When I met Shayla, my “Little Sister” through Big Brothers Big Sisters, she was so shy that she wouldn’t speak to me. Our first meeting involved Shayla, Shayla’s mother, the match specialist from the organization and me. Everyone, with the exception of the specialist, was a little nervous.
Shayla’s mother said that her daughter had been writing a lot of notes lately, and Shayla passed me a note that read, “I like reading and writing notes and I hope you do too.” She was about to turn 7 and, like me, was wondering exactly how this relationship would work out.
Shayla is now 13 years old; she’s a tall, beautiful, intelligent middle school student. Over the years, we have been on many adventures together. People often think she is my daughter or niece—but sometimes they get confused because Shayla is African American and I am white.
This is not unusual for Big Brothers Big Sisters pairs. As I’ve previously written, the majority of the “Bigs” (adults) in every group activity I’ve been a part of have been white or Asian, and almost all the “Littles” (children) have been African American or Latino. For a long time, I hid my discomfort about this disparity and didn’t bring it up with Shayla.
Finally, I asked her what she thought. Shayla told me that it didn’t bother her at all, that she liked being in the program and that she didn’t care what people look like. She spoke definitively and quickly changed the subject.
I didn’t press her further but remembered something: I met Shayla right as school was letting out for summer after her first-grade year and got to know her pretty well over the next few months. And when Shayla started second grade, I asked her how she liked her new teacher. She turned to me with a wide smile and said excitedly, “My teacher is black like me! She looks like me!” Her teacher actually didn’t really look much like Shayla, but she was African American and that was enough for a 7-year-old who had only had white teachers up until that point.
The idea of race is obviously very different for a 13-year-old than it is for a 7-year-old. Recently, Shayla explained to me that she feels very included when she visits my family. She added that it doesn’t matter that we all aren’t the same race because we care about each other and she feels like we are family. But Shayla’s 7-year-old self was overjoyed that her teacher looked like her, and I can’t help but wonder if she had wished for that in a Big Sister as well, even though we are a good match personality-wise.
I asked this question of an old friend who used to work for Big Brothers Big Sisters in another state, and he said that one of the first things that Littles would ask for was a Big who looked like them. This is not unique to one organization; similar disparities can be found in most majority-minority schools and programs across the country.
Eighty-two percent of all public elementary and secondary teachers are white while students of color make up about 49 percent of the student population. This means that many children of color never or rarely have an educator who looks like them. While a caring, dedicated teacher of any racial or ethnic background can make a difference for students, educators in the majority don’t often have to think about what it would be like to never have an educator who shared our racial background.
As a white person who is both a volunteer and a teacher, I admit that this realization was uncomfortable for me. But I believe that the first step in overcoming any inequity is realizing that it exists and being willing to name it. Without examining our whiteness or the racial disparities between teachers and students, we're supporting a system in which many children of color never have a teacher who looks like them. And when I think back on what that meant to Shayla, I know we have to do better.
Harris is a teacher, tutor, writer, editor and author of Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom.