Last year, I realized that I didn’t have my first black teacher until I went to college. In fact, every educator who taught me—from pre-school through 12th grade—was white-identifying.
What is crazy to me is that this fact didn’t strike me as relevant until I was 30 years old. As a child, and later as an adult looking back, I didn’t see color in these moments—but not because it wasn’t there. I didn’t see it because I didn’t have to, because I viewed whiteness as normal.
Too often, I and other white educators like me don’t see the impact of race on our practice. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. In his iconic 1962 piece “A Letter to My Nephew,” James Baldwin wrote to his 15-year-old nephew about the degree to which white supremacy has shaped white people’s understanding. “They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand,” he wrote. “[A]nd until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”
So how do we start to understand? Teaching Tolerance offers several great jumping-off points for defining whiteness and for considering what it means to be a white anti-racist. If you are interested in doing a deep dive, the “Seeing White” podcast from Scene on Radio offers a 14-part look at the history of whiteness in the United States and its implications for today’s world.
If we are going to confront racism and white supremacy in our lives and work, we are going to have to get uncomfortable and deeply question long-held beliefs.
In addition to examining our own racial identities, white educators should follow people of color in this work. Their voices and experiences should always be centered. But we must also push back against the notion that people of color should be burdened with the responsibility of guiding white people through this work. Following anti-racist activists and educators who are organizing on Twitter and other social media platforms is one step that white educators can take today to better understand the work that others are doing.
However, we should also recognize that this work can’t be done in isolation. I came to question my childhood experience regarding teachers of color through my connection with a group of educators in Philadelphia called Building Anti-Racist White Educators (BAR WE). This group itself developed from the work of Teacher Action Group and the Caucus of Working Educators. It is an extension of the racial justice work that both groups have embarked on for years, through reading groups and the Black Lives Matter Week of Action.
For the past two years, we’ve read about, reflected on and critically discussed racism and white supremacy.
Through our study and conversations, we are working to see the ways we’re trapped by a history and an ideology that sometimes cloaks itself as normal. In doing so, we’ve developed a few key guidelines to shape our approach to this work. We believe that these can be instructive to other white educators working to build their own anti-racist identities and classrooms.
- White people have a responsibility to work with other white people to build anti-racist identities and practices. It is not the burden of people of color to do that work for us. We can (and should) talk critically about racism and white supremacy, even if there isn’t a person of color in the room.
- True anti-racism training must be ongoing, and it must involve networks to support us in this practice. If we are going to confront racism and white supremacy in our lives and work, we are going to have to get uncomfortable and deeply question long-held beliefs. We’ll need to build and maintain relationships with other folks in the work with us. While one-off implicit bias trainings are a useful step, they are not enough. The work of building identities and practices that push back against white supremacy in our society must be an ongoing process.
- This work must be accountable to the people of color who find themselves targeted by racism on a daily basis. Though we as white people can challenge each other, this work should not and cannot be divorced from the experiences of people of color. We must be open and transparent about this work and these conversations with our colleagues of color.
- Humility must be central to this work. We must learn from and listen to people of color, especially our colleagues and students. We should also approach our work with fellow white educators from the perspective of fellow learners, rather than as experts.
- Talking about racism and white supremacy isn’t enough—conversation alone won’t change the oppressive conditions people of color face daily. However, discussion is an essential part of this work. Anti-blackness is something that we have learned over the course of our lives, and unlearning will take a lot of introspection and conversation.
You can sign up here to receive BAR WE’s emails and join us in a monthly Reading & Inquiry Series. Each month, we will send out articles, questions and a discussion protocol intended for educators to use in their own school communities to build this work, especially with colleagues who identify as white. You can check out an example of our materials for August 2018 here.
I’ve been doing this work in my own life for over 10 years now, and I still have a long way to go. I still don’t fully understand the role the overwhelming whiteness of my own teachers had on my identity as an educator and citizen. But I have a community of educators who can support me in my search for understanding. I hope that each of you can build the same.
Charlie McGeehan teaches students Humanities at The U School in Philadelphia and a recipient of the 2018 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching.