I Had to Admit My Own Racial Prejudice to Become a Better Teacher

I had never been so acutely aware of the color of my white skin until the day I stood in front of a classroom full of teenagers—only one of whose faces matched mine in shade—and attempted to convince them that I cared about their well-being. February is a reminder not only of the complicated and simultaneously celebratory and devastating history of African-Americans in this country, but also of the privilege that I and those who look like me have been granted. Among the many privileges I’ve received in my life, perhaps the strongest and the most taken for granted is the ability to simply be unaware. I can assume almost always that no one is thinking about the color of my skin or the impact it has on my ability to work hard and succeed. In 21st-century America, white equals normal. White history equals standard. There’s no reason to think about it or create a special time of year to discuss it. My students have not been granted that privilege. They will spend their lives proving to the people around them that, despite their blackness, they have something to bring to the table. They will have to prove that, despite their oppressive history, they can attain levels of achievement similar to their white peers. After all, they spent time proving themselves to me. Before my first day in the classroom, I knew that black students were suspended at higher rates than white students for the same infractions. I knew that as early as preschool, black students were being labeled the “bad” kids. These students are much more likely than their peers to eventually drop out and end up with a criminal record. What I didn’t know before my first day in the classroom was that I would make prejudiced judgment calls in the classroom that would contribute to this crushing phenomenon. I grew up surrounded by white conversations, many of which separated black from white and rich from poor. I did not meet a black person until I was 11 years old. I did not meet a second black person until I was 16. In a child's or teenager’s mind, separation equals difference. Like smog in the air, prejudice became a part of my life. Despite discovery of my own prejudice, and anti-prejudice activism in college, I still found myself at the age of 21 assuming that I, while I had studied and was aware of the historical oppression of people of color, probably wouldn’t be friends with such a person because we were just different. I was not alone. According to a 2015 study from the Brookings Institute, “non-black teachers have significantly lower educational expectations for black students than black teachers do when evaluating the same students.” Specifically, this study surveyed teachers of black 10th graders nationwide and asked one of each student's black teachers and one of their non-black teachers how much education they anticipated that student completing. Non-black teachers were 30 percent less likely than black teachers to expect the same black 10th grader to attain a four-year college degree. No one wants to admit that they are prejudiced, especially not the teachers of urban students. But to be truly unprejudiced in 21st-century America, it's not enough to simply refrain from discriminating against people of color. I spent four months in my classroom with black and Hispanic students for six hours every day before I began shedding that notion of “differences.” As urban educators, researching, discussing and confronting our own privilege is crucial in order to become the best teachers we can be, whether that privilege is race, income, language, gender, sexual orientation or some other facet. We must allow ourselves to be aware of our prejudices. Because we do have them. And we must actively battle them each day.
Jillian Harkins is an English teacher at Bassick High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and a member of Teach For America and Educators 4 Excellence.

Join the Movement