Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

Do White People Get It? Racism Through the Eyes of a Black Male Teacher

Educators have a weighty responsibility to take on racism
By Malcolm J. Gillard — July 07, 2020 3 min read
On July 24, 2016, a photo of Philando Castile hangs on the gate of the governor’s residence in St. Paul, Minn., as protesters demonstrate against the deadly shooting of Castile by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The video of George Floyd taking his last breath was difficult for me to process. I experienced anger, sadness, fear, frustration, disgust, outrage, and betrayal. I can’t express what I felt when Floyd begged the officer to remove his knee from his neck and called out to his deceased mother. Watching him being restrained in that moment, I imagined Floyd as a young child—no different from a child I teach—crying out for help.

As a Black male teacher, I ask myself these questions with each new killing of a Black person at the hands of a police officer:

How do I move forward, interact, and answer questions surrounding this killing with white people in my workplace?

How do I explain the injustices in the Black community to my students?

How can I be transparent about the reality of racism without receiving pushback from the school community?

Let’s be clear, I do not seek anyone’s permission or approval to have these questions answered. They can only be answered by me, without apology. The death of George Floyd—and the subsequent protests—have affected the way I need to communicate with white people. I need white people to understand that George Floyd, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Jamar Clark, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Rayshard Brooks, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and so many others died because of the color of their skin.

As we mark the fourth anniversary of Philando Castile’s shooting this month, I think about a question I got from a student that fall.

I vividly recall a 10-year-old white student asking me in class if I were afraid that, as a Black man, I might get shot and killed by a police officer."

I vividly recall a 10-year-old white student asking me in class if I were afraid that, as a Black man, I might get shot and killed by a police officer. I was shocked that such a young person would ask me that question but grateful the student trusted me enough to do so. I felt compelled to speak honestly. My student deserved the truth.

Fighting back my emotions, I managed to explain that my worst fear was not dying at the hands of a police officer, but rather having my mother experience the incredible pain that many mothers have over the deaths of their Black sons. In response, students began to ask more questions; I gave them more answers. I was relieved that students appreciated my honesty about a topic that, as one white student offered, no one wants to talk about, not even parents.

The next day, however, my principal told me that a white parent had complained about our classroom discussion. I explained that it was a spontaneous discussion, initiated by a student who asked me a question and that I saw it as an opportunity to not only answer the question but to discuss racism. The principal said the parent’s parting comment was, “I don’t understand why he would be afraid of the police unless he is doing something illegal.” I received the principal’s full support in addressing racism with my students.

It struck me that white people often just don’t get it; they will never understand the experiences of a person of color. Their view of our society is transparently different. For me, this only increases the urgency of having all our students understand the struggle that Black communities face each and every day.

School administrators have the weighty responsibility of creating a school climate free of racial biases for teachers and students. The teachers’ role is to ensure that students and colleagues are demonstrating respect toward all racial groups. I believe the key to building awareness of anti-Black racism is an authentic discussion among administrators, teachers, and staff about their personal experiences with racism. Educating our entire school community about racism in all its forms is vital to the health of our education system.

I believe that all school districts and school employees should be mandated to participate in professional development and training on racial bias and racial inequity. It is imperative to understand how social and systemic racism impact people of color. Understanding the history of civil rights is a prerequisite. A commitment to self-reflection, family involvement, compassion, and empathy toward all racial groups will help educators recognize the role they have played in upholding racism in their own classrooms.

The potential to eradicate social and systemic racism lies with the white people that perpetrate, ignore, participate, teach, and judge Black people. Eradicating this racism is not impossible. I encourage white school administrators and white teachers to pledge that racial discrimination will not be a part of any school’s culture.

To the teachers of America, think about how you incorporate lessons on racism for grades K-12. Why are Black people killed by police officers at a higher rate than any other racial group? Before you ask your students to reflect on that question, make sure you have an answer yourself.

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management
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
Student Well-Being Webinar
Building Teacher Capacity for Social-Emotional Learning
Set goals that support adult well-being and social-emotional learning: register today!


Content provided by Panorama
Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

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

Teaching Profession Opinion Advice to New Teachers From a 20-Year Veteran
These seven lessons are especially important during the pandemic, and they will continue to serve you through the rest of your teaching career.
Stephen Guerriero
4 min read
Illustration of hands holding up lightbulbs representing ideas.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Feodora Chiosea/iStock
Teaching Profession Joe and Jill Biden Honor Teachers at Long-Delayed White House Ceremony
The president, with the first lady in attendance, called teachers the "single most consequential people in the world beyond our parents."
4 min read
First lady Jill Biden hugs Juliana Urtubey, 2021 National Teacher of the Year, at a ceremony to honor the 2021 State and National Teachers of the Year, on the South Lawn of the White House Oct. 18.
First lady Jill Biden stands beside Juliana Urtubey, 2021 National Teacher of the Year, at a ceremony to honor the 2020 and 2021 State and National Teachers of the Year at the White House on Monday.
Evan Vucci/AP
Teaching Profession Opinion Wellness Can't Be Just Another Task for Teachers to Do
If we want teachers to remain in the profession, state departments of education, school districts, and parent groups must step up.
Beth Pandolpho
4 min read
Vibrant hand drawn illustration depicting mindfulness concept
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Teaching Profession Thousands of Teachers Who Were Denied Loan Forgiveness Will Get a Second Chance
A settlement between the American Federation of Teachers and the U.S. Department of Education establishes a review process for borrowers.
4 min read