White Teacher, Black and Brown Students: Race and Representation in the Modern American Classroom
This Olympics, Simone Manuel became the first black woman to win Olympic swimming gold. Her tears during the medal ceremony were moving, and her words at the press conference following it even more so. When she said, “The gold medal wasn’t just for me. It was for people who came before me and inspired me to stay in this sport, and for people who believe that they can’t do it. I hope that I’m an inspiration to others to get out there and try swimming. They might be pretty good at it,”1 she was acknowledging an important truth that educators have known for decades. Representation Matters.
In their paper for the Kennedy School at Harvard, researchers Egalite, Kisida, and Winters examined test data for Florida students in third through tenth grades over the course of eight years before publishing an article entitled “Representation in the Classroom: the effect of own-race/ethnicity teacher assignment on student achievement.” The researchers found “that student math and reading achievement is significantly positively influenced by the race/ethnicity of their teacher.” To this end, the researchers conclude with this statement: “As the proportion of minority students in American schools continues to grow, it will be increasingly important to address issues of teacher recruitment and representation and learn more about the effects through rigorous investigations.”2
None of us in education is surprised by this statement. However, many of us don’t know what to do about it. Because many, many, many of us are white.
Due to my whiteness, I have often felt tension in knowing I would, by racial definition, be a less effective teacher to half my students, specifically the half of my students my state’s schools is the least effective at educating. My state has the largest racial gap in graduation rates in the country. In 2014, 92.9% of white students graduated high school. 66.1% of black students graduated.3 It helps students of color to have teachers in whom they can see themselves; mirrors are important, and I am not a mirror for half my students.
Representation matters, and I do not represent. But I cannot simply do nothing. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” and I consider a 26.8% gap in graduation rates to be an injustice. And so, over the course of the last few years of my teaching, I have gone about the work of trying to make my classroom as safe, as inclusive, as mirror-filled, as representative as possible. I did not get it right the first, second, or third time around. Maybe I still haven’t yet. But I do think I’ve learned enough to pass on pieces of advice. Three, to be exact.
The most straight-forward way to have a “Representation Matters” classroom as a non-representative teacher is to make sure the reading and writing curriculum has mirrors for students. In reading, that means curriculum books should include stories by and about people of color. These stories should be fiction and non, should show triumph and defeat, should be strong, should be tender, might be funny, should be written by authors of color, and must always be authentically real. In writing, that means curriculum should be similarly real, honoring authentic voice. Yes, teaching standard English is essential, but to not only acknowledge that students have their own “home voice” but to also welcome it into the classroom, gives students a previously unacknowledged power in their own learning. Maybe this authentic student voice takes the form of a spoken word poem about raw life experience, maybe it takes the form of a letter to an author whose book sparked connection with the student, maybe it takes the form of a documentary film in the style of investigative journalism about an issue affecting the community. Whatever form the writing takes, representing authentic student voice in addition to providing books within the curriculum in which students can see themselves is essential for a “Representation Matters” classroom.
A potential pitfall for teachers, white or otherwise, is to discuss race exclusively in the context of struggle or crisis. When students learn about the history of people of color in this country, it is often in the exclusive context of slavery and the Civil Rights movement. And when they study contemporary issues of race, it is often in the context of current events, often in the form of incidents of the death of young people of color at the hands of the police. It is not appropriate to only talk about race in these contexts, nor is it appropriate to ignore these events. My district uses a cultural relevancy framework that advocates supporting students’ “current and future selves,” and doing so exclusively in the context of racial struggle and crisis is a disservice to both of these selves. Talking about race in the exclusive context of the death of people of color is the last narrative I want to provide for my students of color.
I will be the first to admit that I have fallen into this trap. I teach United States history, and the story of slavery is inextricably woven into that history. I teach Social Studies, which means I teach current events, and police brutality has been a reality of those current events for years. In my class, we do talk about race, but in the past, we have talked about it only in these contexts. I would make the case that talking about race in this way is better than ignoring it completely, but it is not the only way to do it, nor is it the best, and so I am trying to change this trend. For example, when we study slavery, we weave studying slave resistance and the stories of free blacks throughout that study. When we study police brutality, we study not only the tragic deaths of people but also the empowering protests that follow their, and our, loss. And when we use art and literature to approach these topics, we look into the stories of those authors, many of whom are people of color who have achieved great success in their fields, examples of incredibly positive future selves. And we will study the journey and celebrate the success of Simone Manuel.
Most Important Advice #3
The ultimate lesson I have learned as white teacher working with students of color is this: listen. This might seem overly simplistic. That does not make it any less true.
I cannot be a mirror for my students of color, but I can be an audio recorder. Representation matters, and I must make space in my classroom for my students of color to represent. And so I listen. This does not mean I am passive. Rich conversation is a multi-directional street. It does mean my voice is neither the loudest nor the lengthiest in the room. I shut up when I should. I listen always. I intervene when needed to keep everyone safe. And most importantly, I ask questions and listen to the response. There are times when no one has an answer. And so we all explore together.
I have not used the phrase “I teach about race in my classroom” at any point in this essay. Instead, I have said, “We study/talk about/discuss race in my classroom.” Words matter because representation matters. My students of color may not be able to see themselves in me, but I can see them for who they are by listening to the stories they represent. They can see themselves in my classroom, and their classmates can, too. Because, in the end, they matter.
1 – <http://news.nationalpost.com/sports/rio-2016/simone-manuel-on-making-history-the-gold-medal-wasnt-just-for-me>
2 – <http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED562618.pdf>
3 – <http://archive.jsonline.com/news/education/wisconsins-graduation-rate-gap-widens-to-largest-in-us-b99601248z1-336334851.html>