Since the murder of George Floyd, teacher leaders across America have sought to prove the necessity of antiracism in public education. And rightly so: from our curriculum to our disciplinary statistics, our public schools are an integral part of America’s white supremacist society.
If you’re like me, then you’ve had plenty of time to read the digital content about social justice and education published in the past few months. Teacher leaders, especially, are writing with renewed attention and zeal—and that’s a good thing. However, it’s no longer just about sustaining the national conversation about systemic racism—it’s about moving the conversation forward.
And what’s more: It’s not enough to simply lead our colleagues to a new understanding, new heartbreak, or new outrage. We have to provide them the tools to dismantle the mechanisms, both internal and external, that disadvantage Black children in America.
Easier said than done, I know. But I’d like to offer two suggestions for teacher leaders—specifically white teacher leaders—who are looking to move the national conversation forward.
Avoid Writing Unproductive Articles
My first suggestion is to avoid writing articles that could be categorized as follows:
- Simply Sharing Reactions: These articles are “hot takes” on the news. Perhaps, a Republican governor proclaims that “all lives matter” or a superintendent’s memorandum dismissing the challenges of remote learning goes viral. Sharing reactions to an obviously disconcerting news cycle might garner clicks, but it doesn’t provide colleagues with any strategies for affecting change—no more than a Twitter rant does, really.
- Simply Posing Questions: These articles are “nothing burgers” about social justice—and they’re pretty easy to spot. They’re rife with rhetorical questions: “So, where do we go from here?” or “What can we do with our privilege?” This sort of teacher-generated content might be the most pernicious because with every reader’s contemplative nod comes the risk of reinforcing their learned helplessness. I mean, “Do I have any agency at all?”
- Simply Making Promises: These articles are “online diary entries” at best. Most likely, their authors had just finished reading “White Fragility,” and in a moment of “woke” inspiration, typed a well-intended proclamation (but ironically, as Robin DiAngelo asserts, it’s not about the intention; it’s about the impact): “I know I am privileged. I know I have more to learn about the concept of whiteness ... and I promise that I’ll never stop advocating for all my students.” OK. Cool.
Although ostensibly different, these three categories share a quality that renders them all equally unproductive: they serve the author more than they serve the reader. Confronting the racist policies within our society requires us to confront the complicity, complacency and ignorance within ourselves. Articles that simply react, question, or promise externalize this process and absolve their authors. Worse yet, these articles don’t invite our white colleagues—who may only now be recognizing their own microaggressions—to begin a journey toward cultural competence and advocacy.
We Must Revisit Our Own Miseducation and Complicity
Now, here’s my second suggestion: Let’s lead our white colleagues back to the first days of learning when in our own education’s lack of antiracist curricula, society became the teacher.
I asked a number of white State Teachers of the Year for their most salient memories of this miseducation and its painful or shameful effects.
Where I grew up in the Midwest, we didn’t talk about race because we felt like we didn’t need to ... I was taught that racism wasn’t our problem.
I grew up in the South, and my friend group included one Black girl ... The conversations we had around her at sleepovers—I realize now—were downright racist. But we didn’t know any better.
From a cringe-worthy exchange during a summer camp to the repugnant diatribes at family reunions, these experiences and the passivity with which they were accepted mortify these award-winning teachers now.
“It haunts me like a ghost,” one of them confessed.
Luckily, when we graduate from university and start our teaching careers, we magically unlearn our racist ideas and become culturally competent—right?
No. Not at all.
Heidi Crumrine, the 2018 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, recalls a particularly shameful incident at the start of her teaching career in New York City, when a Black student read aloud an original poem about his white teacher’s cultural incompetence:
He started to read his poem about how his white teacher didn’t know what it’s like to wake up to gunfire, to feel afraid to leave her home alone, or to worry about racists on the subway ... Although I didn’t vocalize my feelings, I was furious inside: ‘How does he know what my commute is like? How does he know what my childhood was like? How dare he pigeonhole me?’ The truth is... He was right.
Heidi admitted that she’d never “examined [her] whiteness before,” and that the moment left an indelible impression: “I may not have heard the truth 20 years ago, but I hear it now.”
For white teacher leaders, especially, these stories aren’t easy to recall. It’s as though we’re programmed to repress any memory that might belie our current brand. For example, many of the white State Teachers of the Year who responded to my request spoke only in broad terms coupled by earnest pledges to “do better.” But we shouldn’t evade the truths, even if they’re damning.
Last year, I served as an Instructional Facilitator for a high school with a majority Black student body and an overwhelmingly white faculty. When an experienced teacher quipped that a Black student was going to “get a beating” if she were late for class, the student was justifiably horrified.
Now, I’d read about the pillaging of Black bodies in America (as Ta-Nehisi Coates explains it in “Between the World and Me”) and the tradition of corporal punishment as a form of white supremacy (as Stacey Patton proves it in “Spare the Kids”). So, what did I choose to do? I focused on helping the student to regain her composure and in a moment of white solidarity, allowed the teacher and administrators to shrug away the incident, to casually admit it would be simpler “to just give ‘em a few licks,” and to accuse the student of overreacting.
I spared myself from losing the trust of my white superiors at the expense of not disrupting—even for a moment—the internal and external forces that wanted this child to believe that neither the reality of her trauma, nor the dignity of her body matters to the world.
I’m still processing, now, my own susceptibility to those forces—forces so strong, they led me to betray my own conscience ... and then forget about it.
To be clear: There’s absolutely nothing redemptive about admitting to ourselves our own socialization, miseducation and/or complicity. These admissions aren’t meant to make us feel good—they’re only meant to invite the same self-honesty from others, to reorient ourselves within the world as it truly is (and as we truly are), and to calibrate—continually—the ways in which we measure our personal and professional growth. They provide for us real versions of ourselves to grow from—not just some aspirational versions to grow into.
And to counter any John McWhorter-sounding rebuttals: This isn’t a call for futile, self-flagellation; it’s a call for modeling necessary introspection and vulnerability. After all, many of our white colleagues don’t work with policies—they work with children.
Through self-reckoning, white teacher leaders can feel both right and small at the same time. That is the best way to make room for our colleagues’ learning—that is to say, the best way to give our white readers permission to really start growing.
Kelisa Wing, the 2017 Department of Defense Education Activity Teacher of the Year, said, “There’s a sense of denial that these atrocities are happening. I hear, ‘Oh I’m sorry that happened to you’ or ‘I can’t believe that happened to you.’ As a Black teacher leader, it’s tiring.”
Kelisa, who co-founded and regularly hosts Women of Color in Education Chats, encourages her white colleagues to operate from a place of acceptance and reflection.
Still not convinced? Well, here’s a closing thought: If none of us are guilty, then the problems we’re writing about must not really exist.