This is the first piece in a three-part series about education in the US.
I taught for many years as a lecturer at a state university in the Bay Area. Once, after the first day of class, a young Black student stopped me to ask a routine question. He was a freshman, at the start of his college journey. We walked together to my next class for a bit and chatted. I asked him what I asked many of my students when we had a chance to chat: What did he want to do with his life? What were his dreams and goals? He stopped in his tracks, turned to me, and said, “No white person has ever asked me that.”
This was very early in my teaching career, and was a formative moment for me. In one comment, this teenager had given me a master class in being a white teacher, and in whiteness in America. No white teacher– no white PERSON– had ever cared enough to ask this young man the ubiquitous, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That broke my heart and changed my life as a teacher. I began to think hard about how white teachers serve– or do not serve– students of color. I began to think hard about the many ways in which living in a society flooded with racist messaging has influenced the way we teach, the expectations we have of our students, the material we teach, and our classroom cultures.
While many assume education is extremely diverse– I’ve had white people tell me they believe their whiteness is a liability on the academic job market– 80% of public school teachers are white, and 90% of full-time professors are white (but when you include underpaid lecturers, that number drops to 79%). A full 77% of K-12 teachers are women (but of course just under a quarter of full-time professors are women). White men are given school leadership roles at all levels– K through grad school– at astonishingly higher rates than anyone else, even though they are underrepresented in K-12 education. The more prestigious the educational institution, the more likely white men are chosen for leadership roles.
Most American teachers are white, and most of us are teaching under some form of white male leadership, while the US student population is more diverse now than ever before. Yet we’re also confronted with the reality that white fragility around conversations about race and white resentment are both at a fever pitch, making support around these issues from parents, colleagues and, most importantly, administrators uncertain and often conditional.
How do we support all our students whether leadership is on board or not? How do we create a curriculum and a classroom culture that support the needs of all students using the tools available to us, with or without outside support?
EDUCATE YOURSELF. Read writers of color, and not just when they’re writing about race. Seek out writers whose lived experience differs from yours and learn what they have to say about a wide variety of topics. Believe what writers of color have to say about whiteness. If you begin to feel uncomfortable with a writer’s criticism of white people, lean into it. This is where the growth happens. Don’t allow yourself to pretend that your own resistance, defensiveness, or anger mean that the writer is “wrong.” Defensiveness, resistance, and anger are far more likely to mean that the writer is discussing an uncomfortable truth you do not want to confront. Do you want your students to give up the minute something gets difficult? If we’re asking for that kind of disciplined effort from 14-year-old students around algebra problems or essays, we can certainly give that disciplined effort ourselves about the systemic racism that has destroyed lives for generations. If you’re unhappy with the way writers of color critique whiteness, work to change the impact of whiteness in their lives rather than dismiss the writers for telling the truth.
BUILD A DIVERSE CURRICULUM. Don’t worry about being a white teacher teaching material by people of color. Just don’t present yourself as an expert in the race-related material. It’s enough to be the expert in, say, novel structure; you do not also need to be the expert in Black lives to teach a novel by a Black writer. Read the work of Black scholars when prepping Black material. Present the material to your students as something you are exploring together. Tell students why it’s important to read writers of many different perspectives. Model humility; model the desire to learn about people different than yourself, to learn from people different than yourself. Demonstrate to your students that material by people of color isn’t “Black history” or “Latinx literature” but “history” and “literature.” “History” and “literature” are not naturally white, requiring modifiers to demonstrate distance from the natural whiteness of the fields. All work comes from specific perspectives, including white-written work. We just pretend white-written work is “neutral” and “universal.” White work is heavily influenced by the writer’s whiteness, not “neutral,” but we read whiteness as “neutral” and everything else as defined by its distance from whiteness. All work is both specific in perspective and universal.
Scholars invented “the canon” and we can reinvent it to include writers of color. Writers of color are not temporary diversions from “important work,” existing solely to speak specifically about people of color for a moment before we return to work about more universal themes. Writers of color are firmly enmeshed in the same web of influences and references, and handle the same universal themes, as “canonical” writers. But because scholars privileged white work and relegated, for example, Black work to a “Black lit” or “Black history” sidebar, we’ve been taught to see it as an extra, a detour, a specialization. American writers of color are only considered “canonical” when writing about their identity, while we deem white writers the only people capable of writing work that speaks to the human experience as a whole. Does that seem exaggerated to you? Look for the American writers here, here, and here. Works by writers of color about identity are critically important, and of course do indeed contain universal themes, despite generations of white academics ignoring that. But works by writers of color about other topics are also important and also deserving of inclusion in curricula. Any list or syllabus that includes Orwell and Bradbury but not Butler is broken. Academics invented the broken canon, and we can repair it. Start with your syllabus.
