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My Grandmother Who Escaped Nazis Told Me to Always Speak Up. So, I’m Calling Out Racist Teachers.

My grandmother escaped the Nazis three days before they invaded Prague while much of her family did not. En route to America she and her family listened to the radio, in awe as various nations capitulated to Hitler’s will. The complicity of gentiles was shocking and terrifying. Up until her death a few weeks ago, she always urged me to speak up in the name of justice, regardless of the consequences. Today I am speaking up. We as teachers must confront the ugly truth: Racism is often entrenched in urban schools, particularly with White instructors and students of color. I have witnessed it first hand numerous times. A Black student came to me in tears when another teacher referred to her class as her “slaves.” A White teacher told a defiant Latino eighth-grader, “It’s OK, I’ll need someone to flip my hamburgers at McDonald’s.” While discussing an experiment demonstrating surface tension, a teacher told me that when he was growing up he referred to the two parts of the experiment as “us” and “the Negro.” Then he laughed. When I called him out on it his defense was that the best man at his wedding was Black. (Somehow that must have validated his bigotry.) In the wake of the heinous shooting of Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer and the subsequent political scandal around the suppression of the dashcam video, the cover of “Chicago Union Teacher” featured a picture of McDonald with the headline, “Teaching Laquan McDonald in Context.” Some teachers were livid. They argued that we didn’t need to be making “enemies” of the police. They said this was simply “playing the race card.” They refused to acknowledge the realities of police brutality and state violence. Yet previously they had been upset that the dash footage was released after the mayoral election. The message is clear: Black lives do not matter unless they are used for political goals. Routinely, I have witnessed White teachers disparage the parents of the students they teach, claiming that they are apathetic and “lazy.” When speaking up teachers have rolled their eyes, implying I’m just another example of political correctness gone awry. I have been critiqued and shut down. (I cannot begin to fathom what it must feel like to speak up as a teacher of color.) Many non-White students have voiced these experiences to me—including their frustrating stories. Many teachers of color have shared similar experiences, both as students and later as educators. I’ve heard these stories in both charter and non-charter public schools in urban districts. (I cannot fathom what students of color in more rural districts have experienced.) As teachers, we must do better.

This Is Not Subtle

In many ways, teachers are at the forefront of thinking about the role of race in society. There is an abundance of strong theory and research (particularly that of Gloria Ladson-Billings and Lisa Delpit) that informs best practices for working with students of color. Individuals must also confront their own privilege and be willing to reflect on the mistakes they have made and how they can be corrected. Meanwhile, more groups are drawing attention to the need for more educators of color, particularly men, in the classroom, and the evidence shows that same-race teachers can be a powerful influence for kids of color. All of this work is essential if we are to confront the deeply-entrenched systemic racism in our schools and society. In many ways, these institutional forms of discrimination can be too ubiquitous and too subtle for many of us to recognize. Sound pedagogy is an important step towards dismantling this White supremacy. But I’m not even talking about such a seemingly overwhelming task. I’m talking about blatant racism in our schools. And it has to stop. As White teachers we need to call it out. We owe it to our students, parents and the communities we serve to confront all forms of bigotry. Even when it’s our own colleagues. Many White educators may be timid to confront their peers. I was one of them. I was afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation. But those moments of trepidation, however valid, were rooted in selfishness. I was afraid of the politics of my work environment. After all, we have required meetings together. We collaborate with our peers, and I was worried about jeopardizing those relationships, or the inevitable discomfort. And when I did speak up, yes, it was extremely uncomfortable, both before and after. But speaking up against White supremacy, in all of its forms, is paramount. No student should not go to school in fear, shame or anger. How can we celebrate African-American heroes (often sadly only during Black History Month, but that’s another blog post) and be silent when our coworkers make such offensive and damaging remarks? Doing so means we are no better than them; perhaps we are worse. We are then hypocrites, and our other work becomes invalidated. The path forward is going to be challenging and require much more persistence. All teachers need to speak up as a united front for our kids. We cannot afford to be complicit in the face of hatred. This is the legacy of my grandmother.
Mike Friedberg
Mike Friedberg has been a passionate youth advocate since 2007. He began working with students at a community center and has been a Chicago Public Schools teacher since 2012. He currently teaches seventh and eighth-grade science and has previously taught language arts. Mike has interests in working with English-language learners, culturally-relevant pedagogy, project-based learning, Holocaust ...

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