White people get big mad when you force them to think about White people. I knew this. I know this. Also, they will almost never say, “I’m mad because you made me think about White people!” No. They will say the tone wasn’t right, the message wasn’t perfect. They will complain about capital letters, about the timing of the conversation, about the place not being right. They will give their anger somewhere to be, even if they have to build that place themselves by shifting words and meanings in whatever you wrote or said. They will stand and shout, and when anyone replies, they will talk about how rude that person is. They will talk about people of color they know and work with, they will talk about people of color that said they were right. They will not talk about White people, about what it is to be a White person. I knew this. I know this. I wrote
a piece last week about teaching White boys. It was not a piece I wrote for attention, or a piece I wrote for clicks or shares or followers. It was a piece I wrote because I’ve been thinking about White boys a lot this year, and a lot last year. It was a piece I needed to write, a piece that I did my best to be honest in, a piece written as much for me as anyone else. I teach my ass off every day, doing my best to give students a lens to understand their world and the tools to communicate in it. We write things that are powerful, we read things that are challenging. It’s not always comfortable, and it shouldn’t be.
This Work Is Messy
It is never my goal to make anyone feel ashamed or guilty or attacked or unsafe. Of course it’s not. But if we are not pushing, if we trust in the myth of a neutral classroom, things will never be better. If we only talk about racism with regards to who it hurts, and never take a look at who is often doing that harm or reaping its benefits, we miss half the picture. And, my god, I hope we aren’t pretending that it isn’t mostly White men on that other side. So I worry about my White boys, that they are only hearing that they are the bad-guy and only feeling that they are the victim, not hearing messages about how to get through and past those feelings, that is if they’re getting any messages at all that may make them think about being White. I know the messages they usually get, because I got them. I know the friends who make fun of you because you are are “whipped” by your girlfriend. I know the conversations about the “friend zone,” about what it means to be “a pussy.” I know all the shouting we do about gender expectations, and the silent crush of the racial ones. White men are the main characters, the casual “norm” by which every other identity is referenced. We are the owners of space, of ideas, of power, we are told. So, as a student, I, too, ignored my girlfriend for my friends too often. I expected assumptions of my brilliance, innocence, talent even when I was displaying none of them. And, as a teacher, I talked way too much in meetings and was handed leadership positions before I knew what direction to go. So, no, I don’t have a problem with White boys. I was one, I am one. I know the hardest lessons I had to learn to do less damage with all the privilege I had, and I wish I had learned them earlier. I had to learn to listen, and it wasn’t easy. I had to learn to judge my accomplishments against the effort it took to get them, to look for work or voices or people that were ignored. I had to understand privilege and I had to learn how not to count on it, and how to try to use it for others, and how to try to dismantle it. And no, I don’t have all the answers on how to do that best. That’s why I’m writing about it. That’s why I’m giving space in my classroom to talk about it. That’s why I’m listening to the anger about it and to all the people who saw something of themselves or their classroom in what I wrote. My piece wasn’t perfect. I am a person frustrated with
his failures, and with how many months long
February has seemed to be, and that frustration came through in a way I’m not happy with. This work is messy. This work is hard. This work is necessary. It may make people mad, but that anger shouldn’t stop us.
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."