Opinion

An Open Letter to Well-Meaning White Teachers

—Martin Barraud/iStock and Vanessa Solis/Education Week

Three ways to center Black progress in the classroom

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In January, on a cold, sunny Boston day, just two months before the COVID-19 global pandemic shut down schools across the nation, I visited a neighborhood school full of Black students. After observing a full day, a well-meaning white teacher—chair of Black Lives Matters week—stood in front of a group of faculty members with an abundance of anxious energy.

She told us that she was planning on inviting successful Black people to talk to the students. "They don't have to be President Obama or Beyoncé or anything, they can be anybody," she said. "We just want our students to see really good, really successful Black people."

All I could think to myself was here we go again—another well-meaning white teacher entranced by the romanticisms of talking about Black folks and our progress in America through an individual lens. Little did I know that only a few months later, a public reckoning on racism would erupt across the nation.

As schools fumble to talk about America's original sin—racism—well-meaning white teachers (and some Black folks) often assume that cultural relevance equals applauding individual progress.

"Well-meaning white teachers (and some Black folks) often assume that cultural relevance equals applauding individual progress."

As we now strategize our re-entries into school buildings after months of a global pandemic and ongoing demonstrations for racial justice, Black and brown families disproportionately carry the burden of food, housing, health, and income insecurities. Well-meaning white teachers have another chance to rethink classroom talks on race. As we continue to call the names of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Atatiana Jefferson, and Tamir Rice, well-meaning white teachers must question their pedagogical souls.

Against the backdrop of a dwindling moral fabric and farcical political leadership, all of us, but especially well-meaning white educators, have the burden of building a learning environment that centers the truths of Black progress in a nation plagued by "alternative facts."

The question, then, is how do well-meaning white teachers reimagine their classroom rhetoric? Here are three strategies that can reimagine the experience of our students.

1. Talk about systemic racism, not individual stories.

The system or the person—who's to blame? Every lesson is an opportunity to talk about the legacy of systemic racism, not solely the wonder of individual stories. And when we neglect to talk about how systemic racism is embedded within American structures—education, justice, employment, housing, and health care—we unintentionally teach students that "really good, really successful" Black folks are exempt from racist structures. We have a duty to resist this logic by acknowledging that those we acclaim—King, Morrison, Hughes, Angelou, Baldwin, Winfrey, Obama, and Knowles-Carter—existed and exist within a structure of systemic racism despite their individual feats.

Ask yourself, "What assumptions have I constructed about the Black experience, historical and current, that causes me to center individualism over the racism? Then, ask yourself, "Am I privileging individual stories over systemic racism to avoid having to wrestle with the risky and dangerous truths of how racism contributes to my attitudes and practices?"

As a Black educator with a modicum of American-defined success, I have seen white colleagues attempt to co-opt my own individual narrative without the context of systemic racism. When white educators see their Black colleagues as exceptions to the systemic racism of America, transformative dialogue can't happen. Our journeys to the job of educator were formed and informed by the different privileges we had or lacked. Ignoring the existence of a structure I exist within perpetuates the alternative fact of a personal American Dream while ignoring the oft-experienced Black communal reality of an American Nightmare.

2. Talk about history in today's context.

When we teach units that are grounded in American history—slavery, the Civil War, and Jim Crow—we often leave those units in history, without employing today's context. Most of our students need a clear reason why something is meaningful before it is learned and internalized. Our responsibility, then, is to provide that why for students—a why that is grounded in knowing that history is not only insight into what has been but also a catalyst for reimagining what can be.

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What is it to esteem Frederick McKinley Jones' refrigerated-truck ingenuity without discussing Trump-era cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, effectively sustaining food deserts—areas without easy access to fresh food—in low-income urban and rural communities? What is it to know of the first successful pericardium surgery performed by Daniel Hale Williams without talk of persistent health-care disparities between races and the biases of medical practitioners who disregard the symptoms of Black women? What is it to be moved by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s nonviolent protests during the civil rights era of the 1960s without talk of the hyperviolent policing tactics and Draconian curfews against Black Lives Matter movements?

3. Talk about navigating and disrupting racism.

In 1993, Harvard professor Evelyn Higginbotham coined the phrase "respectability politics" to describe when racially marginalized groups attempt to distance themselves from stereotypical aspects of their communities to fit white-supremacist standards. The underlying assumption is that respectability will position Black folks to access white America's "inalienable rights." Students are told to "pull your pants up to look professional" or "stand straight, arms to the side, eyes in front of you, and lips sealed" as if treating children like prisoners will maximize their potential.

This philosophy expects students to navigate racism without any tools for disrupting the system. Instead, we should teach our students to disrupt language, writing norms, and even dress codes. For example, I've explained to my students that I spell my name "rob"—with a lowercase R—because, as an educator, I choose to reimagine the recommended relationship between capitalization and proper nouns because all constructed knowledge can be deconstructed.

The seemingly innocent rhetoric, academic tactics, and teaching frameworks of white well-meaning teachers need to bend toward justice. The democratic futures of our Black students, and the moral sustainability of our nation, depend on educators willing to disrupt their sensationalism of Black progress and rethink rhetoric, with love and justice, which centers the complex truths of Black folks in a white nation.

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