MAGAZINE FEATURE

What White Colleagues Need to Understand

White supremacy doesn’t stop at the teachers’ lounge door.
Photography by Hannah Yoon

As educators doing antiracism work, we often focus extensively on the impact that white supremacy has on students. But even though we recognize that white supremacy shapes all of our lives and work, we spend little time talking about its impact on educators.

For the past three years, we’ve worked as colleagues in our Philadelphia high school’s humanities department and with teacher-led racial justice organizations. Clarice is a Black, biracial woman, and Charlie is a white man.

We know we all live in the same society of racism and white supremacy. We know white educators have the privilege to ignore these conditions and often do. And we know our collaboration is the exception, not the rule.

For this article, we interviewed eight educators of color across the country to hear about their work with white colleagues. We found disheartening trends. Educators of color report that they’re expected to take on a disproportionate share of work supporting students and teaching about race and racism. This work, they say, is often made more difficult by the indifference—and sometimes resistance—of white colleagues. While all educators of color carry the burden of white supremacy, Black teachers have even more weight placed on them. To highlight their voices, we included six Black educators among the teachers of color we interviewed.

We know from our own experience that there are ways schools can lessen the burden on educators of color. And we heard from our interviewees about white educators who did their fair share to carry the load. But the first step to addressing inequities is to ensure we’re all aware of them. Here’s what we learned.

What’s Expected From Educators of Color

Educators of color are expected to support students of color.

Several educators we spoke to said they feel a moral imperative to do extra work. Marian Dingle, a Black woman in her 21st year of teaching elementary school in Georgia, told us about when one of her Black students was called the n-word by another student. As they heard about it, she and her Black colleagues dropped what they were doing to meet with this child throughout the day. Each educator shared the first time they were called the slur, stories they hadn’t even shared with each other.

“I’m counseling a child about something that happened to me and something that happened to my parents and their parents, and their parents, and their parents,” she explains. “That is something I need my white colleagues to understand.”

It isn’t just that many white educators don’t see this emotional labor, interviewees told us. Sometimes they pass their own responsibilities onto colleagues of color. Angela Crawford is a Black woman who has been teaching in Philadelphia for 24 years. At Martin Luther King High School, she’s a teacher, auntie, motivator and disciplinarian.

“A lot of these things I do on my own because I honestly do care about the well-being of my kids,” she says. But because of the relationships she’s built, colleagues often send students to her for support.

And that is a problem, Crawford says. Building these relationships takes work. When they assume educators of color will do this work for them rather than taking it on themselves, white educators increase the workload of their colleagues.

Educators of color are expected to take on antiracist work in their classrooms, schools and districts—while managing colleagues’ white fragility.

One refrain we heard again and again was that white educators, even those who see themselves as committed to equity, frequently consider antiracist work something outside of their responsibility.

Adam Hosey, a Korean educator in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told us of one white colleague who included race and racism in his curriculum but expected educators of color to do the heavy lifting. Once, the teacher planned to ask students of color to defend racial profiling. When Hosey told him, “You can’t really do that,” he asked Hosey to come up with a new lesson for him.

Educators also reported being expected to take on antiracist work beyond the classroom. Isabel* teaches in North Carolina at a school where the majority of students and teachers are Latinx. Until this year, she was the only Latinx person on the leadership team. Isabel often finds herself the one who responds to racist comments about students by white colleagues or administrators. But when she raises concerns, she says, she sees “a lot of white tears. ... It immediately goes to the tears, then deflection, and then everything dies down.”

Racism puts enough burdens on educators of color; white colleagues can’t also expect them to end it.

The expectation that colleagues of color not only take responsibility for calling out racism but also that they comfort and accommodate white people when racism is called out is a common one. Educators we spoke with stressed the need for white colleagues to own their discomfort, find places to process their growth that don’t rely on educators of color and avoid justifying hurtful comments. They also noted the need for white educators to take on some of this work themselves.

That did happen when Hosey worked with colleagues to start an equity team in his district. Two white colleagues were among the educators who joined him, including doing significant training outside of the school day. But in a district where educators are predominantly white, the equity team has five people of color—and just two white people.

“And that’s not for lack of trying,” Hosey says.

Educators of color are being driven out.

Sometimes, we heard, when educators of color do take responsibility for antiracist work, they pay a price. Marian Dingle told us that when she decided to teach in a more proactively antiracist way, she noticed a shift with her school’s administrators. She had a stellar record, and she was being considered for a new position mentoring new educators. But suddenly, things changed. Her administrator accused her of not being a team player and questioned her competence.

“The real issue, which was uncovered through layers and layers of questioning,” Dingle says, “was that my administrator was uncomfortable with the way I was teaching.”

Writing last year for Teaching Tolerance, Jamilah Pitts, a Black assistant principal in New York City, cited the lack of support—and outright hostility—many educators of color face as a reason for the lopsided demographics of the teaching force.

White people make up about 60 percent of the general population and just under half of all K–12 students. But roughly 75 percent of school administrators and 80 percent of K–12 teachers are white. And until white educators do a better job supporting colleagues of color, those numbers seem unlikely to change.

“We can’t collectively decry the lack of teachers of color,” Pitts wrote, “without addressing the school cultures that silence, demonize and push them out.”

Isabel says she’s thought about leaving the profession. “It’s the awareness of how messed up the entire system is,” she says, “grounded on supremacy, oppression and all these behaviors that most people are not willing to admit.”

How White Colleagues Can Do Better

White educators can work to manage white fragility in themselves and among colleagues.

At her school in Boston, Alice Mitchell is among the educators of color on a majority white staff serving a student body that’s 95 percent children of color. During her first year, Mitchell said, there were “a lot of clashes” between the three Black teachers on her team and their white supervisor. The team organized a meeting and asked their supervisor to consider racial and power dynamics at work. The response they received was very different from what we heard from others.

“She was not defensive,” Mitchell remembers. “She didn’t go to white tears. She just nodded, accepted our feedback and was like, ‘OK, so what do I need to do to fix this?’”

After a rocky start, the supervisor chose to commit to learning, growing and discussing race. She used her role as an administrator to bring this work to the entire school, starting a Building Anti-Racist White Educators group to process the role of race and whiteness in their work.

White colleagues can work to ensure that labor is evenly distributed in their schools.

Mitchell’s example shows how individual support—especially from a leader—can expand into institutional change. Beyond our school, we both further antiracist training and materials for educators. Clarice has worked to develop antiracist training that she and others have facilitated through our school district and at conferences. Charlie is a founding member of Building Anti-Racist White Educators, an organization committed to encouraging white educators to talk to their peers about racism and white supremacy.

White educators should also reflect on and address their own behavior while examining institutional policy to ensure workloads are evenly shared. They can support colleagues of color by taking the time to build trusting and caring relationships with all students. And they can look for ways their school can ease the extra burden on educators of color.

Corey Martin, a Black high school teacher in Georgia, says, “You actually have to make a conscious effort to immerse yourself in what we do.”

At The U School, where we teach, we have an advisory structure that is designed to match each student with a caring adult for all four years of high school. We meet twice a day with this group, and it provides students a home base of sorts. This structure means that the responsibility of supporting our students is shared and ensures that teachers of color are not required to do this work on their own time.

White colleagues must educate themselves about the issues that matter.

Finally, white educators can commit to learning and teaching about race and racism. Racism puts enough burdens on educators of color; white colleagues can’t also expect them to end it. In our humanities department, which has two white and two Black educators, we share a commitment to creating a curriculum that is antiracist.

But for white educators who don’t work in departments like ours, there are plenty of curricular resources that can support this work. For example, both of us have worked to help curate the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action curriculum, a set of texts and activities for students and teachers at every level.

***

The summer before Clarice began working at the U School, she attended a book group on Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children. It was part of an antiracist summer reading series, and Charlie was the co-facilitator. After the book group, we met to discuss antiracist work in Philadelphia and ways Clarice, new to the city, could get plugged in.

Three years later, we continue to facilitate antiracist work around the region. We are friends and colleagues. Most importantly, our relationship is grounded in a shared commitment to antiracist action.

This work isn’t easy, but it is possible for all white educators—and they must engage with colleagues of color by showing solidarity and taking action to resist white supremacy.

Keziah Ridgeway, a Black high school teacher in North Philadelphia, says she knows amazing white educators who do this work. As she puts it, “They actively embody being an antiracist and are making sure that they are putting their actions, money and time where their mouth is.”

Here are a few recommendations for white educators from our interviewees.

1. Read, Read, Read
Learn more about racism and white supremacy. Reading (or watching or listening) can answer questions and give you the space to work out your own racial identity.

2. Listen
Be present with educators, students and families of color. Actively listen. What concerns do they have? Chances are they see issues inside the school that you don’t. Two interviewees suggested neighborhood walks.

3. Avoid Making Conversations About You
If a colleague of color comes to you with a concern, ask yourself, “Am I using my privilege to amplify the concerns of educators of color in my building, or am I drowning them out?”

4. Connect
Find or build a group of people for accountability. Focus on generating conversations with white colleagues, and make sure you are staying accountable to people of color. Charlie’s organization, BARWE, has free resources to get started. 

5. Use Your Power and Take Action
Look for inequities: Are people being left out? Does your administrator treat people unfairly? If you notice something, speak up and take action. Lift some of the burden from your colleagues of color. If you’re an administrator, consider how you are directing school- and district-level professional development and policy. 

*Isabel asked that we use a pseudonym and not reference her school or position.

About the Author

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4 COMMENTS

As a black female educator, I am getting TIRED Teaching Tolerance NEVER addressing the racism within the minority communities. The most overt and hurtful racist comments I have ever experienced have been from other minorities NOT white people. The constant one-sided demonization of white people on Teaching Tolerance is feeding the intolerance that your organization is supposedly trying to combat.
Great article. However. No one talks about Black educators who don't want to tackle this subject either. Where I am teaching, many black educators seem to be in the Sunken place. They would much rather talk religion than race. And we need to do this topic justice because our kids need it. My students, mostly white identifying Latinos mostly groaned when I said we're teaching black history.
"Definition of white su·prem·a·cy
noun
the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society.
From Oxford"
As a person who's fought against white surpremists for over 20 years, I find the irresponsible use of this phrase in the article to describe white privilege perceptional shortcomings offensive. I've been on the front lines against them. They're scary to the point of frothing at the mouth with their hate. I suggest using language and phrases not associated with extremist terrorist groups to describe your colleges. Thank you.


Kimer, are you white?
I ask because white supremacy is not just overt and blatant hatred. Much of it is subtle and embedded and that seems to be something that many white people consistently and constantly overlook and refuse to acknowledge. THAT is offensive. Microaggressions are offensive.
Subtle white supremacy is still white supremacy.