My Black Students Have Learned to Be Wary of People Who Look Like Me, And That's Not Racist

Nov 6, 2019 12:00:00 AM


Recently in class, my students and I were listening to Lil Nas X sing “Old Town Road,” for what felt like the 100th time. Unintentionally I began to sing along, weaving through desks and timing my feet to the beat. A student called out to me from the other side of the room. “Mr. Wamsted! You pretty cool. For a white guy.” The class erupted in laughter, me loudest of all. By way of rejoinder, I merely sang with more verve.

Now consider the reverse situation, a White student in an all-White school saying similar words to a Black teacher. It would be aggressive, opprobrious. Racist. It is tempting to think that the same must be true for me. And yet, as a matter of history and fact, [pullquote]my student has been learning his whole life to be wary of people who look like me[/pullquote], to wonder if we are, in a more ominous sense, “not cool.” That’s not racist. That’s logic.

Did his comment throw more shade than it did compliment? Absolutely. Did I take it the wrong way, get huffy and offended? Not at all. I’m pretty cool for a White guy. 

This may also be the reason I was a little surprised when one particular comment I posted on Twitter this summer got trolled. Hard.

The hashtag had caught my eye: #WakeUpToRacism. I clicked on it to see a mixture of voices from both the left and the right duking it out to dominate the tag. "Lefties" were posting stories of prejudice and discrimination experienced by people of color. "Righties" were posting what they believed were examples of racism enacted against them as White people. I chimed in, excited to lend my voice. 

A couple of hours later I logged back in and was stunned—my notifications were a nonstop stream of likes, retweets and comments. The likes and retweets seemed to be coming from the left; the comments were all hard right. I tried to follow the flow but couldn’t—everything was moving so fast. I struggled even to take an overview. 

This state of affairs continued for several days. After the lefties slowed with their liking and retweeting, they kept up the fight in sub-comments—wave after wave of argument passing through my feed, most of which I watched without participating.

I did notice many angry quotations of the dictionary definition of “racism.” It was spat at me ad nauseam, so one more time here won’t hurt: “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” There is no mention of “power” here, and hundreds of White people took offense to my use of that word. 

Wake Up To Racism

To be clear, I did not invent the notion that racism equals prejudice plus power. It is a provocative definition, however, one that has affected me deeply in consideration of the dynamics in my classroom—a place where I am always the only White person in the room. Is it fair to call “reverse racism” when a Black teenager is antagonistic to me in part because I am White? 

This kind of thing happens to me often; certainly, it fits within the neat parameters of the dictionary definition of “racism.” And yet this student would seem to be lashing out against the color of my skin as a result of living in a country that constantly denigrates the color of his or her own. Does this kind of “racism” share any but the remotest of kinship with something like White nationalism?

Here lies the heart of the alternate definition. When a Black student is “racist” towards me (in the strict dictionary definition), he or she is reacting to an unjust system that has existed for 400 years, a system maintained by White people wielding the tools of slavery and Reconstruction, Jim Crow and mass incarceration.

I may have a student project antagonism at me; the stated reason may be my race. It feels strange to call that racism, however. At most, it seems only a calculated response to the ever-present threat of White power—a reasonable defensiveness against the tattoo of my skin. 

[pullquote]I know that “prejudice plus power” is a tough definition for many White people.[/pullquote] We live in a world of shifting economics, politics and cultural norms; it's little wonder that many White Americans feel powerless in the face of such change.

This feeling, however, cannot mitigate our responsibility to pay back centuries of unearned privilege. It may seem like racism, for example, when we consider an applicant’s race in choosing a qualified Black candidate over an equally qualified White candidate, but it is not. It is a necessary correction.

Sometime down the road, after we’ve taken on institutional racism and leveled the playing field, we can talk about reverse racism. For today, let’s continue to push towards the correction of White supremacy. Even if it leads to the occasional dustup on Twitter.

Jay Wamsted

Jay Wamsted has taught math at Benjamin E. Mays High School in southwest Atlanta for fourteen years. His writing has been featured in various journals and magazines, including "Harvard Educational Review," "Mathematics Teacher" and "Sojourners." He can be found online at "The Southeast Review," "Under the Sun" and the "TEDx" YouTube channel, where you can watch his 2017 talk “Eating the Elephant: Ending Racism & the Magic of Trust.” He and his wife have four young children, and he rides his bicycle to and from work just about every day. You can contact him on Twitter @JayWamsted or by email,    

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