A few months ago, Ijeoma Oluo wrote a piece called “White People: I Don’t Want You to Understand Me Better, I Want You to Understand Yourselves.” I read everything she writes, but I’ll be honest, this one I didn’t read right away. I knew it would be painful and challenging and beautiful, like everything she writes. It is. It is a powerful, insightful and devastating piece of writing.
“And as much as I’d like you to see me — as much as I’d like systemic racism to simply be a problem of different groups not seeing each other — I need you to see yourself, really see yourself, first. This is the top priority.”
I’m drawn to, moved by, and inspired by Ijeoma Oluo’s writing. I want to be a supporter, an ally, an accomplice, but much of the time I worry that I’m fucking up. Am I just perpetuating some #notallwhitepeople bullshit or falling into a white savior complex or trying to earn a cookie for being one of the “good ones?” Yet I know that if I am a true ally and accomplice, I cannot let my fear of fucking up or saying the wrong thing (or being called out for saying the wrong thing) stop me. I need to shut the hell up and listen. I also need to speak up. That balance can be hard to strike, but this is my attempt at both. I am one white person, listening, and looking, and speaking up.
This is part 1 of my response to Ijeoma’s call to action.
I only heard my grandfather use the n-word once. He screamed it, actually, during a fit of rage about a boxing match he had bought on pay-per-view in June of 1988. I heard the way it slipped out, as if his mouth were the perfect shape for the word, and I understood at 10 years old that this was not the first time this man I looked up to, this man who claimed to believe in racial equality, had used it. My mom made him apologize to me, but the actual apology I don’t remember. It was the explosive anger, and the hatred contained in that word that has stuck with me for all these years. I believe my grandfather genuinely wanted to overcome his demons. In his mind, though, overcoming them meant ignoring them. If we don’t talk about this unpleasant thing, the theory goes, it will go away. This makes as much sense as the child who closes her eyes and is convinced no one can see her, but the sense of it doesn’t much matter. She is convinced, and as long as her eyes remain closed no one can prove her wrong.
For most of my young life, it was easy for me to dismiss my grandfather’s deep-seated racism as a generational issue. Not me, I thought, as I stood covering my eyes and hoping no one could see me. And sure, you will never hear me yelling the n-word. But I have my own demons.
I started my career as a special education teacher in Los Angeles. I was in my mid-twenties, and wanted to make a positive impact in the world. I was passionate and idealistic. I was also a complete dumbass. During this period of my life I used words like “ghetto,” and I worked in the “inner city.” Those words are code for working with kids of color–mostly latino and black–from socioeconomically depressed communities. Let me be clear: I LOVED those kids, and I still love those kids. But I also loved that I was a white girl living and working in a very non-white community. I loved that people thought I was “brave” or “gritty.” I even described myself as a minority during this time (cringe), because I was so often the only white person in the room, and I thought it was racism when students called me a cracker (double cringe). I did not know then that reverse racism is not a thing (IT IS NOT A THING).
It was not until I was teaching in the Central District of Seattle and joined a committee dedicated to equity and examining racial bias in our school and ourselves that I actually began to grapple with my own motivations and biases as an educator and a human being.
Why did I want to teach in the first place? I love kids. And I do want to make a positive impact in the world. But my definition of what that means has shifted since I began to look at the inequity in our education system and my part in it. Was my motivation to become an educator in the first place part of a white savior/class savior complex? Absolutely. Was I making assumptions and judgments about families based on racial stereotypes? Yes again. These are scary and painful words to write, and it has taken me years of honest introspection to be able to write them.
I am good at working with kids. I am good at connecting with kids. I have formed beautiful and real relationships with kids of all colors and backgrounds. Examining myself and admitting some ugly truths doesn’t negate that. But there are some ugly truths in the system too.
Do you know how vastly underrepresented students of color are in advanced learning programs? Only 2% of Seattle’s black students are in advanced learning programs* (although multiracial students’ percentages are much higher). As a comparison, 24% of white students are in advanced learning programs. If you’re not a math whiz, look at it this way: that means approximately 1 out of every 4 white students have been identified as “advanced,” while a mere 1 out of every 50 black students have been identified as such. I can tell you from personal experience, those numbers do NOT reflect the abilities of our students. No, white children are not just naturally brighter than black children. But they are a hell of a lot more likely to be referred for testing, by teachers or by their own parents. Let me put this plug out there right now: If we’re going to have advanced learning programs in Seattle (and I’m not sure we should) and we actually give a shit about racial equity, ALL students should either be tested or given a chance to try an advanced program. Because this is some bullshit.
Do you know how much more likely black children are to be suspended than white children? Black children make up about 16% of the total student population in Seattle Public Schools, and they account for over 40% of suspensions. 40%! The numbers are even higher among students of color with disabilities (not to mention the fact that students of color are also overrepresented in this arena: Black boys make up 1 out of every 5 students in special education). Again, to compare, white students make up 46% of the total population and only about 24% of suspensions. These statistics are horrifying, especially considering the way they eerily predict incarceration statistics. The school-to-prison pipeline is real.
I have not been teaching for the last two years, and one of the reasons I haven’t yet returned (some are more personal, family reasons) is that I can’t work in a system that upholds racism unless I feel like I can change it, which means being certain that I am not personally perpetuating it. I have work to do. To be a teacher in a system with statistics like these, we should be required to be continually examining our own biases. Unfortunately we are not. I have great respect for teachers, and teachers’ intentions are almost always good, but when kids are being hurt by systemic racism and we play a part in that, fuck our intentions. Recent statistics show that about 70% of teachers nationwide are white women. Please, teachers, and especially white teachers: Look inward. Examine your biases. Continue to do so. Look at your school’s data and be an agent of change. Work to involve staff members and families of color. Their voices matter.
I don’t know exactly if or when I’ll return to my own classroom, but I do know that I plan to be an agent of change in our school system, in or out of the classroom. Currently that means following the lead of staff and families of color in my children’s school. It means pushing for real, honest dialogue. And you can bet I’ll be pushing for teachers to be required to examine their own biases as a part of gaining cultural competency.
I get why most white people avoid talking about this stuff. It sucks. It’s painful to look at and acknowledge the fact that we play a part in a system of white supremacy when we want to see ourselves as “good” and “nice” people. But the alternative is no longer an option for me. And good person or not, I know being “nice” to each other doesn’t cut it. I am no savior. I AM ready to tear down the walls my privilege has constructed around me. I hope you’ll join me.
*I don’t want to get bogged down in statistics, but the numbers among Native American and Latino students are equally disconcerting.