About My Whiteness

I am white.

So are the vast majority of public school educators across the United States.  The National Center for Education Statistics puts us at over 80% of the public school teaching force. While the percentage of projected white public school students has dropped below 50% for the first time, ever.

I grew up in suburban Wisconsin, attended school K-12 with majority white students. I had then and have now diversity within my friends and family, but the majority of my upbringing has been within a suburban white experience.

I began my teaching career in New York City, in a Middle School in the Bronx. One day, during my second year, a name-calling battle broke out amongst my seventh graders. It was more play than fighting.

A few kids starting saying back and forth, “You’re white!”

“No, you’re white!”

“No, you’re white!”

To which I called them all back with an assertive laugh, “Hey, hey, hey. No. Definitely, no. The only white person in this room is me.”

To which, my students almost collectively said, “Wait…. you’re white?”

What seems dangerous is not our hearts. I know a lot of white educators who care a whole damn lot.

What seems dangerous is not our convictions. I know a lot of white educators who work hard to make the world better for everyone.

What seems dangerous is how much we are not aware of. How poorly we listen. How little we see. Even when we think we see the most.

I was reminded of my whiteness over this past month. In the kind of world-shaking way that I have the luxury to not feel if I don’t want to. But I want to. So, I am writing this to you but also as a mile-marker for myself.

The first was shortly after the attacks in Paris.

In a self-righteous way, I noticed the media outcry over the events in Paris compared to the near silence over suicide bombings in Beirut. There was wall to wall coverage of the shaken city in France, but almost none of one father’s act of heroism that likely saved hundreds more in the Middle East.

I was easy for me, at home, on Twitter, to think myself the better person.

Look at this media. They are unaware (or probably not) of their privilege.

But then a brunch happened.

During an impromptu brunch with two of my favorite people, Kristin Ziemke and Sara Ahmed, the topic of Paris came up. Which moved to talk about New York and the United States.

I’ve shared this with Sara’s permission.

Sara spoke of her parents. She said she calls them in situations like this. Here mom and dad are largely loved in their suburban midwest community. A piece of this love is for how outspoken they are about their faith and about all people coming together. They visit churches and speak about being Muslim. They began a mosque with community support. They are great neighbors and many people’s friends.

Sara explained that despite all of this, she worries.

She calls when times like these arise to tell them that she is afraid for them and to ask them to be more vigilant.

In an effort to provide some comfort, one, and in a greater effort to believe the world is better than we fear, I responded to her vulnerability with:

“But you know. After September 11th there was so much hatred against Muslims. But it seems to me, in my limited view, that this time things are different. I’m reading—on Twitter and online and hearing the news and people I talk with—that many are trying to actively separate terrorism from a religion or group. It seems better out here this time. Like things have thankfully evolved.”

She sat for a moment then told Kristin and I the story of the Muslim cab driver in New York who couldn’t pick up passengers for hours after the event in Paris and how his story went viral.

I fumbled through an apology at the time. Blamed my ignorance. Shared my, “I’m so sorry”s. Then, the three of us moved into some other silly, superfluous, unrelated conversation likely about designer rice pudding in New York. (Yes, that is a thing).

That evening I went back to Twitter.

With the cab driver, her family, and Sara’s own experience, in mind, I saw things I had actively missed before.

I stopped looking at who I have chosen to follow and started to look at other conversations and hashtags I was not a part of. Not a part of because my privilege allowed me to decide to ignore them.

The hate was clear. And it was piling on fast. From every day people, to broadcasters, governors, and presidential hopefuls.

I was shaken by my white blindness.

Despite my good heart and good intentions. I was foolish. I was naïve. I was dangerously unaware.

I texted the start of an apology. We began a long conversation that still continues on.

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While I was shaken by my white blindness. I am even more shaken that I can still go blind if I choose to.

Or, perhaps, more accurately, that I am blind. I will never know what it means to be Muslim in a world that questions your motives based on your faith.

I am blind and can continue to be so.

Which scares me more, because there are so many of us that can do the same.

 

Then, Chicago was next. And forgotten Minneapolis.

Release of dash cam video showing an officer shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times, shortly before the announcement of that officer’s indictment—one year after the killing—led to mass protests in Chicago.

As part of my life is lived on social media, I took to the hashtag. Another black, young man whose upbringing, birthdays, laughter, struggles, regrets, challenges, hopes, and stories ended up as a hashtag of his name, after his murder:

#LaquanMcDonald

 

Amidst the activity on Twitter, the video, the outrage, the shots of protests, the outcry;

amidst all of this was another now-too-familiar reality.

