In order to interact with students of color, white teachers must face their privileges

Throughout my career I have worked in Title I chartered schools: first as an ELA teacher and now as the Academic Dean of Humanities. While our classrooms are filled with young students with the same social identity as me, the teachers in my department reflect different identities and experiences. I sat in rooms with white teachers who believed they needed to imitate students, especially colorful ones, to confirm their preferences. However, the reality is that our white teachers often struggle to communicate with students because they present themselves as uncertified cartoons.

Recently, I shared my experiences of developing white teachers after a classroom teaching demonstration with Daniel, one of the white male teachers on my team. I was particularly excited about the section of the lesson I chose because it involved deconstructing a scene from Issa Rae’s HBO series, Insecure.

During the discussion, I compared my own experiences to the characters in the scene. The students engaged in the lesson, and I left the room excited to share my model with Daniel. However, as I walked out of the classroom, I realized that I could not ask Daniel to mimic the structure of my discussion. The lesson I designed was deeply rooted in how I perceived the scene because of my social identity, and a replica of my demonstration would put Daniel in a strange position.

Now that I am responsible for the development of teachers, I have to meet various challenges and needs. The question is: How do I make our white teachers their most authentic personalities while creating culturally responsive experiences for our colorful students?

Privilege and authenticity

Experience has taught me that creating culturally responsive classrooms for students of color means that white teachers should actively and consistently investigate their fairness and how it will be reflected in the curriculum and instructions. Experience has taught me that this work must be done consciously and with confidence. Here are some of the ones I learned along the way:

  • Reflection: When thinking about Daniel, I knew that instead of imitating what I did in class, he should first engage and think about the lesson material. As doctrinal leaders, we must allow white teachers to process their feelings and thoughts before distributing the material to our students. Contemplation questions may include: What were your initial reactions to the transcript? What came to you when you read the character’s experience or feelings? What beliefs or values ​​do you have that can be expressed in unproductive ways during learning? How would you respond to your students’ strong feelings about the material? These questions help to find potentially problematic beliefs and ideals. White teachers hope to use these reflections to create an environment where students feel safe engaging in triggering or emotionally charged content.
  • To facilitate discussion: In addition to personal thinking, it is imperative that white teachers create and facilitate authentic, meaningful lessons in their teaching curriculum, regardless of the issues that arise. We explored how Daniel can initiate and sustain a strong discussion among students without putting his emotions at the center and inadvertently decentralizing our students’ emotions. It would be a big mistake to assume that shared identity makes all students understand and experience the same content. Our students are not monoliths and white teachers should expect and prepare to reflect diversity in all aspects of students’ experiences and emotions. In practice, this means that white teachers must reduce their emotions, reactions, and assumptions, and allow students to learn lessons without any preconceived notions of outcome.
  • Bring all of you: The most successful white teachers I’ve ever worked with make room for their black and brown students where growth becomes a shared experience. Many teachers bring their love for music, games, books and other interests which some think our students are not interested in. However, it is an integral part of the process. The culturally responsive classroom is also a place where teachers can see themselves. Decentralization does not mean erasure. White teachers should also feel the need to include their interests and ideas in the curriculum. It allows students to see teachers as whole people with diverse and meaningful worldviews.

Using privileges to create a better future

Significant changes have taken place in our classrooms as white teachers are given space to reflect and engage productively in their white privileges. Students are bursting with creativity and a depth of insecurity that we have not seen before. For example, Quinn, a literature teacher on my team, has created a space where students engage with racist and sexist ideology highlighting and challenging content. His students are not only motivated to explore this material outside the classroom, they are doing so in a way that does not perpetuate racial stereotypes in black and brown communities. Quinn’s desire to bring his hobbies to the table and to accept the discomfort of the discussion about cultural neglect and white privilege motivated the students to lean towards the material with passion.

To create classrooms that reflect our world, we must demand that white teachers act with self-reflection and confront their prejudices against black and brown students. Some students may be interested in “sports” and “hip hop”, but not all of our students. The subtle aggression associated with these interests should not bother them in their daily lives, less material than what we teach them in school. We cannot put in front of our students teachers who are unwilling to face unsettling truths about their privileges. To break the cycle of institutional racism, white teachers must first look inside.

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