White teachers who intend to disrupt white supremacy in predominantly Black schools have a particularly challenging relationship with white peers.
Teaching (like physicians and clergy) is a profession of cats. We are not herd animals, we are fiercely independent and our classroom is our fiefdom. And, not unlike the aforementioned professions, there is a code about how we will (and won’t) treat our peers.
For me this is fraught. In part because for at least a couple of classes each day I am a co-teacher (the second teacher in the room, the special ed teacher – a relationship already fraught). Also true is that I honestly don’t intuitively know the code. Even where I do there are situations that demand that the code be broken but too often I lack the finesse to gracefully know when (and when not) to speak out.
The school year is over but I am holding a situation that I will be unpacking throughout the summer.
As the school year lumbered to a close, r.o.y.s. (remainder of the year suspensions) were the order of the day. While I know of at least 30 students suspended (in a student body just over 500), I know there were more. Several of my colleagues were delighted at the growing number. One danced in the hallway with glee. I, on the other hand, was horrified. This divide of delight vs. disdain re: suspensions does not break down exactly along lines of race but it’s pretty damn close. And that should tell us something.
On the second to last day, I was in the classroom with the dancing colleague and she was telling the students about their unworthiness. They were then instructed to play a game of Pictionary which, haltingly (and miraculously), they did. Two of the students, boys with diagnosed attention and hyperactivity disorders, were first standing at the board, then dancing, then pretend boxing. Of course it is horseplay, not allowed, yet also a daily occurrence. There was absolutely nothing that was new or unusual. But on this day the teacher announced (loudly) “fighting! you’re out!” with a tone that sounded triumphant. She proceeded to leave the classroom to make an official office referral. The students were sent home on r.o.y.s., missing the final festivities of the school year. Another child who’d been sitting quietly in the front row now proclaimed, “she’s just trying to get rid of us”. Out of the mouths of babes.
What is important is not so much the activities of the teacher about whom it appears that I am writing. What is important is how I, the teacher witnessing the thinly veiled racism in this classroom, react and respond. What was I doing as I sat observing the oppression? This is where the rubber meets the road. This is my lane.
Full disclosure, I am so fed up with this particular teacher and their immature and petty abuse of children that I inwardly yawned. Another day, another manufactured drama. This lack of response is my culpability.
But when the child named the oppression, I jumped. I called the child back to where I was sitting. She was hesitant but her chin was defiantly pushed out. I asked her what she saw, what she heard, what she knew to be true and affirmed her words. I reminded her of the importance of honoring her instinct, being true to her community. I talked with her about a coming day of justice, and the importance of being awake for it. Judging from her nod and her stride as she went back to her friends, I think we heard and affirmed one another.
The teacher was now back in the room and I was silently fuming. I slipped out in search of the children pushed out, asked our floor administrator for location and asked if I could take them with me; they had already been sent upstairs. I called the Assistant Principal. I was told that it was “too late”, they were going home. “But they were just playing. I was there. I saw. There was no fight.” But rules are rules, I was told. Never mind that all year we allow (and unintentionally but no less culpably encourage) horseplay; for the last couple of weeks of the school year, blink wrong in the wrong place and you’re gone. I want to blame the children; after all, they know this teacher was itching to get them out and, damn it, they let her win. But as I reach for that card I see that it is more blame the victim, more oppression, more white supremacy. (I need to be honest with myself that I went there, I did.) Where I need to be looking is where *I* have been, and should have been, BEFORE this incident unfolded. And why I wasn’t faster to respond when it did.
What I am needing to process this summer is the line between between being a teammate with my colleagues and standing up for children. While the end game, I would suggest, is getting white teachers out of Black schools (ending loan forgiveness programs that lure them and make it super-profitable), for the foreseeable future about half of the teachers in this setting are white. And too many have absolutely no critical awareness of their whiteness and no interest in learning. (To this end I have and will try, but what I hear in response to challenges of whiteness is incredible defense.)
Here again, my colleagues’ willful ignorance is not my lane. What is my lane is discerning when being a teammate functions to provide cover for white supremacy. I need to learn how to spot and respond faster. To do this I need to see my own motives more clearly, my own defense and deflection. The work is urgent because children’s lives hang in the balance.
For as long as we are in these settings, we have the responsibility to see our own whiteness and actively work to unseat the bias of white supremacy. Are you interested in joining this conversation, to learn and/or to provide accountability? Please be in touch.