What the nation is talking about and what White Educators are talking about.

While evidence of our national legacy of the fear of black, young males reared up in social action on the streets of Chicago and the streets of social media, many of the well-meaning, good hearted educators I follow chatted about technology, books, and Thanksgiving.

Tamara Russell and Jessica Lifshitz drew my attention:

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I flipped off of the hashtag and onto the open feed. I saw what they saw.

What struck me more is that the edtech, turkey, and books, tweets were not from a mass of people I don’t know. Instead, faces of white educators I have eaten with and laughed with and talked about change with.

I was taken back to my conversation over brunch. The danger of not being aware. Not listening.

While some of us may have been opting out of the #LaquanMcDonald conversation. I suspect a great many more were not aware that the conversation was even going on.

Part of the gift of social media, and the current media landscape in general, is that we can hear news that matters to us. This is also the danger. If our “Following” list is limited to only those voices that we most identify with, we run the risk of only hearing what we think we want to hear.

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Again, I found myself somewhat self-righteous. I had not missed this story. I also found myself more understanding. I began to invite others to the unfolding story directly and I retweeted throughout the night.

I felt I had done some small part. I knew there was a limit to what I was able to do, but I felt that I had been a better person that night.

Then, I was reminded.

Over the weekend, prior, thousands of educators spent days in Minneapolis for the NCTE Annual Convention. I was one of them. A miraculous and inspiring weekend of learning and connection. Hours filled with conversations, sessions, and roundtables about issues and ideas in education and the shared belief that we all can do better.

I left exhausted but filled.

It was only later that I learned that there was other news in that city, the one we were in. It took me returning a thousand miles back home to find out that #BlackLivesMatter protests were organized around the death of an unarmed black, young man. Protests and a story not far from the Convention Center.

A story I knew nothing about. I was caught again in my whiteness.

Earlier this week, after my return, those protests that led to white gun fire on the crowd.

Kate Roberts said it best:

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What seems dangerous is how much we are not aware of. How poorly we listen. How little we see. Not because we choose to not listen. Because we do not have to.

Then, Chicago again and Colorado Springs. And a book.

Friday, I took my kids out for breakfast in our neighborhood. We sat in a small diner, with amazing pancakes, under a television screen.

There the story of Tyshawn Lee was on full volume.

That evening, Colorado Springs filled the news.

Each hour I found myself wrapped farther into the layers of contradiction: Officers who solve cases and save lives. Those who take them. Violence between gang members. Gang members living in social constructs the majority white culture have promulgated through red-lining and resource starvation. Politicians who cover-up. Politicians who bring perspective. Activists who march. “Terrorist.” “Thug.” “Lone Wolf.”

It only fills me with a deep sadness.

And what feels worse about this sadness is that may largely be self-indulgent.

I am aware that I do not have to feel this way. None of this has to matter to me. I can turn off the news and watch the Twitter stream I want to.

My whiteness means I do not need to fear in these same ways.

 

I have felt at times like an outsider. Moving into my first neighborhood in the Bronx. My travels and work in the Middle East and Asia.

I have been called names because of my perceived race and status.

But I also have come to learn the outsider feeling was often more about my fears than those of others. And, ultimately, I also could easily shut the world out with my privilege.

 *    *    *

I have started and stopped versions of this post too many times to count. I began back after that brunch in New York. Then a new version again after the first night of protests in Chicago. Then again I stopped as these past days’ events unfolded.

Each time I couldn’t find the right words because I didn’t know which words were there.

So, I did what I always do when I try to make sense of a world that has no sense. I read.

Many news accounts. A lot of Twitter. And Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

I am not searching for answers. No source offers that. And Coates’ memoir even more so is unapologetic in its honesty.

Instead, I find myself consuming a diet of reminders and challenges because I want to be challenged. I want to wake up from my simple sleep.

My well-meaning heart ache, but my self-indulgent tears feel thankful for the stories shared and my ability to read them.

This passage, from the memoir, struck a chord:

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I have nodded my head at police cameras. I have also allowed them to absolve my role in the need for them.

I needed to be challenged, otherwise I may not know how.

 

We are dangerous.

These moments, in such a short span, remind me of the danger we hold as white educators.

One that our hearts and hopes and college pennants on the walls and hugs and after school heart-to-hearts cannot solve, alone.

We have the danger of not hearing. Not listening.

We have the danger of trying to tell other people’s stories for them.

We have the danger of assumption.

