With so many pressing education issues on our collective agenda, it is important that we don’t ignore the national conversation on race that erupted during the summer months. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of police and the international outcries of protestors blew the dust off a long-neglected epidemic of the educational community—educators must acknowledge that feeling comfortable, staying silent, and not entering difficult conversations about white privilege is, well, privilege.
After centuries of avoidance or fear of sounding “too political,” the recent events and the aftermath of media coverage, social media, and living room conversations concerning Floyd’s death are making one lesson abundantly clear: The prevailing whiteness of a classroom doesn’t make teachers, including myself, exempt from discussing issues of white privilege and racial prejudice.
I work in a district with 91% white students and 98% white staff. As a regional headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, a century later the town and my classroom are still untangling itself from a net of historic racial prejudice. Our demographics don’t help in the process of healing our reputation with salves of racial empathy. In a class of white students, teachers, and, many times, authors, the opportunity to listen to and learn the perspectives of people of color are rare. The opportunity to ignore our privilege is common.
Discussing white privilege in any class, specifically an all-white class lead by a white teacher, is uncomfortable. In my own classroom, even attempting to start such a discussion can lead to suffocated silence. In order for a student to discuss whiteness, they must first understand that they are allowed to do so. My students want to talk about race but often do not know how to navigate having such conversations.
Many students associate whiteness with guilt for their own privilege, shame for historical atrocities or fear of discrediting personal achievements—not with the opportunity for allyship. Not surprisingly, students need practice and support in shifting this mindset. My job, as an educator, is to give them the opportunity to consider anti-racist perspectives. If the privilege white students experience is shoved under the desk and forgotten, the opportunities to acknowledge it in communities, leverage it to disrupt prejudice and steward it to people of color are also forgotten.
The Anti-Racist Classroom
Facilitating an anti-racist classroom is a commitment to learning. Anti-racist professional development often focuses on fostering cultural competency skills in educators of diverse classrooms, with good reason. However, the consequence of this focus means that many non-diverse schools aren’t privy to professional development about discussing race, let alone white privilege, in the classroom. Such training is often disregarded as “not for them,” placing the burden of anti-racist teaching on educators of color and perpetuating the privilege of white educators.
The issue persists in the classrooms and in the beginning of the teacher pipeline. As the demands of the teaching profession intensify, teacher preparation programs are required to teach and test an unprecedented list of skills, ironically leaving little room to instruct pre-service teachers how to lead critical race conversations.
Leaving anti-racist work off the syllabus lessens the impact of other vital teaching skills on the syllabus. For example, how does a teacher leverage trauma-informed or SEL curriculum without acknowledging the lived experiences of students? In order to engage students in anti-racist work, white educators must first engage in anti-racist training that normalizes reflecting on and stewarding privilege, disrupting the mindset that identifying your own privilege is a criticism or shaming. If teachers are not engaged in anti-racist education for themselves and for their classrooms, what opportunities are then afforded to students?
One answer lies in a classroom of a former sundown town—mine. Last fall, my students and I spent our daily 48 minutes analyzing an article from our local paper, an investigation of the town’s historical relationship with the KKK. At the end of a lesson, I found one of my students gripped to his seat by his own family’s history with the group.
I sat at the desk next to him and waited. In a quiet voice, he came out to me—as a racist who didn’t want to be one. Then he asked me how to break the news to his family, hesitant to disavow a generations-long heritage. We then talked about how it is okay to consider a different perspective and, as a result, change our view of the world and ourselves. Acknowledging that he, or those close to him, got something wrong doesn’t mean he failed—it means he realized his own power to grow. At the end of our conversation, he said, “I never talked to anyone about this because, because I didn’t know I could talk about this stuff.”
It is up to us as educators to break such silence down, one student at a time. Now, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the long-overdue national conversation on racism, the work is even more urgent. Acknowledging and discussing whiteness in the classroom is a skill every teacher can and should harness. When students understand privilege, they learn to use their own to speak-up, speak-out and speak truth. For the sake of all students, we, white teachers, must do better.