Dear White Teachers

Dear White Teachers Header
C. Faye Dunaway, 4th Grade Teacher
By C. Faye Dunaway, 4th Grade Teacher Jan 29, 2018

Dear White Teachers,

Let’s talk about race.

Are you like me, a white teacher in a classroom with mostly students of color? Do you feel secretly uncomfortable at the idea of talking about race in the classroom? Maybe you don’t know where to start or you just don’t want to “mess up.” That’s how I felt, too. Let me tell you how I’ve taken that feeling and tried to do something about it.

I come from a background of white privilege; there’s really no other way to describe it. I used to think that growing up in poverty meant white privilege didn’t apply to me, and it was important for me to come to terms with how untrue that is.  When I think back over some of the things I have said through my own lens of white privilege, I am so embarrassed.  I meant well, but for much of my early teaching career, I was really out of touch with the reality of race relations in this country.

Teaching in urban schools was the beginning of an awkward crash course in race for me.  Thank goodness for the teacher down the hall, an African American woman who certainly did not owe me any hand holding or lessons on race but did it anyways. With Martin Luther King Day approaching, I admitted to her that I felt awkward teaching about King to African American students. How would it make them feel, a lesson about a Black leader coming from a White teacher? When I got to a place in a read aloud where white people in history yelled hateful things at African Americans, should I pause the book and exclaim, “Yeah, but not me?!”  I was able to ask her questions like this, and she taught me my first important lesson about how to be a White teacher: just show up. She shared her experiences with me. She told me what it was like to be a Black student with White teachers.

Just show up.

That’s the message that I’ve carried with me throughout my teaching career. But still, I feel that in many ways, I didn’t use that lesson as best I could. I still sometimes danced around the edges or stopped short when I felt uncomfortable.

And then I had a career-changing experience. The morning after the 2016 election, the tone of my class was like nothing I had experienced. Political opinions aside, I simply hadn’t anticipated the outcome. Needless to say, I had not prepared them for this either. That morning, I didn’t know what they would be feeling. I wasn’t sure if they’d be scared or anxious or if they’d even have opinions at all. I had no idea what to say. I knew I didn’t want to be political, but I also wanted to be human. If they had big feelings, I wanted to let them share them, not keep them inside. I had no idea what I could say that would be safe but also genuine. I didn’t know how my school and organization stood politically. I didn’t want to get in trouble. I didn’t want students telling their parents that I said something about my political beliefs. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. I didn’t want to say nothing. Most of all, I didn’t want them to look back at a pivotal moment from their childhood and remember the White teacher who didn’t say anything at all. I didn’t know what to do.

I remembered what my friend had taught me: just show up.

So, at the start of morning meeting I simply said, “Are you okay?”

They were not.

Two boys put their heads down and began crying into the carpet. They felt worried that their parents would be deported. Others told me that they felt like the election results were a personal attack on them. They said they didn’t know so many people didn’t want them in the country. Regardless of anyone’s actual political intentions, we must not ignore that this is how political outcomes can be experienced by many of our students.

Then I had a thought that made me feel sick. I thought, “I wonder if they think I’m a White person like the White people they’re worried about. I wonder if they think I don’t like them because of their cultural backgrounds.” If I said nothing, they might have wondered that. They might still wonder that. It wasn’t my intention to label myself as an ally so that I could get a high five or feel good about myself. White people don’t get a red carpet for showing up as an ally. But I wanted my students to understand that I cared about them and respected them and honored their cultures. Just showing up was the first step, but there was more to it than that. From Bianca Anderson at Border Crossers, I learned my second important lesson: just be real.

I was sitting there wrestling with all these feelings of anxiety. Would I mess it up? Would I say the wrong thing? Am I working from a place of guilt? Am I doing this to feel better about myself? With “just be real” in my head, I was able to move forward.

These days in my classroom, I try to talk about race openly- from the current events to diversity in books. I try to approach it from a genuine space of curiosity. I’ll never master the subject. I’ll never be an expert on how White people can talk about race. So I’ll ask questions, and I’ll listen. I’ll mess up, and for that, I’ll be sorry. I have to be willing to take that risk in order to let my students know that I’m in this with them.

During morning meeting recently, I shared with my students that I had watched the film “I Am Not Your Negro.” I told them that I was crying, and that I noticed that the people of color in the audience weren’t crying as hard as me. I wondered if I was more shocked and saddened by the movie because I haven’t experienced the adversity the movie was describing. I told my students that the movie made me think about them. I wondered if my class thought their White teacher had some of the thoughts of the White people the movie was describing. We had an honest conversation about it. We didn’t create divides or argue over right and wrong. I wasn’t worried that I’d get in trouble or say the wrong thing. We talked about race in a way that was age-appropriate and my students felt like I was there, listening, and willing to learn.

There are White teachers in classrooms all over the country with students of color. We can’t be quiet. We can’t be fragile. We have to get uncomfortable. We have to make space for conversations about race. This is going to sound extreme but I genuinely believe it. If we are quiet, we are committing an act of racial violence. Students of color need us to do two things: just show up, and just be real.

I am dedicated to continuing this work as long as I am responsible for helping children make sense of the world around them. I hope we can all commit to showing up and being real. 

©2018 Momentous Institute
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