something inappropriate, or taken badly, or, the worst of all evils… racist. 

Yeah, I know – compared to actual real-world discrimination it seems pretty trivial to worry that someone on Twitter might think you’re a jerk. And it is. But we’re far more swayed by our hopes, lusts, or fears, than our cold intellectual calculations regarding what we SHOULD feel. So we don’t post. Worse, we don't reply, or question, or insist on clarifications. If we're not in complete accord, we just move on.

3) White educators feel grossly underqualified. If you’ve never been a minority of anything, it’s hard to truly fathom the experience for those who are. Women have a better shot at it than men, I assume – but I, um… I don’t actually know, being a SWAMP (Straight White Average Male Protestant) and all. Gays, other minorities, even folks from non-dominant religions have some context. The rest of us have a few movies, books, and whatever history we’ve read.

Know It AllYou know that reaction you get when someone who’s never been in combat tries to talk about war? When people without kids try to lecture on parenting? That sensation you get as a teacher reading "expert" advice from people who’ve never run YOUR classroom? Yeah, that’s who white people don’t want to become when trying to speak about anything even remotely related to race.

None of this means they have nothing valuable or sincere to add; it means they feel pre-emptively invalidated in whatever they have to say. If you wish to do more than rah-rah voices of color, you shut up. No one likes to feel stupid or marginalized.

And yes, I hear my pigmented friends shouting “EXACTLY!” in response to that last statement. I recognize the irony and imbalance in the claim. But your broken leg doesn’t heal their stubbed toe; relativism is useful to promote understanding, but it doesn’t negate experience.

4) The lines between racism, prejudice, ignorance, questioning assertions, challenging assumptions, and just plain arguing are WAY too blurry when race is involved. There are so many raw nerves out there that unless those involved have a particularly close and trusting relationship, the chances anything they say will be received poorly are high.

Of course, if they DO have a particularly close and trusting relationship, they’re probably not the ones who most need to be having these sorts of discussions.

5) Some of them are very frustrated by patterns in their students they believe they're not supposed to notice. Their band kids can be frustratingly single-minded, and those three kids from the Ukraine kinda have a style all their own... but when faculty notice "Hispanic attitudes" or what they think of as "Black behavior," they're afraid to think it too loudly, let alone talk about it they way they do those Drama kids.

Volde - Wait, Should I Say It?Their daily experience tells them there are patterns of behavior among certain groups, and that stuff that drives them crazy tends to come from the same demographics. BUT, they don’t feel like they’re allowed to state the obvious – and that makes it worse. It build resentment because it must remain unspoken - the Voldemort of public education.

Except, of course, for bloggers calling out disparities in disciplinary measures.

Because we’re being all figuratively naked here, I’ll tell you – and this is something most of my white teacher friends believe but will never say publicly and only carefully express privately – most of the time they can’t fathom WHY it’s not OK to simply expect minority students to behave the same as everyone else. As with stereotyping, when these things can't be addressed comfortably, they build up power - muddling and obstructing other thoughts and feelings related to race.

There's a type of honesty that's not ugly - we need to find it and practice it and disinfect our collective subconsious.

6) They’re tired of being told that everything any minority kid – or ethnic anyone anywhere – does is THEIR fault. You want me to just let some students behave disruptively or do poor work because my grandparents treated them badly? Isn’t that “soft racism”? The “soft bigotry of low expectations”?

Creepy CosbyYou have no idea how deflating it was to discover that Bill Cosby – a guy we were SURE was legitimately BLACK, but who wanted people to speak properly, pull up their pants, and take a little personal responsibility - is some kinda serial rapist. Dammit! How SELFISH of him to do this to us - er... I mean, to those women!

7) They resent the implication that everything they’ve accomplished – every challenge they’ve overcome or misery they’ve endured – doesn’t count because it’s all White Privilege, so it was easy for them… so get over themselves.