If you’re a Humanities teacher, diversifying your curriculum is easy, especially if you’re already seeking out diverse writers and educating yourself about diverse perspectives. There are literally thousands of articles and lesson plans available online. There are social justice-focused lesson plans, lesson plans about writers of color, lesson plans based on primary source material written by people of color throughout history, and so much more. If you’re a STEM teacher, this might seem more complex. How do you “diversify” an Algebra 2 curriculum? The website Teaching Tolerance has sample lessons for all subjects and grade levels, and is a great place to start. They also published a useful article about diversity in STEM teaching called “Planting Seeds, Growing Diversity.” There are many resources online for STEM teachers looking to create diverse curricula.
EXAMINE YOUR IMPLICIT BIASES. Implicit biases are unconscious responses to internalized cultural messaging. In a culture rife with systemic racism, we encounter racist messaging every day of our lives. (The same goes for misogyny, transphobia, ableism, etc.) Our implicit biases are not consciously racist, but rather a reaction to our understanding of our culture shaped by a lifetime of racist messaging. All humans have implicit biases and must work to uncover what they are before working to counteract them. I won’t lie to you; it’s difficult work and it’s never-ending, but the results are critically important for teachers. What are your expectations of your students? Do you unconsciously expect white boys to be “better” at some things? Do you allow a Black girl’s math errors to slide because “that’s the best she can do”? Do you see rowdiness from Black students as “inappropriate” and requiring consequences, but rowdiness from white boys as “high spirits”? Do you make up nicknames for students when their names are “too hard to pronounce”? All humans have implicit biases, and all Americans, especially white Americans, have a host of implicit biases about race that we must examine intentionally in order to overcome. Not sure where to start? Take a look at this article from the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, “Awareness of Implicit Biases” and NEA Today’s “When Implicit Bias Shapes Teacher Expectations.” This is a life-long project with no finish line, so don’t look for quick, easy answers or a bullet-pointed “to do” list for the classroom. This is about examining our own thoughts and behavior over time.
RESPECT STUDENTS’ CULTURES. One of the most frequent mistakes we make as white teachers is around the usage of English dialects such as AAVE (African American Vernacular English). What we call “correct” or “proper” English is just one style of communication students will need to use as a tool in a few, very limited settings. Even in the business world, most communication is done in a slang-y, jargon-y English that is nowhere near “correct.” While formal English skills can indeed open doors for you as the lingua franca of many aspects of our culture, it’s just one style of English communication. When I mark something on a paper as “incorrect” grammar or syntax, it is “incorrect” for formal English, not for all English communication. “Correct” grammar and syntax are always changing. Case in point: Americans insisted on using “momentarily” incorrectly so persistently dictionaries now include “in a moment” as an “alternate usage” along with the original “for a moment,” which quite frankly galls me, but language evolves despite my personal feelings about it. White people complain bitterly about various dialects but don’t know how to use “whom” properly and can’t tell the difference between “every day” and “everyday.” I see white people writing the utterly incorrect “I drink coffee everyday” while sneering at the usage of “ax” for “ask,” a pronunciation that goes back 1200 years. Learning to code switch from AAVE, Hawaiian pidgin, or Spanglish to formal English is a skill, and a deeply useful one. When teaching, emphasize that you’re using one style of English—formal English—in your classroom, not that you’re using “correct English.” No one dialect is always “correct” for every setting.
Think about when formal English is required in your classroom and when it isn’t, and be certain that you’re monitoring that equally. During class discussions, too many teachers allow white slang while “correcting” students who use AAVE (even though the vast majority of “white slang” was appropriated from AAVE). If you’re using “cool,” “hang out,” or the prepositional because (“because science”) but “correcting” students who use “finna,” “ax,” or “I got out the bed,” you’re creating a classroom culture where random white slang is acceptable but a longstanding dialect with its own grammar and syntax–AAVE– is not. We need to teach formal English to our students, but we can (correctly) recognize that code switching is a complex and useful skill rather than denigrate one dialect while teaching another. You don’t need to denigrate other English dialects to teach students formal English any more than you need to denigrate English to teach Japanese.
LISTEN TO STUDENTS AND COLLEAGUES OF COLOR. Most of what I’ve ever learned about serving students of color as a white teacher came from listening to students and colleagues of color. But in order to listen to colleagues of color, you need to have colleagues of color– and you need to have colleagues of color who are able to speak out without consequences. In the next piece, I’ll examine our role as white allies in creating diversity and equity in the academic workplace.