On Being a White Teacher in a Mostly Non-White School

Jose Vilson wrote a post a couple of days ago about why so few Black men are teachers. I was going to comment on the post, but it ended up getting long, so I’m going with my own post instead.

This was in some ways a hard post for me to read. Please understand that I don't disagree with Jose's premise or with the vast majority of his points. It was difficult for me because of who I am and who my students are, and because it made me consider if there's more of a disconnect between those two than I'd previously realized.

I'm a White female teacher in a school that is 65% Latino and 30% White with a handful of Black or Asian students scattered throughout. And I so agree with you that kids need to see themselves reflected in their teachers; we have one teacher who is not White. One.

The thing is, I love where I teach. I love my kids and I love working with them - I became a teacher in large part because I believe in social justice, and that doesn't much exist in our society. So I don't want to move to an all-White (or mostly White) school, even though I am White. I want to stay where I am, but I feel guilty sometimes that I don't reflect my kids' experiences, that I don’t come where they come from (I'm also very middle class, something my 80% free lunch kids are certainly not), that I haven’t experienced the discrimination or challenges that they will probably experience in life.

People talk about how we live in a post-racial society, especially now that Barack Obama is president. That’s bullshit. We went to Philly last week to visit my sister, and one of the things we did while there was to go to a Philadelphia Orchestra concert at the Mann Center. My sister lives in Center City and we took a bus to the Mann Center – it went through a Black neighborhood to get there (I don't know Philly well enough to know where, exactly, and, oh, the difference in the homes and the wealth level. Peeling paint, broken gates and fences, weeds growing out of cracks in the sidewalk. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s no different for my kids.

I talk to them about that occasionally, that it's unfair that the people in power mostly look like me. It’s not something I’d bring up to a whole class necessarily (though I might, if a reason arose), but I’ve had a few individual conversations, particularly with my young Latino men who are teetering on the brink of gang involvement. So I talk to them about the inequity, and how it makes me really sad to see kids like them, who are smart, funny, powerful, choose this path that leads only to death or jail, when right now they have so many options and the potential to change the balance of power in society. A few times when I’ve told colleagues about those conversations, they chew on the insides of their cheeks and look at me with deep concern, asking if I have the right to have those conversations.

Do I have the right? I don’t know. I think I do, I think I have a moral responsibility to do it, but maybe I’m just another White teacher trying to save urban youth, in a really offensive way, and I just don’t know it. I can’t….I can’t quite believe that, but maybe it’s true.

As far as I know, I’ve never had trouble creating relationships with kids from different backgrounds than me. Almost all my faves – the Charmer, the Eyeliner Queen, DC, Smiley, Slick, the Chatterbox, Oh Yes, the Chowhound, the Goofball, BB Bob, the Slacker – are all Latino. The Natural Athlete and Miss Opinion are both White. I adore plenty of kids whom I haven’t written about too, of all races, but race has just never really felt like a huge issue in my classroom. Maybe that’s na├»ve. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, or blind. I do see that some of the White kids stick together at my school, and it makes me sad for them because it so limits their options for friends, and I’ve certainly heard kids make racist comments to each other (which get shut down immediately) but as far as I know, it hasn’t been a big deal in my own relationships with kids. But maybe I’m just not aware. Maybe I don’t see it because I come from a privileged White background.

Bleah. I don’t know. I just don’t know.

One of Jose’s commenters, Lucky Star, wrote, “If you are an educator who is not a person of color who teachers primarily Black and Latino students, you should have no worries because, at the end of the day, our children so desperately need good, quality educators of all backgrounds. They need educators who care about them, their lives, their successes and their failures. THEY NEED ALL OF US.”

I hope that’s true. It’s what I believe.

Would my kids benefit from having a more representative population of teachers? Absolutely. No question. My school definitely needs to have more diversity in our staff...but I want to be there too.


"I'm a dreamer but I ain't the only one Got problems but we love to have fun" -K'naan, "Dreamer"

I teach eighth grade Language Arts at an urban school. My kids kick ass and will change the world. I want everyone to know.
Copyright 2009 I'm a Dreamer All rights reserved.
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