Students of Color Experience an Endless Parade of White Women

Mar 7, 2024 12:00:00 PM


In our eagerness to do what’s right for kids and to try to embrace justice work, we’ve missed something essential. Our house is still messy, untidy, and oppressive. 

I leaned hard into my identity as an Interchangeable White Lady in 2016. I started naming the awkward truth that students of color often experience an endless parade of white women who all seem to be controlling them, policing them, and boring them.

Whether those perceptions of me were accurate or not, they constantly affected my relationships with students and the strategies I needed to deploy to earn respect, gain buy-in, and create learning experiences centered on student voice. 

I also became more public about my efforts to diversify the profession. I started this by working with Teachers United, an educator-driven, grass-roots organization that made hiring and retention policy recommendations to the legislature in Olympia, Washington. I committed to intentionally supporting women of color as student teachers. I watched for students of color who were natural teachers, encouraging them to apply for programs such as Teach 253

I wasn’t alone in my efforts. Many districts followed suit, but with arguably little long-term success. 

A 2022 article from the Hechinger Report details a persisting problem, “Between 1988 and 2018, the number of teachers of color hired by the country’s schools increased at a faster rate than the number of white teachers, yet those diverse educators also left their positions much more quickly, on average.”

The latter part of this point is especially concerning considering the number of students of color filling our classrooms. In a 2022 ASCD publication, Ingersoll, May, and Collins noted that while the profession is diversifying, a) it can’t catch up to the rapidly diversifying student body, and b) Black teachers were two times more likely to leave the profession than their white colleagues.

For all our efforts, changing the face of teaching remains a relentless challenge. 

White women dominate U.S. classrooms today, just as they did in the 1840s.

Why is this? Because nothing real has changed. 

Yes, we have more diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice coordinators and officers. Sure, the average educator can define these terms and implement a strategy or two related to them in their classroom. However, I am left wondering: For each stride forward, have we taken a step back?

We all know there is a crisis in teaching, and teachers of all racial backgrounds are quitting. These facts aren't spurring leaders to make system-level changes fast enough in their schools or districts.

If Our House Is Not Inviting, No One Will Enter

As Sharif El-Mekki notes, “A lot of school and district leaders take the approach, ‘We don’t care how messy or untidy or oppressive our house is—just come in anyway.” 

This hits the nail on the head. Some districts blame the pandemic for putting the brakes on justice work in their districts. Others might argue that their Band-Aid fixes have solved the root problems. 

But I’d venture to suggest that in our eagerness to do what’s right for kids and to embrace justice work, we’ve missed something essential.

Our house is still messy, untidy, and oppressive

If you don’t see this, I would challenge you to make space for an open, authentic conversation with a colleague of color. If you’re feeling bold, ask any student of color, and they will corroborate the experience. 

Knowing that our schools aren’t built for students of color, how can we expect them to grow up into adults who want to join the profession? Without acknowledging these systematic issues and without a clear pathway forward, it’s unfair to recruit teachers of color into schools that will quickly push them out. 

This accidental commitment to keeping a messy house has manifested in new ways. We see an uptick in fear and panic being pushed from the right. This moral panic is on display in teacher censorship, book bannings, and restricting conversations about race.

Interchangeable White Ladies Must Take a Stand

All these factors leave me wondering, what does this mean for an interchangeable white lady?

If you call yourself an ally or an accomplice in making schools more inclusive, validating, and welcoming to all students and staff, now more than ever is the time to take a stand.

As I’ve written previously, there are actions we can take to continue fighting white supremacy, colonialism, and the unspoken culture of our schools. Take a moment to survey your surroundings. Consider your place of power and privilege in your school. What committees do you serve on? How are you sharing space with educators of color, or better yet, passing the microphone? 

Even if you feel in a precarious position in your district or school, you are still uniquely positioned with a certain amount of privilege.

Use your "positionality" as a white woman teacher to do what’s right for students. Students often have far more to lose than we ever will. 

To Start, Survey the Landscape and Find Co-Conspirators

When I moved four years ago, I began the year by surveying the landscape at my new school, trying to get a sense of our community's values and the explicit and implicit ways that we do business.

Who were the folks centering students in their pedagogy? Who were the folks examining the system and working to improve our school? Who were those who meant well but were early in their journey toward deconstructing white supremacy? How were we examining the spoken and unspoken cultural norms of the way we create learning experiences for our diverse student body? 

I observed my new context and considered my positionality in my new community. 

Drawn to the school counselor who sported messages about Blackness, feminism, and acceptance on her T-shirts and earrings, I took the plunge, introduced myself, and awkwardly shared my story. Making space to learn was my first step. I've found a collection of allies and accomplices through ongoing dialogue, hard conversations, and a commitment to make the school more inclusive. 

You might think being in an international school means we are already diverse and have no issues accepting differences. But water is wet, and white supremacy is everywhere. 

Here are some steps we’re taking to remodel our house.

First, that school counselor and I started a teacher-student group, the Majlis, to explore diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) in our community. Majlis is a multipurpose Arabic word meaning “meeting place” and “council.” It connotes collaboration and community. Our team of four teachers and 12 students spans a wealth of religions, cultures, and nationalities. 

Backed by our administration, we’ve partnered with a DEIB consultancy to guide us through self-assessment and change theory. This has resulted in a mission and strategic plan that includes everything from gathering student stories to developing advisory lessons to creating a common understanding around terms such as diversity, inclusion, etc. 

Most of our work is behind the scenes, but I’d argue that even initiating these conversations and putting this team together has had an impact. We continue to work on examining our student handbook through a gender and racial justice lens and partnering with student-led clubs such as our Student Council, Black Student Union, and the Human Rights Club to curate activities to recognize Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and so on.

As the saying goes, “A child will lead us…” The fall after we founded Majlis, our school sent a team of K-12 educators and administrators to engage with a course, “Advancing the Work of Anti-Racism, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging and Social Justice in International Schools,” designed by NESA and led by educators of color from across the globe.

This course allowed us to examine our hiring practices, discuss implicit biases and stereotypes about what a “good teacher” looks like, and explore other systemic issues facing international schools. This has motivated us to ensure that our core values as a school are rooted in diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice. Our team meets regularly to discuss how we can move from theory to practice. 

I’m not suggesting that these two moves have now wholly transformed our schools, and we have no more racism, classism, sexism, or any other ism. I am simply offering two ways we can ally with others.

Regardless of where we are in the world, some things remain constant. We have to be proactive.

We can choose to be paralyzed by the political and social climate threatening teaching and learning, or we can recognize its intent: to distract us from the real work.

As Gloria Jean Watkins (known by her pen name "bell hooks") so poignantly wrote, "I entered the classroom with the conviction that it was crucial for me and every other student to be an active participant, not a passive consumer."

This article was originally published in November 2022 as part of Ed Post's series of essays, "Jane Crow: Then And Now." 

Hope Teague-Bowling

Hope Teague-Bowling is an English teacher at the American Community School of Abu Dhabi and previously at Lincoln High in Tacoma, Washington. For her blog, An Educated Guess, she writes and speaks about faith, social justice, education policy, and other topics. She also co-hosts the "Interchangeable White Ladies" podcast.

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