I can vividly remember the first time I encountered racism.
A white student, a senior in high school, had just finished reading Richard Wright’s Native Son. It was, to my knowledge, the first book by an African-American writer that he had ever read. Another white student asked him whether it was difficult to read. “Well, no,” he said. “I mean, the author is black.”
“That’s racist!” she replied.
And of course, she was right. It was a good thing she said something, because until that moment, the student had never really given any thought to his implicit biases or entertained the idea that he might have a racist bone in his body. I know this because I was that student.
I grew up in rural and small-town Minnesota, where the only people of color I knew were the children of Mexican migrant workers who labored in the local turkey plant or on nearby sugar beet farms. I remember two occasions on which I heard my grandparents use the “n” word casually. Until I went to college, I am quite sure I had never seen an African-American person, except on The Cosby Show and the occasional movie.
Today, I am a National Board Certified Teacher in a school where more than 90 percent of the student body are students of color. Often, I am the only white person in the room. I have excellent relationships with my students because I listen to them, learn about their experiences and backgrounds, and acknowledge my own implicit biases. I still have a long way to go on the journey of understanding, but I have also come a long way. One particular experience profoundly shaped my understanding of what it means to be a person of color dealing with institutional racism, and of why—for a white person—good intentions and strong interpersonal skills are insufficient in confronting it.
Two years after completing my Master’s degree, I became an adjunct faculty adviser to the student newspaper at the most diverse college in Minnesota. I was hired because of my experience as a journalist but also because of my three years of successful experience teaching a very diverse student population at an alternative high school in Minneapolis. I thought I understood how to work with students of color.
One day in October 2007, during my second year as faculty adviser, a white student editor was in the newsroom with two African-American editors. He thought it would be funny to make a noose from the drawstring of his sweatshirt and hang it from the ceiling of the newsroom as a “threat” to those who couldn’t get their stories in on time. Although the other two students urged him to stop, he ignored them.
I responded, but not as forcefully as I should have. Like the white student who hung the noose, I did not fully grasp its symbolic significance. I also had very little understanding of institutional racism, white privilege or implicit bias. I failed to see that my students of color had “seen this movie before.” They filed complaints and sought media coverage. Ultimately, we worked toward reconciliation, I survived that very difficult year, and I am still advising that newspaper 12 years later. I learned about my own implicit biases and the often-difficult relationship between institutional journalism and people of color. As a result of all this, I began an intentional effort to recruit students of color to lead. In fact, the next year, one of the students who filed the complaint served as editor-in chief. Many students of color have held that position in the ensuing years.
For the past 11 years, in addition to that part-time advising position, I have taught full-time at the high school I mentioned earlier, where fewer than 10 percent of the student body is white. Although I still have strong interpersonal skills and good intentions, I have learned that I also need to address systemic issues. But how can white teachers do this—especially those of us who do not consider ourselves “social justice warriors” or particularly “woke”?
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