Hello, teacher! I know. It’s summer, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, and a national racial uprising. Let me start by saying, you’re a superhero. You are overworked and underpaid for the job you do. I am absolutely certain that you aren’t taking the whole summer off to lounge in a pool with a fruity cocktail. The societal belief that teachers get holidays, weekends, evenings, and summers off isn’t true. You love what you do, and you can’t shut that down just because of the date on the calendar or the time on the clock. I see you and appreciate you.
That said, we need to talk about something important. My kids, like many of your past and present students, look up to you as a role model and leader. You set the tone and standards. As we gear up for a new school year, please consider that in order to truly see and effectively teach all of your students, I need you to nix the colorblindness and instead, work to become anti-racist.
The National Center for Educational Statistics reports, “In 2017–18, about 79 percent of public school teachers were White, 9 percent were Hispanic, 7 percent were Black, 2 percent were Asian, 2 percent were of two or more races, and 1 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native; additionally, those who were Pacific Islander made up less than 1 percent of public school teachers.” Recap: most teachers are white. Perhaps you are among them?
If you are a white teacher, you have white privilege—period. This means you have advantages and opportunities because of your race. I have them, too. Because of our shared white privilege, we have been conditioned to believe that acknowledging and celebrating a person of color’s race isn’t okay and that doing so is unsafe and uncharted territory. Therefore, it’s easier to fall back on colorblindness for the sake of self-preservation. Confronting our racial biases, questions, and experiences, and working to become anti-racist, is relentless work.
All children need you to “see” color and to understand that a student’s race historically and absolutely impacts their current education. I’m sure you’ve read about the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Students of color are punished more frequently and harshly than their white peers. Many schools have garnered media attention for their racist hair policies, ones directed at their Black students. If Black students aren’t free to be themselves, to wear protective hairstyles and be given opportunities to do the right thing, how are they supposed to effectively learn? If they are walking on (white) eggshells all the time, how in the world are students supposed to focus on academics?
Teachers, getting educated and working to become anti-racist is incredibly powerful. Your words and actions can make or break a student’s belief about not only their academics, but their social understanding and their self-esteem. Here’s the truth. You cannot teach what you do not understand. Reading a single book on Dr. King to your class doesn’t absolve four-hundred (plus) years of racism. Racism is woven into the fabric of American history and in everyday society, including in schools. We need more, better, and different from you.
Not only do your students of color need you, but so do your white students. Many white students’ white parents have no clue how to talk to their kids about race and what to teach their kids. Many of my white friends have believed for far too long that simply telling their children to “be nice” and “be inclusive of everyone” is all the child needs. These “be kind” talks do not confront or dismantle racism. In fact, my belief is that by not directly discussing racism, parents are empowering it to continue. The same goes for teachers and classrooms. Avoidance, white-washed curriculum, and generic messages of “we’re all one race, the human race” doesn’t eliminate white supremacy, nor do such help your students truly understand how to be anti-racist.
Talking about race is uncomfortable, but I also believe that the earlier we confront racism, the better. It’s so much easier to teach younger children about racial equity than to guide older students to un-learn. Though, this isn’t a pass for teachers of older kids to avoid the necessary race conversations and lessons. Better late than never.
As you work to become anti-racist yourself (remember, it starts with you), please keep in mind all of your students when you select the books you read to or with your students, the history lessons you teach, and the representation in your classroom (such as wall art, music, etc.). Please, don’t act like you’re doing your students of color a favor. Don’t expect a standing ovation. This should have been done all along, not just because we’re in the midst of a Black Lives Matter uprising. However, any genuine, well-informed, and well-delivered changes you make are appreciated by me. My kids, like many Black children, are used to education favoring whiteness. We absolutely notice, and are thankful, for your effort to steer education in a better direction.
Though I appreciate the educators and districts that choose to honor Black History Month (as my child’s public school does), please know, my child is Black every day and every moment of the year. Instead of shoving all the let’s-honor-the-Black-people projects, lessons, and bulletin boards into the shortest month of the year, why not every day that school is in session? Don’t forget your students of other races, too.
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"Oregon was the only state admitted to the union that barred blacks from owning property. The legislators who voted that law into being also voted in a law that said if a slave was freed in Oregon they would be beaten regularly if they did not leave the state. The white men who wrote those laws also created our schools. If they were so blatant in their racism in writing their laws, then who is to say the hidden, systemic racism we face is not inherent in the school system they created? These words were in the Oregon Constitution until removed in 2000: ‘No free Negro or mulatto not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside or be within this state or hold any real estate…’ If you were an Oregon student in a civics class in the 20th century, that was in our Constitution. Our black students read those words. The same legislators who refused to remove those words until 135 years after the end of slavery are the same ones who upgraded our education system over the years. Can we trust a system created by people who did not see people of color as equal?” -The SHARE Team
I have seen some progress in recent years. I’ve had teachers pull me aside and show me what they’re doing in their classrooms. They are purposefully buying more books featuring children of color. One of my children’s therapists was creating a social story for my child (that’s a picture story that shows the steps in a process) and purposefully created a clip art of a brown hand. Some may think this is silly, but when a child of color is constantly bombarded with messages that white is best and preferred, I truly believe every little effort matters.
Dear teacher, my child and their peers spend approximately six to seven hours a day with you, five days a week. My kids’ full-time job is to go to school and learn. I want you to see them, acknowledge their race, and celebrate them. I am begging you to go to bat for my kids, and other children of color, and demand that policies and curriculum be changed. White-washed history lessons on Christopher Columbus, slavery, civil rights, and many more topics aren’t doing any of us any favors. In order for history to stop repeating itself, we need educators to be courageous, honest, and committed.
As our summer continues, as you select your professional development seminars and choose the materials you see and listen to, please know that your BIPOC students need you. All students aren’t all the same. They aren’t colorblind. And you shouldn’t be either.