We have the danger, the greatest danger, of spilling our experience and blinders onto the children we serve.

Whether we teach in a classroom ripe with diversity or one that is unfortunately, characteristically, largely monocultural, we educate not just with our lessons, but with our conversations and our awareness.

There is no Unit of Study on listening in this way.

 

My largely white schooling and upbringing had glimmers of looking beyond ourselves. I can’t recall them exactly, though.

Maybe they were somewhere in our 3rd grade “Save the Rainforest” paper-cut mural. Maybe they were somewhere in the church mission trip to repair houses in the West Virginia Appalachians. Maybe there are others, there must have been. However, they are not all vivid.

Without those moments, however small, of my mostly white teachers looking beyond our whiteness, I would not be as socially minded and (hopefully, increasingly) willing to fail, but learn, in conversations about race.

From these small steps, I think the majority of my seeking stories beyond my own came post high school, by luck of a liberal University and eventually moving to New York.

The world won’t grow on luck, however.

Listen more.

Last year, when Ferguson, MO was burning, I approached my friend and colleague Dana Stachowiak for advice.

I had big dreams of what The Educator Collaborative could and should do. We should have a virtual Town Hall. We should run a blog series. We should, we should, we should.

Dana is Assistant Professor of Diversity/Multicultural Education Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and I know I can count on her learned and blunt advice.

She told me to stop. And listen.

To paraphrase, her advice was something like: “You’re intentions are good, but this is not your experience or your story to tell. If you insert yourself you run the risk of running over the voices of people directly involved, because of your privilege and status. Instead, amplify the voices of others. Help their stories be heard.”

I wish I could say I took her advice clearly and with a full heart. I did not.

I agreed on the part about amplifying, that I had not thought enough about.

I did, though, argue that I should say something, that is was almost my duty to: “But, I’m part of the problem. Not enough white educators are talking. I have to say something.”

She returned with advice then, that she echoed did just a few days ago:

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I now see this as a critical part of my diet as a white educator.

I have not figured out the best ways to do this, and I keep failing along the way, but I know it is as much my professional development as any.

I am sadly aware that cannot change the world—as much as I want to—because I am a part of a white world that through purpose or accident or both keeps the value of non-white stories suppressed.

We Need Diverse Books. We Need Diverse Teachers. We Need Diverse Politicians. We Need Diverse Schools.

Or perhaps another way to think about this, is that I cannot change the world alone. And we, white educators, certainly cannot do it alone.

I know I need to wrestle with more experiences and stories that help me see beyond my whiteness. More. Many. Often.

The gift of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, in the face of tragedies, is that these stories are in our faces.

As have been the stories of gay rights activists, Muslim activists, and others I know I have yet to connect with.

The stories exist. They always have. I just need to make the point the connect with them.

We are dangerous as white educators because we teach children and young adults.

We can accidentally allow our non-white students to be overlooked in ways we do not intend, but allow to happen; we can allow our white students to be as unaware as we are.

This is my story.

My mile-marker on my journey.

My gratitude for the Sara’s, Tamara’s and Jessica’s, #BlackLivesMatter’s, Kate’s, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s and countless others.

My reminder that I have a lot of work to do.

My mission that the students and teachers I serve cannot wait.

I am white.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 thoughts on “About My Whiteness

  1. Wonderful. I, too, have a blog post I haven’t completed yet. Sixteen years educating elementary students, and now taking a teaching break to write more children’s books – I’m thinking about this all the time. I’ve been visiting a coffee shop that’s owned by people of color in my neighborhood. There is a lot of discussion of race and accompanying struggles in there. I listen. I talk to table-neighbors if I feel it’s warranted. I’m reading. I’m thinking. But I love many of your insights in here. I’ll pass it along in my circles. This as well as other voices. All important stuff. And it’s up to us white folk to do the work. People of color have been doing it all along. That’s been something it’s taken me years to become more aware of.

  2. I am grateful that there are educators like you, who question and think about issues, that maybe as a teacher, I didn’t think about nearly enough. But, that now, as a grandma of a precious almost three year old, I realize are profoundly important. Thank you for your insight and willingness to speak out, in a “rough draft-like” thinking, where you’re not sure your thoughts are in final form….not conclusive, but rather the start of the dialogue.

  3. Well said! I have and always believe education is the key to helping a troubled world, even when the trouble stems from my own unintended prejudice. I am also white.

  4. Thank you for this post. I was especially struck by the need to amplify the message from rather speak for people. I need to learn how to do this. My apologies if I sent 2 comments here, had some trouble logistically!

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