“Is it safe?” That was the first question my family would ask me when I first started teaching at an all-Black school on the South Side of Chicago after teaching in majority white, suburban schools.
While of course they meant well and were trying to show concern for me, that question betrayed their assumption that Black neighborhoods were dangerous.
Ironically, when a friend shared a map of crime statistics by subway stop, I found that the stop I got on in my white neighborhood each morning had a higher crime rate than the one by my school.
We ALL live in a culture with roots in white supremacy. As white teachers we may not have been made aware of it as early or often as our BlPOC colleagues and students, and we don’t always have as many tools to address it. However, in a world where the majority of public school students are people of color, often in highly segregated schools, and most of their teachers are white, we as white teachers have a special responsibility to educate ourselves so that we can be the teachers our students need. Here are some places for you to start:
Listen to my interview with Sara Singer, the author of this post!
Click PLAY or use the download button to listen later, and hear additional anecdotes and examples:
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1. Don’t be afraid to talk about race
The first thing that white teachers in majority-Black schools need to do is to start talking about race — even when that makes us uncomfortable. Angela has already shared some amazing resources here for white educators who want to start talking about race.
Remember: It is okay to talk about race. It is okay to name the things that make majority Black schools different from majority white schools. Pretending these differences don’t exist makes it impossible for us to have an impact on the opportunity gaps that exist between white students and students of color.
Resources for learning more about race and white supremacy:
- Me and White Supremacy book by Layla F. Saad
- Hood Feminism, book by Mikki Kendall
- The New Jim Crow, book b Michelle Alexander
- Posts by Monique Melton on Instagram
2. Listen more than you talk
Especially if you are new to a school, you need to get the lay of the land first. Listen and learn all that you can before contributing uninvited to conversations about the way race and white supremacy impact your school.
When your Black colleagues speak in faculty meetings, in casual conversations, in the teacher’s lounge, listen to what they are saying. What do they think about what children should be learning? How do they view school policies? What do their lives look like and how does race impact them on a daily basis?
The most valuable group for you to listen to is your students. Learn from them what their lives are like. What does their home environment look like? What do they like to do? What do they think about their neighborhood? If you ask them, they will even tell you what they think about school, the curriculum, and what qualities they value in their teachers.
This isn’t to say you should never talk. When you do speak, acknowledge that your life experience looked different because you are white, and you cannot be the expert on the experiences of someone else. Contribute your thoughts to the conversation without speaking for or over people of color.
Resources for Listening:
- “The Call to Listen More Deeply in Conversations about Race and Racism,” article by Daniel B. Griffith
- “Listening: An Essential Tool for Anti-Racism Work” article
3. Do the internal work
Implicit biases. Internalized racism. Discomfort talking about race. We shouldn’t be ignoring these internal signals. We need to approach ourselves with curiosity and self-compassion. The first step to combating these internal assumptions and biases is to recognize them.
Internalized racism is sneaky. It shows up in my family’s assumptions that the Black neighborhood in which my school is located is more dangerous, in the ways that we subconsciously respond differently to white or Black faces, and in coded language that implies that Black neighborhoods, jobs, names, or institutions are inferior.
Noticing these thoughts or reactions when they arise in you isn’t a sign of failure — it is a sign of how pervasive these negative images are in our culture.
When you notice it, name it; say to yourself “I had this thought because I was taught ________. That isn’t true.” Then remind yourself of concrete examples that contradict the immediate reaction or thought you had.
More resources for internal anti-racism work:
- How to Be An Anti-Racist, book by Ibram X. Kendi
- For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…And the Rest of Y’all Too, book by Christopher Emdin
- Anti-Racism Every Day account on Instagram
4. Reject the white savior complex
The idea of a “white savior” is the trope of a white person, often a woman, coming into a space primarily made up of People of Color and “saving” them; from poverty, disaster, violence, etc.
This narrative is problematic because it assumes that Black children are broken and a white person needs to come in and “fix” them.
Because this narrative is everywhere, including news, books, and movies, it has become a part of our societal narrative as well. When I told people where I would be teaching before I started at my current school, I was praised and told I could “make such a difference.” While most teachers want to make an impact on their students in some way, the implications were that my presence as a white teacher was somehow going to do more for Black children than what I had already been doing as a teacher of white children.
As white teachers, we need to counter this narrative. We can do this by uplifting and amplifying the work that Black educators and other teachers of color have been doing for years and by rejecting the notion that we are somehow “heroes” for teaching in certain communities.
Take the lead from what people of color are doing to impact their communities and support their efforts rather than acting independently.
More resources on white saviorism:
- “Waiting for Superwoman: White Female Teachers and the Construction of the “Neoliberal Savior” in a New York City Public School”, article by Amy Brown
- No White Saviors account on Instagram
- Decenter the Teacher account on Instagram
- Institute for Anti-racist Ed account on Instagram
- Antiracist Education Now! account on Instagram
5. Be authentic
Building relationships with students is key for any teacher. It is an especially important step in breaking down stereotypes. By getting to know each child as an individual, you are less likely to rely on stereotypes to fill in the gaps.
Building relationships with students of color in predominantly non-white schools as a white teacher comes with a particular set of challenges. Some students may be slower to trust new teachers due to seeing a high turnover rate, particularly of white teachers, in the past. They may keep you at a further distance for the first few months, watching to see how you treat them and whether you seem like you’ll stick around.
Another challenge some teachers face is feeling that their students have different interests than them. Some feel that they have to pretend to like hip hop or basketball to relate to students.
Students can smell that kind of “fakeness” from a mile away.
Instead, focus on being authentic with students. Let them get to know the real you — even if you prefer country music and gardening over what you think they like.
Why? You’ll find there are some students who surprise you, and are into the same things. You’ll still be able to find common ground with your students. And they will appreciate you for not trying to pretend to be like them.
Even better, you can focus on the deeper elements of identity that make you, you. As a Queer teacher, I make sure to work in little stories involving my wife so that students can have a model of an adult in their life who is LGBTQ and who they might be able to talk to. Some of my male colleagues have shared with me that sometimes 10th grade is the first time one of their students has ever had a male teacher. Maybe you have a disability, are a veteran or part of a military family, or you grew up in a big family. All of these deeper aspects of our identity can be shared with students and help them understand who we are and connect.
You are not “just” a white teacher. There are many aspects of your identity that you do have in common with your students, and living as your full authentic self in the classroom is what will help you form the strongest bonds.
Want to listen to the full interview with Sara Singer, the author of this post? Click PLAY or use the download button to listen later, and hear additional anecdotes and examples:
Share in the comments what resources have helped you to think about teaching students whose background is different from yours.
About the Author
Sara is a high school special education teacher on Chicago’s South Side. She loves to co-teach and support students with disabilities in the general education classroom. She is passionate about equity and creating rigorous, student-centered curricula. A Boston native and graduate of Brandeis University (BA ’15, MAT ’16), she moved to Chicago with her wife in 2017. More of her thoughts about teaching can be found on Instagram @transformativeteaching.
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