Last week I wrote about my personal journey to a better understanding of my own white privilege and implicit biases. This week, I would like to suggest three concrete steps white teachers like me can take to acknowledge and address issues of systemic racism in our schools.
- We can actively decide to set aside our defensive attitudes. Like many white people, I tend to bristle when accused of having implicit biases or, worse, “being racist,” and that response is understandable. As teachers and learners, however, we can acknowledge that we have a lot to learn from the experiences of others. We can recognize that everyone has implicit bias, but that it’s especially important for those of us who belong to a group that has historically exercised more power than others to understand and own their biases. We don’t have to experience (or feign) feelings of guilt about the sins of our forebears in order to admit that as twenty-first century white Americans, we have been given more than most, and that “from those to whom much has been given, much is required.” We can realize that feelings of frustration and even animosity sometimes expressed by people of color toward white people are not usually personal, and we can decide not to take these expressions personally. When we choose to drop our defensive posture, we find ourselves in a position to listen and learn from our students and colleagues of color.
- We can work toward ensuring that our curriculum reflects a multiplicity of voices. When a teaching artist from a local theater suggested using poetry by a local, contemporary Asian-American poet for a poet study in my International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IB DP) English class, I was skeptical about the idea of studying a poet who wasn’t well-known or “established,” but I decided to try it. The response from students astonished me. I had never seen my students connect quite so well with poetry, both emotionally and intellectually. It was complex and nuanced enough to provide ample material for literary analysis, and it owed enough of a debt to more established poets that I was able to help students see the importance of familiarity with those works. But these poems also spoke directly to my own students, most of whom are Asian-American, and the truth of C.S. Lewis’s comment about reading, “We read to know we are not alone,” hit home in a new way for many. I am not advocating for the abandonment of established authors or historical narratives—it’s important that our students know these—but we can help students discover that people like them have a place in the ongoing conversation about ideas.
- We can encourage our administrators to recruit teachers of color, and encourage our students of color to consider teaching. I had coffee last spring with a math teacher at my school, one of only a couple of licensed African-American teachers in our building. He told me about how it felt to be in that position among a mostly white staff—feeling he needed to work twice as hard, feeling he was expected to speak for an entire group of people, feeling the daily sting of unintentional microaggressions. But he also told me about the unique relationships he has with students of color, relationships that can be both a blessing (because students feel comfortable getting close) and a burden (because some students of color do not have that kind of relationship with their other teachers). We can share the burden, of course, by working to understand our own implicit biases and the experiences of students of color as we interact with them, and by addressing systemic issues in our buildings (see suggestions 1 and 2). But we can also actively work toward increasing the diversity in our own faculties. We need not see this proposition as a threat to our own job security. The country is changing, and over time, as teachers retire or change careers, we should do what we can to ensure that teacher demographics change along with it. We can join hiring committees and help our administrators work to recruit and retain teachers of color. As National Board Certified Teachers, we can address retention and leadership issues by urging our colleagues of color to pursue certification and provide support and encouragement along the way. More profoundly perhaps, we can do as my colleague has been doing in his own classes—keep our eyes open for students of color with strong communication, organizational and interpersonal abilities; intentionally nudging them toward the teaching profession; and providing concrete resources to those who express interest. As any good teacher knows, sometimes an encouraging word from one adult is all it takes to help a young person see herself in a new way.
We white teachers need to move past attitudes of defensiveness, guilt, and fear. We need to reach out to our colleagues of color and have conversations that may sometimes feel uncomfortable. We need to become more aware of our own biases and the often unintentional consequences of some of our words and actions. Above all, we need to listen.
What steps are you taking to address systemic racism in your schools? Please share on Twitter.