Racial injustice is rooted in the legacy of a lie: White people are inherently superior to blacks.
From the Dominican Republic to Italy to my home of Chicago, it’s the same: The lighter the skin, the prettier, the more intelligent, the more trustworthy you are. The darker the skin, the more unattractive, incompetent, and suspicious you are.
The most sinister aspect of this lie is that it divorces itself from the ugly historical contexts responsible for the current socioeconomic racial disparities.
With the exception of poor, rural whites, many Caucasians live within an asset model, commonly known as “white privilege.” It’s similar to the “innocent until proven guilty” reasoning, which assumes the best and gives them the benefit of the doubt.
Black people, on the other hand, often live within a deficit model, where the first impression is of fear and negativity. It’s more like “guilty until proven innocent” or “brace for the worse, but hope for the best” logic. Instead of being born free, we often feel like we have to prove our value so that one day we will be set free. Sadly, some of us have internalized the lie and have surrendered any will to defy it.
To varying degrees, many teachers believe the lie.
When my parents bought a home in a mostly white neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago in 1971, it took just a year and a half for the “white flight” to be complete.
Many of the white parents who moved out of my neighborhood were educators. As an elementary school kid in the 1980s, I had no white neighbors or classmates, but I had many white teachers.
I often wondered: Is it good enough for whites to make a difference by teaching black children, but asking too much of whites to live next door to us?
Teachers can’t directly stop police from shooting unarmed black men. We can’t prevent a 21-year-old Confederate-flag wearing white supremacist from killing nine black Christians during Bible study. We alone can’t end the institutional racism that persists in housing, education, the justice system, banking—and, worse, religion.
However, teachers can refuse to believe the lie.
We can see all our students and families as God’s creation, beautiful and marvelously made.
We can stop having low-academic expectations for children of color, urging them to go to college because, after all, that’s what we want our own kids to do.
We can stop moving out every time a different ethnic group moves in. Better yet, we can build deep, personal relationships with people of a different hue.
We can teach kids the truth about how we got into this racist mess, and not shy away from the current systems of oppression that some pretend aren’t there.
The only way teachers will ever change the current narrative around race in America, is to first confront the secret lies we believe.
A former writing teacher, Marilyn Anderson Rhames is the Manager of Alumni Relations at a charter school in Chicago. She blogs for Education Week Teacher at Charting My Own Course. Follow her on Twitter @MarilynRhames.
Editor’s Note: Read what each contributor had to say about the responsibility of educators to challenge racial injustice.
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