We Need to Talk About Race Before Our White Teachers Can Support Our Black Children

When it comes to New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina, it’s no secret there is a glaring difference in cultures between those who teach and those who learn within our schools. Despite the apparent differences, at times, this issue presents itself like the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, and this silence is only detrimental to our kids. As a New Orleans native, I often worry about the effect these cultural differences have on our kids. I’m often on a seesaw of thought as I battle the benefits and risks of the current state of our education system, with questions like: Is the culture of New Orleans so unique that not everyone is equipped to deal with it? Are Blacks not studying education anymore? How can White teachers be supported to balance their curriculum obligations and become more culturally competent about the students they serve?

Facing the uncomfortable

Poverty, homicide and sexual trauma are just a few of the difficulties our kids face each day, and for most, school is the safest place for them to be. But for those who may be unaware of the harsh realities our kids face within the context of their neighborhoods and home, the high expectations placed upon our kids to suit up and perform may be causing more harm than good. As a behavior interventionist, I’ve been fortunate enough to speak with kids and develop relationships without the restraints of a structured classroom, so I am often bombarded with complaints that students would like to be listened to and receive more empathy from their teachers. The kids clearly acknowledge the differences, so why don’t more teachers? Are they just more comfortable speaking about it amongst themselves? Or is it fear, fear that acknowledging differences means they are racist? Or fear that teaching Black youth as a non-Black teacher may have been a mistake because this may be a first time for many that “privilege” is unimportant? These feelings are uncomfortable, but how do we get through it? As Dr. Chris Emdin, an associate professor at Columbia University's Teachers College, says:
There’s a teacher right now in urban America who’s going to teach for exactly two years, and he’s going to leave believing that these young people can’t be saved. So he’s going to find another career as a lawyer, get a job in the Department of Education or start a charter school network, all based on a notion about these urban youth that is flawed. And we’re going to end up in the same cycle of dysfunction that we have right now. Something’s got to give.
Let’s face it, to shield Black kids from White teachers is foolish, because it is our responsibility to prepare our children for the real world. Not teaching them how to interact with individuals of a different race, class, and gender is dangerous.

Taking responsibility for a support system

I personally want our kids (and our teachers) to have exposure to other cultures and social classes. However, for it to be effective and positive, all involved need to acknowledge that we do have concerns, there is fear, and we don’t necessarily know which direction to take. So who is responsible for ensuring our non-Black teachers receive the training and support they need to identify the challenges faced by the kids they instruct? Well, a huge part of that responsibility falls on the teachers themselves. Self-reflection is hard, but it’s a must if one is motivated to prevent burnout and be the most effective at reaching the masses. You have to be honest with yourself about why you are doing what you’re doing. Here in New Orleans, there is such a large perception that most White teachers associated with Teach For America are only here to have their student loans forgiven. I almost always laugh at that notion because that wouldn’t be enough for me to remain in a job that was less than favorable! For some, there is a significant desire to help and to expose our kids to that which they were exposed to. Believing that their education was rich and limitless, but without acknowledging the cultural differences, this task is met with exhaustion and burnout. Now it gets tricky when we talk about the “savior complex,” but in the depths of my heart, I know that there are non-Black teachers who truly love what they do and just need the support and education to balance the rigor of academics and the awareness of culture. There is so much literature out there to support our non-Black teachers throughout their time teaching our Black kids. Blogger Crystal Paul shares 10 books focusing on this very topic. I encourage all who work with our precious youth to dive in and help support our kids by supporting yourself and one another with this knowledge.
This post originally appeared on the Second Line blog.
Danielle Sanders is a school behavior interventionist in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is responsible for implementing restorative practices as a behavioral intervention to support scholars when demonstrating behaviors that are not in line with school culture. Danielle blogs about education in Louisiana at Second Line Blog.

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