I Thought Talking About Race in the Classroom Wasn't Important. I Was Wrong.

May 18, 2021 12:00:00 AM


Critical race theory is this moment’s scapegoat of fearful White America.

So, for what it’s worth, here is my own accounting of being a privileged white male learning about critical race theory, becoming anti-racist, and finding the liberation that comes not with absolution, but truth.

A few years ago, I sat with my colleagues for the first of many cultural context professional development sessions. I was aggressively disengaged and reflexively defensive. [pullquote position="right"]I felt I was being told how, as a white man, I was automatically biased, and probably even racist.[/pullquote]

I felt I was being told that my life had been so privileged, my life’s road so smoothly paved, that any accomplishments I had made were not due to my own hard work, but due to the head start I had supposedly enjoyed due to my white skin.

I felt that despite much of my family arriving in America in the early 20th century, I was being implicated in centuries of American slavery. I felt that after years of service to a school filled with students who did not look like me, I was now being told that my very existence was an indictment against the students I had just finished teaching.

By the next cultural context session, I had reached my limit. I was not a racist person. I was a progressive liberal who always voted Democrat and never said the “N word.” Why did I need to sit through these sessions, especially when I had so much other work to do? If we wanted to stop race being a factor in our society, why did we keep insisting on talking about it? 

This is the space where a lot of folks exist, but what they don’t understand, what I didn’t understand, is that their confidence, their immovable certainty in their un-racist purity is emblematic of the problem itself because it denotes an unwillingness to listen and outright refusal to learn. But the truth will not allow itself to be denied for long and for me, the truth revealed itself through the lives of my two sons.  

My sons provided me a lens with which to view the world around me that exposed the systemic nature of American injustice. When Trayvon Martin was murdered, I looked through the eyes of a father and saw that my boys would not have been followed and killed for being suspicious. When I saw Eric Garner choked to death in public, I looked through the eyes of a father and saw that my boys do not have to worry about police murdering me when I step out the door. When I saw my over-achieving and over-qualified students denied access to quality college education simply because they couldn’t afford it, I looked through the eyes of a father who knew that his sons’ education was already budgeted for. 

But perhaps more than anything else, when I searched for schools to send my children, I saw that the schools with the greatest resources served the wealthiest neighborhoods and communities with families who owned their homes, while those with the fewest resources served impoverished communities of renters who had been systematically denied access to mortgages for generations, thereby blocking access to wealth accumulation, home ownership, and quality education.

I saw all these things and a truth became clear; these injustices didn’t just happen by accident.

[pullquote]What must be understood, and what critical race theory teaches us, is that systems and policies do not simply arise from the ether; they are intentionally created by those with the power and influence to legislate and enforce.[/pullquote] In America, the vast majority of those so empowered to create systems and policies have been white men. It is, therefore, no surprise that the privileges that result from these policies and systems are enjoyed the most by white men and, by extension, white families.

To enjoy the spoils of that system is, therefore, to be complicit in racism—and here is where people shut down at what they feel is a personal attack. But being complicit within the systems of racism is not the same as being a bigot, one whose enjoyment of racial privileges is matched by the hatred in their heart for people who do not look like them.  

And while there are many who would rather just sit this whole conversation out, the truth is that [pullquote position="right"]when it comes to racism, you are either in support of it, or actively against it.[/pullquote] The cycle of racism, as Beverly Tatum teaches us, is the moving walkway at the airport. You will be moved by it regardless of whether you walk with it or not. Neutrality in the face of systemic evil is to go along with it. Only being anti moves you against it.

But there are indeed pitfalls with educators beginning their journeys towards antiracism. Schools and teachers need to avoid doing this work solely for performative purposes and must beware of the sinister unintended consequence of this work resulting in lowering bars of excellence for their students. 

Lisa Delpit in her must-read “Other People’s Children” reflects on the phenomenon of well-intended white educators misdirecting their antiracist work to the detriment of the very students they intend to serve, noting that “a critical thinker who lacks the ‘skills’ demanded by employers and institutions of higher learning can aspire to financial and social status only with the disenfranchised underworld.”

[pullquote]Learning this stuff is heavy and calls into question almost everything we take for granted about ourselves and our families. But ignorance is not bliss, it’s delusion.[/pullquote] Bliss is seeing the truth and being able to drop the pretension of perfection. I am not a perfect anti-racist. I am complicit in America’s system of racism. And I am working to always learn, listen, and teach.

But when I read of folks who would challenge the tenets of antiracism, it calls to mind a quote from James Baldwin.

We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.

We can and will disagree about pedagogical practice, student expectations and school culture. Those debates are necessary to ensure that truly best practices are selected for an individual school. But [pullquote]if who we truly are does not allow us to teach, support, care, love and fight for Black and brown kids, then we need to go do something else.[/pullquote]

Zachary Wright 

Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating classes. Wright was a national finalist for the 2018 U.S. Department of Education's School Ambassador Fellowship, and he was named Philadelphia's Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013. During his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, Wright created a relationship between Philadelphia's Mastery Schools and the University of Vermont that led to the granting of near-full-ride college scholarships for underrepresented students. And he participated in the fight for equitable education funding by testifying before Philadelphia's Board of Education and in the Pennsylvania State Capitol rotunda. Wright has been recruited by Facebook and Edutopia to speak on digital education. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he organized demonstrations to close the digital divide. His writing has been published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Citizen, Chalkbeat, Education Leadership, and numerous education blogs. Wright lives in Collingswood, New Jersey, with his wife and two sons. Read more about Wright's work and pick up a copy of his new book, " Dismantling A Broken System; Actions to Close the Equity, Justice, and Opportunity Gaps in American Education"—now available for pre-order!

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