This would be a good time to remind the reader that I’m not making these arguments or validating these impressions. I’ve been there – I get it – but this is not me at the moment. (“Doctor, I have this, uh… ‘good friend’ who has this, uh… little problem…”)

This is an incomplete and oversimplified list, but I’m sure you’ve noticed it’s built on perceptions and feelings and fears and frustrations rather than facts, people, or specifics. If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know I believe those are the things that most drive human behavior and attitudes.

I hope sunlight will help reduce our confirmation biases, our spurious correlations, and our general ‘blurry thinking’ when it comes to race.  If you don’t think I’ve quite found that light, the Comments section is below. Help me. Having deleted my best disclaimers, I’m pretty sure somewhere in here I’ve been unintentionally offensive to someone. But I don’t know how to move forward with this so-called ‘conversation on race’ we keep hearing we’re having  unless we find a way to better communicate what’s really on our minds.

I’ve shared mine as best I can, and now I’m taking the liberty of approximating others’.

We’ll see what happens.

The Animals - Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (HQ)

Related Post: Dear Student of Color...

Comments

I am a 40-something white, married woman teachIng 6th grade literature in a middle school with 75% minorities (66% are from bilingual homes) and 99% free lunches/1% reduced lunches. The education powers that be in our state deemed us a failing school.

I have been amazed at how little my students (even those of diversity) know about American heroes and of the history of their rights. So, as an educator, I'm preparing my classes for my upcoming unit to teach them. I have selected a hodge Podge of rights: human, civil, migrant workers, women's, children's, etc. Since Wednesday, I have handed out candy to those wearing red (one of our school colors), only the students have NO IDEA WHY I'm handing it out. Two students have asked why "those kids" got suckers but the rest didn't. Another was argumentative stating "It's not fair! I've been working hard and I've been quiet. Why didn't I get one?" Many others have noticed and have even shot looks back and forth, questioning each other in looks about my qualifications for suckers. When students ask to use the restroom or get a drink, I cringe. Those wearing red are allowed, those not wearing red are not allowed. I based my "faux preferential treatment" on a clothing color rather than eye or hair color since we have so many dark hair, dark eyed students. It would end up looking like racially based preferential treatment. That's not at all what I wanted!

So how am I approaching such a wide-spreading topic in literature? I'll have a brief group lesson on a reading skill of focus for the day, then students have choices from a reading activity game board, of sorts, to help them select ways of showing comprehension. What will they be reading? Picture books. Lots and lots of picture books about Jews in Nazi Germany, Jackie Robinson, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr. , Elizabeth Stanton, Frederick Douglas, suffragettes, American child labor of the late 1800-1920's, Ruby Bridges, Harriett Tubman, Cesar Chavez, Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and so, so many more.

All this to say that I'm either totally insane, completely naive, or both! I am passionate about allowing them to know who true heroes are. I grow weary of rap stars and athletes being held in such esteem when true heroes are literally unrecognized in my classroom. I feel my students deserve to know from whence America has come.

**stepping off soap box, clearing throat**

Cathy, you know my thoughts - when in doubt, step off the ledge and see if there's a path. You're going full on Jane Elliott and I can't wait to hear how it goes over time. Thank you for sharing this. Unless it turns out you're naive or insane, in which case - WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!?

:-)

 

to give the students choices so they are learning independently. I want to lead the horse to water and make a few splashes in front of him and hope he's thirsty! I want to facilitate, not dictate, the learning.

https://docs.google.com/a/enidk12.org/document/d/1G3gsas6yYamzdP2SGLZNKDNpFtapnn33lgfA7Mv3Qk0/edit?usp=docslist_api

There you go making us think about heavy subjects again, BCE. You have touched on a big piece of the thinking behind much of the reform movement. If THOSE kids would simply quit whining, AND show a little grit, AND pull themselves up by their bootstraps, AND quit living in the past, AND just do it our way, they would be just fine. We just need to make them wear uniforms and march from class to class and be taught catchy I can do it" chants.

Thanks for tacking the topic. Three powerful words that have helped me navigate many difficult conversations with parents, teachers, and occasionally, my wife: "Help me understand..." Then shut up and listen.

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