Future White Teachers: A Guide to Racism and Privilege

Aug 9, 2018 12:00:00 AM


updated February 9, 2024

Yes, I’m addressing you directly as white teachers. That may feel uncomfortable. You’re going to have to get over that, or this is going to be pretty rough. If you are white, and you are going to be a teacher, then you will, someday, be a White teacher. You will also be an English teacher, or kindergarten or band or science teacher, and you will also be a fun or serious teacher, but you will always, always be a white teacher as well. So, you should understand what that means for you, your colleagues, your students and their families.

Are you taking classes as you work towards your license?  I have a good friend working towards his license now. He’s been in some classes having some tough conversations about race. They should. His white classmates seem to be struggling the most, and have been asking him for help and resources understanding his perspective, and those of other people of color. But, you know, that’s not really his job. I know it’s a tough spot to be in, to feel like you need to understand more about racism, but also know "you shouldn’t be burdening the people of color around you with the job of teaching you," because, you know, you shouldn’t.  I put together some quick resources for them, and for you, if you’re looking for something similar. 

Understanding Privilege and Racism

A good first step on this journey is getting some of the big ideas and general vocabulary down. You should understand the difference between individual and systemic racism, of conscious and unconscious bias. A lot of really crappy conversations about race happen because people think they’re talking about the same thing, but really are using the same words to describe different things, or, honestly, because they’re using words that they don’t really understand. If you’re like me, this will be a lot of stuff to wrap your head around at first. I’m better with case studies than broad concepts (which is why I kinda didn’t like my education licensure program at first, which made me think I maybe shouldn’t be a teacher at all, but that’s a whole other thing). But yeah, learn up as much as you can, and come back to this kind of reading if you feel like you’re missing something in a conversation. Here are some racial equity tools. Zachary Wright wrote a good piece about the need for bias training for teachers. 

Understanding Whiteness

A social studies teacher I used to work with started every year by asking his students, “Does a fish know it’s wet?” This was long before the exceedingly boring “is water wet” argument. The idea of his question is that it’s really, really hard to see something if you are surrounded by it all the time, if it’s the water you swim in. So it is with Whiteness in America. This is a good primer from Teaching Tolerance. And a much more involved piece on characteristics of White supremacy culture. [pullquote]When you feel like you’ve got a handle on definitions of Whiteness and privilege, you have only started the work of really seeing it.[/pullquote] Check out the podcast Interchangeable White Ladies . It’s funny and smart and all that, and also models really well what it means to be a White person who is reflective about race.

Why Bias and Culture Are Important in Schools

This may feel like a lot, or you may just think it’s not your cup of tea. You may be thinking that if you’re just nice to everyone and stay neutral, you’ll be OK. I beg you to reconsider. Every teacher, every adult who works in a school building, even (or especially) buildings that are predominantly White, needs to understand how cultural supremacy (you could even say White supremacy here, but then people tend to lose their minds and assume that the term only applies to white hoods and stuff, but then you should go back up to the first thing) operates in schools and how they could be supporting it, even when they aren’t even thinking about race. It’s important. Nate Bowling is a teacher from Washington. Just about everything he writes is golden, but this piece has always stuck with me as particularly powerful. Here’s a piece that could help with identifying and reflecting on how cultural norms can be enforced at schools in the form of “micro-aggressions” (which, honestly, are just “aggressions”). Even if you don’t agree with all the examples here, it’s probably easy to remember your own K-12 experience and think about rules that were enforced that showed bias towards or against particular cultures.

Good People to Follow/Read

EduColor They are the best people doing it right now. Almost, if not entirely, made up of active classroom teachers who have come together because they are leaders in anti-racism and issues of race and education. Their website is full of good stuff, especially the resources page.

If you’re on Twitter, check out #Educolor and follow everyone on it. They will likely make you uncomfortable, will likely have you thinking, “But that’s a bit far, isn’t it?” But just read and listen and think and be uncomfortable about it.

Pacific Education Group I owe a lot to the work of the people at P.E.G. If you ever get the chance to go to Beyond Diversity, which is a two-day training, you absolutely should. 

Are you watching movies that feature writers, directors and actors that don’t look like you? Listening to music? Going to restaurants? The more you can understand about different cultures, the more you can experience them, the more you learn how to ask questions and listen to answers, the better you’ll be at teaching.

More Questions?

Feel free to contact me. I’m pretty easy to find on any social media platform that people over 30 use. My email is mrtomrad@gmail.com. If you’d like to talk more about this stuff, or find yourself really resisting a piece of it, or so uncomfortable or upset (White fragility is a real thing. I’ve got it. It’s to be worked through, not avoided), reach out.

Tom Rademacher

Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."

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