Students of Color Experience an Endless Parade of White Women
In our eagerness to do what’s right for kids, to try to embrace justice work, we’ve missed something essential. Our house is still messy, untidy, and oppressive.
Back in 2016, I leaned hard into my identity as an Interchangeable White Lady. I started naming the awkward truth that students of color often experience an endless parade of white women who all seem to be controlling them, policing them, and boring them.
I realized that whether those perceptions were true of me or not, they constantly affected my relationships with students and the strategies I needed to deploy to earn respect, gain buy-in and create learning experiences that centered student voice.
I also became more public about my efforts to diversify the profession. I started this through my work with Teachers United, an educator-driven, grass-roots organization that made hiring and retention policy recommendations to the legislature in Olympia, Washington. I committed to intentionally supporting women of color as student teachers. I kept an eye out for students of color who were natural teachers, encouraging them to apply for programs such as Teach 253.
I wasn’t alone in my efforts. Many districts followed suit, but with arguably little long-term success. According to a recent article from the Hechinger Report, “between 1988 and 2018, the number of teachers of color hired by the country’s schools increased at a faster rate than the number of white teachers, yet those diverse educators also left their positions much more quickly, on average.” The latter part of this point is especially concerning considering the number of students of color filling our classrooms. In a 2022 ASCD publication, Ingersoll, May, and Collins noted that while the profession is diversifying, a) it can’t catch up to the rapidly diversifying student body and b) retaining teachers of color continues to be a struggle. For all our efforts, changing the face of teaching remains a relentless challenge.
White women dominate U.S. classrooms today, just as they did in the 1840s.
Why is this? Because nothing real has actually changed.
Yes, we have more equity officers. We have more diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice coordinators. Sure, the average educator can define these terms and implement a strategy or two related to them in their classroom. However, I am left wondering: for each stride forward, have we taken a step back?
It’s easy to blame the events of the last few years, pretending our current condition is an anomaly rather than a reflection of the unceasing lack of progress we’ve made in diversifying the profession. Watching the Trump administration appoint Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education and the endless buffet of ill-intended, asinine policies was demoralizing, to say the least.
Add in the complications of COVID-19. Over the last two-and-a-half years, many of us shifted from #quaranteaching through various versions of remote learning, hybrid teaching, or blended learning. We tried to make the best of it—because we had to.
Our students relied on us. Many needed us to be strong and provide some sense of normality in a turbulent sea. In particular, some of our most vulnerable students, who likely attend public schools, often rely disproportionately on the wraparound services they receive via their school. If conditions before COVID-19 were unwelcoming, this new normal illuminated the cracks in the system, exacerbated the disparities, and left many hopeless.
If Our House Is Not Inviting, No One Will Enter
As Sharif El-Mekki notes, “A lot of school and district leaders take the approach, ‘We don’t care how messy or untidy or oppressive our house is—just come in anyway.”
This hits the nail on the head. Some districts blame the pandemic for putting the brakes on justice work in their districts. Others might argue that their Band-Aid fixes have solved the root problems.
But I’d venture to suggest that in our eagerness to do what’s right for kids, to try to embrace justice work, we’ve missed something essential.
Our house is still messy, untidy, and oppressive.
If you don’t see this, I would challenge you to make space for an open, authentic conversation with a colleague of color. If you’re feeling bold, ask any student of color, and they will corroborate the experience.
Knowing that our schools aren’t built for students of color, how can we expect them to grow up into adults who want to join the profession? Without acknowledging these systematic issues and without a clear pathway forward, it’s unfair to recruit teachers of color into schools that will quickly push them out.
To me, this accidental commitment to keeping a messy house has manifested in newish ways. We see an uptick in fear and panic being pushed from the right. This moral panic is on display in teacher censorship, book bannings, and restricting conversations about race.
Interchangeable White Ladies Must Take a Stand
All these factors leave me wondering, what does this mean for an interchangeable white lady in 2022? Despite having stepped away from the U.S. for a season to teach overseas, I still see the need to be committed to this work. In particular, if you call yourself an ally or an accomplice in the effort to make schools more inclusive, validating, and welcoming to all students and staff, now more than ever is the time to take a stand.
As I’ve written previously, there are actions we can take to continue to fight the white supremacy, colonialism, and unspoken culture of our schools. Take a moment to survey your surroundings. Consider your place of power and privilege in your school. What committees do you serve on? How are you sharing space with educators of color, or better yet, passing the microphone?
Even if you feel like you are in a precarious position in your district or school, you are still uniquely positioned with a certain amount of privilege.
Use your positionality as a white woman teacher to do what’s right for students. In many cases, students have far more to lose than we ever will.
To Start, Survey the Landscape and Find Co-Conspirators
When I moved to the Gulf four years ago, I began the year by surveying the landscape at my new school, trying to get a sense of the values of our community as well as the explicit and implicit ways that we do business. Who were the folks centering students in their pedagogy? Who were the folks examining the system, working to improve our school? Who were those who meant well, but were early in their journey toward deconstructing white supremacy? How were we examining the spoken and unspoken cultural norms of the way we create learning experiences for our diverse student body?
I took time to observe my new context and consider my positionality in my new community.
Drawn to the school counselor who sported messages about Blackness, feminism, and acceptance on her T-shirts and earrings, I took the plunge, introduced myself, and awkwardly shared my story. Making space to learn was my first step. Through ongoing dialogue, hard conversations, and a commitment to make the school more inclusive, I’ve found a collection of allies and accomplices.
You might think being in an international school means we are already diverse and have no issues with accepting differences. But water is wet, and white supremacy is everywhere.
In the last two and half years, we’ve made some intentional strides to do the internal work.
Here are some steps we’re taking to remodel our house.
First, that school counselor and I started a teacher-student group, the Majlis, to explore diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in our community. Majlis is a multipurpose Arabic word meaning “meeting place” and “council.” It connotes collaboration and community. Our team of four teachers and 12 students spans a wealth of religions, cultures, and nationalities.
Backed by our administration, we’ve partnered with a DEIB consultancy to guide us through self-assessment and change theory, resulting in a mission and strategic plan that includes everything from gathering student stories to developing advisory lessons to creating common understanding around terms such as diversity, inclusion, etc.
Most of our work is behind the scenes, but I’d argue that even initiating these conversations and putting this team together has had an impact. We continue to work on things like examining our student handbook through a gender and racial justice lens, and partnering with student-led clubs such as our Student Council, Black Student Union, and the Human Rights Club to curate activities to recognize Black History Month, Women’s History Month and so on.
As the saying goes, “a child will lead us…” The fall after Majlis began, our school sent a team of K-12 educators and administrators to engage with a course “Advancing the Work of Anti-Racism, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging and Social Justice in International Schools” designed by NESA and led by educators of color from across the globe. This course gave us an opportunity to interrogate our hiring practices, discuss implicit biases and stereotypes about what a “good teacher” looks like, and explore other systemic issues facing international schools. This has motivated us to ensure that our core values as a school are rooted in diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice. Our team meets regularly to dialogue about how we can move from theory to practice.
I’m not suggesting that these two moves have now transformed our schools completely, and we have no more racism, classism, sexism, or any other ism. I am simply offering two real ways we can ally with others.
Regardless of where we are in the world, some things remain constant. We have to be proactive.
We can choose to be paralyzed by the political and social climate threatening teaching and learning, or we can recognize its intent: to keep us distracted from the real work.
As bell hooks so poignantly wrote, "I entered the classroom with the conviction that it was crucial for me and every other student to be an active participant, not a passive consumer."