Now Is the Perfect Time for White Teachers to Do 'The Work' of Anti-Racism

Mar 31, 2020 12:00:00 AM


The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted, well, everything, but at times I find that I have more time to communicate, virtually if necessary, with family and friends, even over fraught topics. Example: Recently I was discussing racism with a couple of friends—three White guys talking about implicit bias and White supremacy—trying to make sense of our prejudices. There was little disagreement, mostly a back-and-forth, but inevitably the discussion narrowed in on a question I hear most often, the one which I always struggle to answer: “So, what do I do now?”

Some months back I published a blog post: “27 Mistakes White Teachers of Black Students Make and How to Fix Them.” The piece received positive feedback, though a common complaint was that I went long on problems while short on the solutions. Never one to ignore solid criticism, I decided to double down on that question and take a second shot at some proactive steps—things White teachers can do to increase their acumen with Black and Brown learners. The struggle is real; check out the piece if you don’t believe me. But here [pullquote position="right"]let’s talk about a way forward.[/pullquote]

Full disclosure: We are not going to repair four centuries of institutionalized American racism in a short essay, any more than I could tell my friend how to fix his implicit bias during a chat. If you’re out for an easy answer, I’m sorry to disappoint you. But if you want to start on a journey, do what some people like to call “the work,” keep reading. 

Step One: Learn

Before we can take a step forward, however, we will need to take a step back. The first thing we have to do is to learn.

It’s no secret that many White Americans grow up in a state of racial isolation, our exposure to people of color taking place primarily through cable and the internet. For those of us who become teachers, our training and work experiences are often our first opportunity to interact on a deep and abiding basis with people who don’t look like us. We might read a book—most likely “White Fragility,” but also possibly “White Rage” or “Waking Up White” or “White Like Me”—and then some of us get excited and call ourselves woke. These books are great and our excitement may be genuine, but when we consume a few books before running off to heal our nation’s racial divide, we run off unprepared.

Better preparation starts with much more reading, specifically the Black authors who write about racism both academically and experientially. A couple of White people are not going to equip a teacher to tackle systemic racism; there is so much more to learn. I could recommend dozens of books, but I will start with five: 

This list is heavy sledding, but, as White teachers of Black children, we don’t have the option to settle for anything like easy listening. As Kendi says, “We know how to be racist. We know how to pretend to be not racist. Now let’s know how to be antiracist.”

I will add two things to this reading list.

  • First, the podcast “Seeing White” by Scene on Radio. Yes, it is hosted by a White man, but it co-stars a constellation of Black scholars that take the focus away from him. If the only time you have to study is in the car, this stream of information might be your best bet.
  • Second, engage with real people, specifically people of color. To be sure, this is a tricky area—you don’t want to go off looking for a tour guide, someone to do your work for you by dispensing information about America’s racial problems. On the other hand, if you can keep your feelings in check and really listen, questions directed at trusted friends or colleagues are not untoward. You might be surprised how much you will learn if you can manage to get out of the way of your conversations.

    If all your friends and colleagues are White, you’ll probably have to head to Twitter. That’s a whole separate article right there—the internet community—but for now, we need to move on from learning into the second phase of what we can do. However, we’re still not ready quite yet to act. We have to properly lament.

Step Two: Lament

Learning is head knowledge. It is essential, yes—but the gut knowledge of lamenting is just as important. [pullquote position="right"]We must find a way to personalize issues of race and racism.[/pullquote]

Please hear me: I’m not asking for White tears. Robin DiAngelo defines these tears as “all the ways, both literally and metaphorically, that White fragility manifests itself through White people’s laments over how hard racism is on us.” No one needs your crying; as Alexandria Bennet puts it, “These tears taste like oppression.” You do, however, need to learn how to mourn your role in this system of White supremacy. You need to learn how to take it personally and be uncomfortable.

