First Person

'Mr. Turner, Are You Racist?' A White Teacher Grapples With His Privilege

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Before the 2018-19 school year, I would have told you that I was an “enlightened” white educator, conscious of the privilege I hold in the classroom, sensitive to my students of color, and seasoned in addressing issues of race, identity, and power.

After all, I would have said, I attended a majority-Black high school in the Midwest, studied abroad in South Africa in college, and have lived and worked in urban communities of color for 15 years. I teach in the Boston Public Schools, in a middle school with an overwhelming majority of students of color. I would have said, “Come on, I’m all set, I’ve got this.”

But during the last school year, I had to grapple with a question I thought I had settled, a question my students posed to me: “Mr. Turner, are you racist?”

It started in October, when a colleague came up to me in the hallway during my prep period and said, “Hey, can I talk with you? In private if we can.”

“Sure, Zhané. Everything okay?” Zhané Burton, a young Black woman, was a Citizen Schools fellow and the partner teacher in my classroom. (Citizen Schools provides academic support and extended learning time by placing AmeriCorps members and volunteers in schools that need extra resources.)

“I want to let you know that some students have been complaining about a few things you said recently,” Zhané said. “They are saying that you are racist.”

Tough Realizations

Ouch. My heart started pounding and my chair suddenly felt very uncomfortable. She described two recent occasions that had upset my students.

The first time was just before a whole-class field trip. I was giving the standard debrief to each class, telling them the dress code, schedule, what to bring, etc. I included my usual rejoinder about behavior: “Remember that you are representatives of our school, your families, and our neighborhood, and people at the museum may judge us accordingly.”

A student raised her hand and asked, “What do you mean, judge us?” I had my answer ready, having had this conversation before. “I mean, people at the museum will see students from Roxbury, mostly students of color, and they will form an opinion about all students who look like you. I don’t agree with it, I don’t like it, but that’s the way it is. So, act in a way that represents yourselves well.”

The other time was in a discussion of what careers students were interested in pursuing. Most students gave typical answers I hear every year, like, “nurse,” “baseball player,” or “doctor.” But a Cape Verdean student named Franco said, “engineer.” I paused for a moment. “That’s great, Franco!” I said, “There aren’t many people of color in that career. You’ll be a pioneer. Good for you! Who else?”

Zhané assured me that she knew my intentions were good, but that my students didn’t see it that way.

“I know you’re not racist, and I told the students that I would have said the same thing to them,” she said. “But they’re not used to hearing that kind of thing from a white teacher. I realize you had good intentions, but their truth is more important than your intent.”

From Denial to Acceptance

The rest of the day was a blur. I started out defensive: “Of course I’m not racist! I chose to teach in a mostly Black and Latinx school. I’ve worked and lived here almost as long as they have. Don’t they know who I am!?” As I walked to my car, I was angry. “These kids don’t know what they’re talking about. They are the ones making this a racial thing. Or maybe they’re just trying to test me, and distract me from teaching!”

As I ate dinner, I was thinking of strategies to placate them: “I need to fix this. But how do I convince them I’m not racist?” By bedtime, guilt set in. I felt like a failure. My comments seemed tone deaf at best, and racist at worst. I wondered what else I might have said that had such an impact on students.

After sleeping on it, and talking with my wife, who also teaches in Boston, I realized I had an opportunity. We could change the usual script and have an authentic dialogue on race. I also realized that I could not do this alone; I needed to look beyond my limited perspective. I set aside my arrogant view that “I have this all handled,” and really listened to what Zhané and my students were telling me.

I re-read parts of an influential book on race in America, Stamped from the Beginning, by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. I called Sam, a friend who teaches in a New York City Public school in the Bronx, and is a white man who does anti-racist organizing. We talked about the continual practice of this work. He recommended I read an essay on white fragility by Robin DiAngelo, and I saw myself in her descriptions of how white people often avoid confronting racism. I also talked more with Zhané, and with other teachers in my school.

As I discussed, reflected, and read, I began to see this from my students’ perspective. Their teachers have been white women or white men, with few exceptions. They get to 8th grade, and their white male history teacher, in the second month of school, implies that white people would form judgments about their entire racial community if they didn’t behave well in a museum (a white space). Most of my students have probably heard negative stereotypes about their racial identities from other white teachers before, and are sensitive to them. From their position, anger and rebellion were appropriate reactions; pushing back was a healthy response.

The more I thought about it, the clearer it was: What I said to students in those two instances was inappropriate and insensitive. My intentions were irrelevant. What mattered was the impact on my students. Did I really need to bring up race? Couldn’t I have expressed high expectations without referring to racial identity? The pain I caused my students was what I needed to address—and repair.

Working on Solutions

I decided to take a comprehensive approach. One conversation, in isolation, was not going to make a lasting difference in my students’ experience, or in my teaching. Over the next several weeks, I listened to what my students said, and from their interests and questions, wrote a unit on identity, race, and power. We defined what a racist idea means, directly from Dr. Kendi’s work, and put the definition up in the classroom: “Racism: any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” And on the same poster: “Anti-Racism: the idea that all racial groups are equal.”

Students practiced identifying racist ideas by reading statements made by national political figures, and asking, “Is this a racist idea? What makes it racist?” We followed up with class discussions and writing prompts, to work through ideas together. It took time, repetition, mistakes, and re-do’s—I had to constantly check my ego, and remind myself, “This is about them, not you. Slow down and listen with empathy.”

Over time, the culture in my classroom shifted. Students began to see that I truly cared, and while I wasn’t perfect, they could tell I was trying. The greatest compliment came in April, when students in one class stopped my lesson to call me out on something I said that offended them. They trusted me enough to directly confront my mistake, and give me the chance to apologize. Thankfully, I was able to hear them, apologize, and earn their trust back. This kind of confrontation happened a few more times that spring, and each time, we were able to reconcile, repair, and move on.

I’ve been so fortunate to have a colleague my students could confide in, Zhané, and that she had the courage to come to me last fall. When she took the risk of telling me about their discomfort, she put students first.

While last year was one of my most difficult years of teaching, it has changed my perspective forever. I now see that as a white educator in a class of mostly students of color, I need to build stronger relationships and trust with my students earlier in the year. They may have had overtly or covertly racist teachers in the past, and be on edge, waiting for me to say something that invalidates or puts down their identities.

I learned that I have to be responsible for my identity—which means thinking about how my students will interpret what I say, and understanding that as a white, middle-class man, I’ve had the privilege of not having to be aware of how my identity may influence the way people hear me. I need to be willing to learn as much from my students as they learn from me. That is the empathetic, supportive, anti-racist teacher that I want to be, and that our students deserve.

In the end, it turns out my students didn’t need me to say anything to convince them that I wasn’t racist. They needed me to listen with empathy, ask questions, and help them develop and practice the language to analyze issues of race on their own.

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