“What’s the difference between a killing and a lynching?” The question popped up on my phone through the Google Hangouts app I installed in March. Since starting remote learning, my students Gchat me when they have questions about homework, want to make sure I received their assignment, or sometimes to ask me about life; thus, I have the app so that even when I’m not at my computer, I can be responsive to their needs. When I saw her message, I knew immediately that the appalling murder of George Floyd was on her mind.
I teach middle school in Boston. Almost all of my students are Black or brown; most of them are either immigrants or first-generation Americans. I am white. This is my sixth year teaching and throughout the entirety of my teaching career, I have taught mostly students who do not look like me.
In the United States, 80% of our teachers are white, but less than half of our students are. Students look to teachers to have answers, to provide comfort, to be a safe space to turn when things are hard. Being a white teacher of Black students at a time like this can be challenging because I do not always know how to provide comfort and I certainly don’t feel like I have the answers right now. However, I know that at least I can be there for them when things get hard and to clarify things when they are receiving conflicting information on social media.
Our Students Need Hope
I responded to my student’s question by sending her the definition of “lynching.” She responded that it’s sad the word is still relevant today and not just a word you learn in relation to the past. I told her that she was right. Then she responded that it’s sad that nothing has changed in 200 years.
I wanted to agree with her because I, too, feel frustrated about the lack of progress on issues that have been here since the birth of this country. However, my student is brilliant; she’s someone I can easily see in a few years at a top university and someone I can see having a positive impact on the world. The last thing I want is for her to lose hope and stop trying.
I realized in that moment that what she needed from me is to give her hope, so I told her that I can understand why she feels like that and that it’s easy to feel like nothing is getting better at a time like this. However, there has been some progress. My husband (who is Black) and I were able to get married a few months ago, this country has had a Black president, and my friend (who is a Dominican woman) just graduated with a doctoral degree from Harvard. Things have undoubtedly changed for the better in the last 200 years, but yes, there is still much work to be done.
I don’t know if my response was the right one. I never know. It seemed to help, though, and I am thankful as I always am that my students feel like they can come to me in these moments with their questions and their worries.
I begin every school year by directly addressing with my students that I am white, that we live in a country built on white supremacy, and that we can make it better. We talk frequently about race, and I often give my students platforms to get their voices heard by those in power on issues that affect them.
These conversations are hard and can be awkward. I have been asked over the years why I care, if I get offended when they talk about white people, and if I am uncomfortable talking about these topics. However, I am also frequently told how happy they are to talk about relevant issues in school.
We need more teachers of color in the U.S. There is an inherent power imbalance between teachers and students; that power imbalance is exacerbated when the teacher is white and the student is not due to the white supremacist culture in which we all exist. However, recruiting and retaining teachers of color is a challenging effort with many complexities; it will take time to correct.
White Teachers Must Be Ready to Talk About Race
Right now, we are living through times that are hard for all of us. In 2020 we have seen environmental crises, a pandemic, open season on Black bodies, and now peaceful protests in cities across the U.S. are being violently suppressed by police. It’s been a hard year already; however, all of these incidents disproportionately harm communities of color. That is not new to 2020, but it’s certainly still the case.
Since George Floyd’s killing, we have seen videos of more Black people being killed by police. Somehow Memorial Day seems so long ago now that Jacob Blake’s killing has sparked more protests and calls for police reform. Students are going back to school after a summer fraught with unrest and story after story of Black bodies being harmed. While the best-case scenario is that the students of color seeing and living through these challenges are able to talk about these issues with teachers who look like them, that is not the case for most of those students.
Therefore, it is imperative that white teachers lean into the discomfort of having challenging conversations with students that directly address racial discrimination, oppression, and violence. We may not be the ideal people for our students to turn to when they are in need of guidance on these matters, but we are who they have. We have to be there for them right now, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable and even if we don’t feel like we have the answers.
About an hour after talking to my student, I had my virtual lesson with a group of other students. I started the lesson talking about their reading quiz. My students sat silently on mute, which is not the typical way these lessons go.
I tried for about five minutes to get a conversation going with them about the quiz. Finally, I said, “I’m sorry guys, but I’m distracted today by everything that is going on so I’m having a hard time focusing on this right now.” Suddenly, they perked up and all began to talk about their feelings on the murder, the protests, the police, and the general state of affairs in this country.
I was able to clarify for them which things were still unconfirmed and which of the pieces of information they received were reliable. I was able to give them a chance to express their feelings and talk to their peers about what was on their minds.
At the end of the lesson, they went on to their next class, and I knew that even if I hadn’t always known the right things to say during our conversation, and even if it was hard and I didn’t solve their problems, the conversation had been a better use of time than trying to force them to care about a reading quiz that day.
Desiree Mitchell is a 2019-20 Teach Plus Commonwealth Policy Fellow. Desiree teaches seventh grade composition at Match Middle School in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, and she is a host teacher and coach for the Sposato Graduate School program at Match. She is a Teach for America alum and serves on the Teach for America Massachusetts Alumni Advisory Board.