Monday, July 25, 2016

A White Woman’s Authority in the Classroom

School is out right now. Nonetheless, I can't help think about my students. Young and black. They come into my classroom to learn. I come into the classroom to teach.
But so much comes into the classroom with us. I am a white woman in a position of authority. What kinds of conversations must occur at home on days like today? "Be careful not to move in a way that sends a wrong signal." "Be wary of people in positions of authority, they hold so much power but do not understand us." Valid. Likely. At any rate, if I were black, I'd be sounding caution to my own children. I notice that my black male students, 14 and 15 years old, are more likely to not make eye contact with me after the highly publicized events. Head slightly down. And you know what is needed to learn? Trust. Daring to be wrong. Making mistakes. I work very hard to create an environment of trust. It's the bedrock of my teaching, I hope. Sometimes I think I am all the more threatening because I am asking them to trust me. And of course they cannot. Not in the context of all the horrific racism and abuse of authority outside our classroom. And so maybe I am all the more threatening because I am asking for something that would leave them much too vulnerable. Or perhaps I am just projecting. But it feels like the outside world fights me. Fights me and my students. And if all of this is coming into my classroom, what is coming into police interactions? The answers are in today's headlines. So what is a white woman to do? I cannot ignore racism. It is every teacher’s responsibility to teach values as well as ideas and thinking skills. It is every white person’s responsibility to own up to our privilege. I cannot just ignore it in my classroom. I cannot pretend it does not exist and demand trust. That is unfair and unrealistic. When I have students again in September, there will be occasion to talk about racism. I am a mere biology teacher, but racism will still be in our classroom with us. Every year, racism finds its most obvious moment in the use of the word “nigger.” God, I hate that word. I hate it. I tell my students, that word is not tolerated in my classroom. They say, “but it is a friendly word, I mean it as a friend.” I will explain that, of course, they may use that word with each other, as a way to reclaim the word, to disempower it. But I cannot use the word, nor, as a white woman in a position of authority, can I tolerate it in my classroom, because it is a word of hatred. Invariably, a student will ask why I care, since I am white. And I will turn to them and explain that I care because I am a human being. And that the word "nigger" is the last word many a human being has heard before they were strung up on a tree and hanged or burnt alive or dragged behind a car until they were dead. The last word they heard as they yearned for their mother. Boys like my own son, surrounded by hatred with the word "nigger" ringing in their ears, desperately wishing only to be in their mother's arms. How can I, a mother, a human being, not care? Invariably. Every year, I must explain why I will not tolerate words of hate in my room. Sometimes, I cry. Sometimes, I am indignant. But every year, this conversation must happen. Last year, the conversation ended with the story of Emmet Till. A beautiful shining boy, just like my own. I tell them I cannot bear to share the photo of his mutilated body. I am not as brave as his mother. But I can share with them instead the beautiful boy that she loved, as I love my own son. Boys who should never face the word “nigger” alone and afraid.
Emmett Till

My Son

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