Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

An Open Letter to Well-Meaning White Teachers

Three ways to center Black progress in the classroom
By Robert S. Harvey — August 17, 2020 5 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

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.

Follow the Education Week Opinion section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Opinion in your email inbox.

Events

Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum What Will It Take for Schools to Get Better?
Find out what educators and leaders can do to incite lasting and productive change that will make a difference in the lives of students.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Bills Targeting Classroom Talk on Race and Gender Identity Ballooned This Year
Lawmakers this year proposed 137 bills restricting lessons and training about racism and gender identity, a 250 percent increase since 2021.
8 min read
Illustration of figure with a megaphone casting a shadow of a figure indicating silence.
z_wei/iStock/Getty Images
Equity & Diversity In Their Own Words 'We've Come a Long, Long Way': A Former Uvalde Educator Reflects on the Town's History
As the Uvalde, Texas community considers the future of the school, Maria Castañon Hernandez reflects on how it's changed.
3 min read
Maria Castanon Hernandez poses for a portrait at her home in Uvalde, Texas, on July 20, 2022.
Maria Castañon Hernandez, who attended Robb Elementary School and later became and teacher and counselor in the Uvalde school district, at her home in Uvalde, Texas.
Jordan Vonderhaar for Education Week
Equity & Diversity In Uvalde, Pain Where There Once Was Pride
Past and present residents of Uvalde, Texas, recount a deeper story of Robb Elementary—one that began years before the May 24 mass shooting.
12 min read
Palm trees are visible around the water tower in Uvalde, Texas, on July 20, 2022.
Palm trees surround the water tower in Uvalde, Texas. The town is the site of one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.
Jordan Vonderhaar for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Uvalde Schools Aren't Defined by One Tragedy. Here Are Key Moments in Their History
The schools of Uvalde, Texas, have a rich history that goes beyond the tragedy that occurred at Robb Elementary in May.
2 min read
Students walking in the streets of Uvalde, Texas participating in the 1970 Uvalde School Walkout. Pictured bottom right in numerical order are Mary Helen Canales, Lee Lugo, and Alfred Santos.
Students walk in the streets of Uvalde, Texas during the 1970 Uvalde School Walkout.
Courtesy of Voces Oral History Center at The University of Texas at Austin