Teaching Profession Opinion

When an African American Teacher Just Feels Black

By Marilyn Rhames — June 26, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This will probably sound strange, and I’m sure some people will have a hard time understanding me, but this week I’ve felt more black than ever. In fact, I felt black and blue—bruised by the injustices of the world.

When I own my position as an “African American,” I feel empowered, joyful and dignified. But this blackness I feel—this blackness that I am—puts me in fighting mode, and no one is truly happy in battle.

While I’m acutely aware of my heritage, I don’t go through my everyday life feeling like the color of my skin and the kinkiness of my hair define my place in the world. For the past few of days, however, these thoughts have kept coming back to me.

It started on Sunday with the news that Nelson Mandela, the South African who spent 27 years as a political prisoner for his anti-apartheid movement, was dying. Mandela became the president of South Africa when I was in college; back then I had an insatiable appetite for learning about his life and his struggle. (My high school, which was 99 percent African American, taught me nothing about apartheid.)

News that the man who fought for racial freedom was now fighting for his life marked the end of an era. It made me realize that if I were to travel to South Africa today, I would still be looked down upon by many whites, though not as despised as the native Africans. Mandela, my hero, nearly dead, but his fight for black liberation lives on.

Then on Monday there was Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, the United States Supreme Court ruling on the legality of affirmative action. A young white woman sued the University of Texas, alleging as part of an attempt to diversify the student body, she was denied admission because of her race. The Civil Rights Movement once found a victory in the federal legislation that afforded descendants of slaves and sharecroppers a protection to ensure that at least a small number of them could get a college education and employment. Now some people want to call it “reverse discrimination.”

In a 7-1 ruling, the justices sent the case back to a lower court for it to further investigate whether race consideration was the last resort in the school’s decision. If so, then the school acted justly; if not, the school was wrong. While the Supreme Court did not overturn affirmative action, it significantly limited its application.

The case itself didn’t make me feel blacker than normal. It was Justice Clarence Thomas’ lone dissent strongly opposing affirmative action that did. He is the only African American justice on the bench—just the second one in U.S. history—and though affirmative action supported him in college and helped advance his law career, he has come to staunchly oppose it. In fact, he compared it to the segregationists’ justification for slavery and Jim Crow laws.

“The worst forms of racial discrimination in this Nation have always been accompanied by straight-faced representations that discrimination helped minorities,” Thomas argued.

Then on Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had been another Civil Rights victory. In a 5-4 ruling, the court granted southern states the freedom to require voter photo identification cards and to redistrict maps without federal approval. The thought behind this reversal was that racial discrimination against minorities no longer exists in the magnitude it had during the 1960s.

Boy, did that ever make me feel black! I felt misunderstood, underrepresented, and defensive. Surely the statistics on the racial divide in academic achievement, incarceration, and poverty prove we haven’t achieved racial equality in this country!

I came to work this week as the only African American teacher in my school, and as issues of student discipline and culture arose, I felt even more black and bruised. For example, I signed the commemorative autograph books of my Black and Hispanic 8th graders, who, in pages before mine, freely called each other the n-word as a term of endearment.

This is progress? I asked to myself. Then I wondered if Paula Deen, the white celebrity chef who was just fired from the Food Network, thought she was being cute or hip when she called her black employees the n-word.

I wish we lived in a country—a world—where race didn’t matter. I wish I could tell my two daughters that being African American comes with the same inherent societal privileges that their white classmates enjoy, but I won’t lie to them.

I wish that voting rights, affirmative action, and the anti-apartheid movement were never needed in the first place. But they were needed. They are still needed.

I live in the most segregated city in America: Chicago. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described it as such in 1966, and a study last year by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research re-affirmed that ugly truth.

Right now, I feel very black. Of course, I very much prefer to feel African American—me loving America and America loving me back. It’s the last part that has always been a little tricky.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.