Michael Eric Dyson writes, “When white folk … feel uncomfortable, they get up and walk out of the room. Black folk and other people of color rarely have that option.” [pullquote]Sometimes our learning leaves us compartmentalized—we get really good at talking about history and policy without addressing the individual, especially when that individual is us.[/pullquote] So much so that when a person of color calls us out on a personal issue, we freak out and walk out. 

When that happens we know we have not properly lamented. Real lamentation wants to be called out; it knows we are far from woke.  If I put White comfort over truth, I have not lamented. Reading a series of books is safe; lamenting is painfully uncomfortable.

But we can’t get stuck in lamentation; soon it must give way to the final phase. Dyson, again: “White guilt changes nothing permanently, and bad feelings about Black suffering don’t last forever.” We can get stuck lamenting just like we can get stuck learning. At some point, we need to move on to liberate.

Step Three: Liberate

You are no White savior; I am not asking you to liberate the people of color in your orbit. Rather, I am asking you to liberate yourself in conversations and relationships. We would do well to remember these words from Lilla Watson:

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Finally, we have come full-circle—and back to my original question: What are some “boots-on-the-ground” ways we can work together for liberation? The answer is at the same time, both maddeningly simple and a lifelong project.

First, we White people need to reject the naïve colorblindness that has permeated both public and private discourse for most of our lives. Lisa Delpit writes, “If you don’t see color, then you don’t see people.” How are we to teach children if we’re not truly seeing them? Reni Ecco-Lodge goes further: “In order to dismantle unjust, racist structures, we must see race. We must see who benefits from their race…Seeing race is essential to changing the system.” [pullquote]Do we want to work together towards liberation? Seeing race is mandatory.[/pullquote]

Seeing is not enough, however—next we need to stop. Stop hiding, stop running, stop avoiding, stop steering ourselves away from conversations about race. In the learning phase, we spoke in safe spaces with colleagues and trusted friends; now something more is required of us. 

As a young teacher, the best advice I ever got went something like this: Race is going to come up in your room full of Black teenagers. If you as a White man can lean into those conversations, you will earn the trust of your students, while also learning something about both them and yourself. Had I not practiced this advice ahead of time, I would have been swallowed by the news of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and #BlackLivesMatter. As it was, I had both equity and some semblance of skill when discussing race, both casually and intensely. I had learned to stop hiding.

Finally, it is time to speak up. Once we have learned how to engage in conversations about race we must begin to initiate them ourselves. A charge from Reni Ecco-Lodge: 

White people, you need to talk to other white people about race ... Talk to other white people who trust you. Talk to white people in the areas of your life where you have influence. If you feel burdened by your unearned privilege, try to use it for something, and use it where it counts. But don’t be anti-racist for the sake of an audience. Being white and anti-racist in your private or professional life, where there’s little praise to be found, is much more difficult, but ultimately more meaningful.

White people. We have to talk not just to our Black friends and colleagues, not just to our students and our Twitter feeds—we have to talk to all the people in the orbits of our real lives. Specifically, we have to talk to other White people—our kids, our friends, our family. We must share our learning and lament with any and everyone. Our liberatory work starts with taking our words to our streets, speaking up to those we hold near and dear. We must make a habit of getting into difficult conversations where, as Ecco-Lodge says, there is little praise to be found.

[pullquote]It is not enough to see race, nor is it enough to stop hiding from White supremacy. We must also speak up about our place in the system.[/pullquote] It is in this final space that we can begin to become qualified White teachers of Black and Brown children.

‘So, What Do I Do Now?’

I didn’t have the words while chatting with my friends—I am a writer, after all, and it took me some thinking to get things worked out. Now, though, I believe I have an answer for them. Rather, the start of an answer. As I said before, this work is a lifelong project.

Learn. Lament. Liberate.

I’m not quite sure what comes next, though I do believe it will spill over outside your classroom. Might it be a deepened call to political activism? A change of address? A surprising school decision for your own children? Once you have liberated yourself—after you have started the work—I believe that inevitably changes will follow. 

All of which will be to the benefit of you, your teaching practice, and, most importantly, your students.

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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