For White Teachers Teaching White Boys in the Suburbs

Feb 28, 2019 12:00:00 AM


If you haven’t read "For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood," a great book by Christopher Emdin for every teacher everywhere, please do.
We talk too much about White boys. Witness the Esquire article that gave us a look at “An American Boy” who likes football, doesn’t understand girls and worries the whole world doesn’t like him because he’s White and male. We talk too much about White boys. But, also, really. When we talk about them, we don’t say nearly enough. We don’t talk enough about the boys in our classrooms, the boys who spend too much time on Reddit and 4-Chan, who are playing with ideas around race, around gender, around attraction. We don’t talk enough about the White boys consuming messages about what is owed them, about what is being taken. We don’t talk enough about White boys at a crossroads, about what we can do to interrupt them inheriting the power and permission to pursue their worst instincts. I teach eighth grade. I think a lot about the White boys I see every day. A couple of years ago, I started a new job after being bounced out of jobs by a few awful administrators and some budget woes. The job I’ve now found a little weird home in is a school where there are more White kids than I had ever taught before, and a blizzard-level Whiteout of staff. It is not the job I’ve been working so hard to get good at. Many of the same equity issues I’ve worked on before are still here. Our kids of color are underperforming and over-referred. With many immigrant and refugee families, my classroom now is actually more diverse than any I’ve ever taught before, and I have work to do to get all those voices represented in my class and curriculum. That said, I’ve also got a whole bunch of White boys, and the behavior issues I see in my class, the disengagement I get during lessons is coming from them and is not evidence of oppression, but rather the result of entitlement.

Support Their Growth

I spend a lot of my days worried about White boys. I worry about White boys who barely try and expect to be rewarded, who barely care and can’t stand being called on it, who imagine they can go through school without learning much without it impacting in any way the capacity for their future success, just because it never has before. White boys who expect privilege to carry and protect them, because that’s what it does, without ever stopping to wonder if it works the same for everyone else. I worry about White boys who say, who believe, that it is very, very hard to be a White boy right now. They see Black Lives Matter and Black Panther as evidence that White boys are the enemy, simply because they are slightly less likely to be shown as the hero. There are White boys who feel like even learning about different people is somehow an attack against them. But then, [pullquote]there are so, so many White boys looking hard for a better path to walk.[/pullquote] Last year we did a little unit on masculinity and watched the documentary “ The Mask You Live In.” I remember watching one boy in the back in the room, watching him stare dead-eyed at the movie, staying silent through the discussion. I worried that I had maybe pushed him a little too far too fast, enough that he wasn’t really listening, not trying to learn. Then I got an email from his mom. He went home that day and made her sit down and watch the movie with him. They talked about it for an hour. He thought it was so, so important. This week, a student spoke up in class to say that every time a particular writer talked about White people and their role in racism, he would start to feel really guilty, and it made him not want to listen. That kid is wrong, right? Screw your White guilt and your White fragility, right? That’s what Twitter-me would say. But also, I did that. I know that when your worth is measured in power, that losing even a tiny bit of it can feel like powerlessness. I went through that same guilty resistance, and I did it when I was in my 20s and didn’t have nearly the ability my student has to name and express those feelings. So, good on you, dude, let’s talk about White guilt next week, acknowledge and talk about how to move past it. I try to hold myself in that spot, as someone White and male who is on the same damn journey but has maybe been doing it for more years, someone who sometimes gets it, and also who sometimes doesn’t. I try to keep an arm around the boys who most need it, but it’s hard, because I’m also not willing to give an inch on making my room safe for my students of color. It’s not their job to keep hurting while White boys figure it out. So, sometimes I’m the bad guy to the “guys just being guys,” and we have to start back over on building trust.

You Have to Listen

[pullquote position="right"]There is a path for White male success that does not involve bulldozing everyone else out of the way, that involves discomfort, struggle, growth.[/pullquote] That demands excellence rather than mediocrity plus privilege. There is a path for finding strength by being challenged, for finding your voice through listening a lot harder to others. A path that interrupts, that demolishes every message that you are better than another just because you are entitled or you have ownership. This path is not just important to minimize the destructive forces of privilege on marginalized people, but also it is plainly necessary for the success of White boys. More and more, we are getting called on our shit, and it’s well past time we expect more from ourselves. There is pushback against “ cancel culture,” against the wave of mostly White men who are losing money, jobs, fans, families because of the shitty-ass shit they’ve done. But a system that is calling so many White men to account for being racist or sexist isn’t a problem with the system, it is a problem among White men. We can be much better than we are, but not by sticking to the path we’ve always taken.

Tom Rademacher

Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."

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