If you haven’t read this piece by Kayla Renee Parker yet, you should. Ms. Parker, a Black woman and college student, challenged her professor, a white woman who still thinks multiple choice exams are acceptable on an exam having to do with slavery. I’m not going to re-cap it all for you, because you should go read it, really. The professor was challenged on a matter having to do with race, and she handled it the way lots of White people do when they feel like someone called them racist. Usually, people don’t call us racist, and my guess is that many people of color have learned the “R” word is a huge trigger of White tears and anger, and try to avoid it in favor of more specific, gentle language. But many, maybe most, White people, hear any criticism or even conversation in that realm as an accusation, and need so badly for that person instantly, immediately, to understand how totally not racist they are. Maybe the least racist.
Many other Black people have even said so. In a way, I get it. It hurts to be called racist especially when you feel like you’re trying super hard not to be racist. It’s happened to me a bunch of times. I talk about race a lot in my classroom, and it’s hard to talk about race, especially as a White guy, and not mess up. It’s been the things I’ve said or not said, it’s been who I called on or didn’t. Sometimes, just being a White teacher is enough. Just existing in a place so rooted in Whiteness and so under-serving of community of color means that a student will call you a racist for standing there doing nothing. Then again, we probably should be called racist if we’re just standing there doing nothing.
Being called racist is not the worst thing that can happen to someone. Being the constant victim of systemic and personal racism is way, way worse than being called racist, so get over it. It’s natural to be defensive, like Parker’s professor, to cling to all the people of color who haven’t called you racist as evidence you must not be, to act offended and shocked, to portray yourself as the victim of this horrible thing that has happened and that is so unfair and how dare anyone? You can call yourself the least racist person. But why? What does it do? Other than use all your power and privilege to quiet the voice of a marginalized child, what does your arguing do?
Meredith just finished her first year of teaching math in Alabama, and had a student who despised her. She tried, of course, to fix that, but says, “No matter what I did to build a bridge with her, she saw every act and correction as racially-based. She told me often that I was racist, the school was racist, and that she was going to sue me for being so terrible.” There’s also Josh, a sixth-grade teacher in New York. His student said he didn’t like him. Josh asked why, and the student replied, “Because you're racist.” Hey. I’ve been there. It’s not a super-fun place to be. Josh remembered, “It's funny how offended I became. I tried so hard to convince him I wasn't.” But it’s just not something that you’re going to argue your way out of. Josh did what I’ve done, what often happens, “I took it so personally that I didn't bother to reflect on his perspective.” Game over. Lessons not learned. Meredith did what I did, what many of us do when we’re called racist: We call up names of students of color who like us, we think about all the good relationships we have and all the super, not-racist things that we do. But then, Meredith kept working though, and much can be learned from what she did.
So, White teachers, listen up. Here’s how to get called a racist and not be all racist about it:
Step One: Shut Up. This is usually the most important thing I don’t do in any situation at school. But a student who is calling you racist is a student with something to say so you can’t fill all that space with your anxiety at being called out.
Step Two: Settle Down. You’ve got to make this moment and the conversations that come from it not about you. That sting you feel and all the horror and defensiveness and all that? You’ve got to swallow that for now. Don’t push on until you are ready to do so, don’t respond in anger. Give yourself a minute or a night or whatever you need so you can approach this student in a positive way. Says Meredith: “I didn't take it personally because I know that she had things rough.”
Step Three: Don’t Run for Comfort. We teachers are good at caretaking, and good at making owies go away. If you run right to the teachers who you know will make you feel better, who you know will tell you that of course you aren’t racist, that you shouldn’t worry about it, that, worst of all, will start saying, “well that kid…”. Sometimes, it’s OK to not feel better.
Step Four: Reflect and Go Learn. Think about the situation that led to this. Think about the experience of that student in your room or your school. Think about what you were talking about or reading or doing, and go do some reading about it. If you have good people to ask, go ask them. If you have that one Black teacher in your building and you never really talk to them, don’t go ask them to explain Black stuff to you. Ask Google. Figure out what got you to this point with this person. Meredith, again: “She caused me to constantly reevaluate my words, actions, and assumptions.”
Step Five: Discuss. Think about how much better and more powerful your conversation with your student will be when you show evidence of the work you’ve done because of their comment. Study; reflect. Come to them with something new. Not something that you think proves them wrong, but something that shows you are hearing them as much as you can. Ask them if they are comfortable telling you more, explaining what they were feeling or thinking. Ask them if they have good ideas for what you can do more and better, but only if they want to talk about those things. If a student in your care calls you racist, it’s not their job to fix whatever caused that comment. They’ve done their job, more than their job, by calling you out. More information is helpful, but if your student is unwilling to discuss it further, it does not mean you are off the hook. Meredith: “I tried to mend the relationship, and then when that failed, I tried to learn from it.”
Step Six: Change. Talking about our feelings feels super good sometimes, and giving room to have a student’s truth spoken in your room is a great thing, but if it doesn’t lead to obvious and observable changes, then you have more to do. If you really want your student to feel heard, you have to show them that you listened.
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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