What I’m Learning: Respectful Discourse on #educolor

This weekend I came across a couple articles that I found really thought-provoking. EdWeek posted Colorblind Education is the ‘Wrong Response’ :

A colorblind approach flies in the face of that knowledge. When educators say, “I’m colorblind” and claim not to see or be influenced by their students’ race, the net result is that students of color, their experiences, and their perspectives become “invisible” in the classroom.

The next day I read Jamie Utt’s 10 Ways Well-Meaning White Teachers Bring Racism Into Our Schools and appreciated the honesty in how he referenced his own and colleagues’ mistakes while also providing good examples for taking a different approach that honors students of color.

While both these articles got me thinking, it was the commentary shared on tumblr by another educator that brought me the deepest level of reflection on the article and some of the issues within. Here is the original tumblr thread if you’d like to see it, but I felt it important to share the commentary, and my response to it, in this space as well. (Please note, I am sharing the original poster’s response to the article in this space with the utmost respect and only because it is necessary context for my post.)

In response to 10 Ways Well-Meaning White Teachers Bring Racism Into Our Schoolsbohemianrandomnity replied:

Alright, that does it. I’m seriously sick and tired of every other article talking about how white teachers are somehow ruining education for black children just because we’re white and no matter what we do we are awful and racist and everything we do is racist.

This needs to stop.

This article is a million levels of crap.

Let’s go down the list, shall we?

Do you know what happens when you stop “zero tolerance” policies?  My husband’s middle school found out.  You find out that a student can spit on you, scream in your face, and insult you and you can do NOTHING about it.  They had middle school boys sexually harassing teachers and trying to touch teachers.  A boy SHOVED one of my teacher friends because he was “in the way” and admin told him he could do nothing about it because they don’t want to suspend or expel kids.  One of the female teachers had to keep a baseball bat in her classroom for fear of a 12 YEAR OLD who kept harassing her and he was only suspended 5 days and then was back in her classroom.  This is not okay.

It is not okay for a student to attack you for yelling.  If a CHILD disrespects you, you have the right to defend yourself but idiots want to take that right away from teachers.

Ex.  I had a student slam his fist into my foot and throw chairs across the room because I wanted him to stop rocking his chair back and forth (I was trying to prevent him from falling).  What “cultural context” did I miss?

Not being able to pronounce a name you aren’t familiar with is called just being a normal human. Sometimes I fear mispronouncing a name so much I’ll ask the kids how to pronounce it.  They tell me how to say it, I write it down, and we’re done. It’s not difficult or a big deal.  Some names are just hard.  A name like Oluwamuyiwana (a coworker of mine) is going to be just an unfamiliar as a last name like Poulikowlski (a friend from HS). The kiddos struggle with my last name but I help them out because I get it.

I think the funniest thing I read was about how some woman brought a djembe to class and it was somehow “appropriation”.  This is hilarious to me because I teach music and cultural music is part of my curriculum that I’m REQUIRED to teach and I’m actually teaching the children to play the djembe next week.  Playing a drum from Africa is not appropriation holy crap. My kiddos might be from African but they do not know how to play the djembe so now we are all learning together.  My children know NOTHING about cultures other than their own.  My children don’t even know who the freaking Native Americans are (which is why I’m spending a month on it).  Therefore, I will teach them that and they are EXCITED to learn about it.

The cultural policing on website is nuts. I once wrote a Tumblr post about teaching my children about Jewish music and how much my Jewish PE teacher thanked me for doing so and how I was doing some other cultural unit and some SJW on here messaged me saying that I’m evil and cultural appropriating and he was going to doxx me and find my address and burn my house down.

Final note: The last thing in this article is the most discriminating piece of nonsense I’ve ever read.
Apparently, People want black kids to be taught by black teachers which somehow makes them learn better, but white children also need more black teachers.  What this says is that white teachers should not be teaching because somehow I judged not by my abilities to teach music but because of my skin color.  You say you want to end skin-color discrimination, but I apparently can’t do my job because of my skin color.  This is crap. Why does nobody else think this is crap?

Do you know what this advocates? SEGREGATION. Black students were only taught by black teachers for ages but we deemed that segregation and made it illegal, and yet for some reason people want it back now. WTF?

You just wait until I start my unit on Irish and Scottish music.  My kiddos LOVE it.  OH no promoting whitness??!?!?!

Pathetic.  I don’t care if this causes a mass unfollow from other Tumblr teachers but I just can’t believe that you can read this mess of a white teacher-hating article and find it to be okay.

My Thoughts:

I don’t know exactly what’s on your list of “every other article”, but I think if you read this and a lot of other things that have been written lately and think they are saying “white teachers are ruining education for black children” you are missing the complexities of this conversation and the importance of why we need to be discussing it.

As I read this article I don’t think they are saying to stop having white teachers, reasonable systems of discipline that protect students AND teachers, units that address a variety of different cultures, or that it is in any way acceptable for people to spread hate for ANY race in person or online (like the way you received those kinds of messages for teaching Jewish music to your kiddos).

But here’s the thing, there are teachers who blatantly mispronounce their students’ names or flat out refuse to learn how to say the names at all and instead adopt nicknames and call it a day. I have seen colleagues do this numerous times and it makes me cringe. That isn’t acceptable, whether a person’s name is Heather or it is Xithlaly. My kids used to tease me because I would ask them over and over to say their names and teach me how to say them properly, and I would explain that it was because I felt it important to say it right – not just sort of right, completely right – and that it just might take me a little longer, and for that I was sorry. By choosing not to ask about and work to understand representations of our students’ cultures, like their names, traditions, foods, etc we are devaluing what they bring to the table and are teaching them that their history and culture is not important enough to bother understanding. This sends the message to a lot of kids that they should not be proud of their cultures and who they are. A lot of my kiddos and their families already walked through the door of elementary school feeling out of place and embarrassed that they didn’t “fit in” to the American school system and perceived expectations it places on them. They hide their conversations in their native languages because they think it is unacceptable to bring that into the building, and I had to work really hard to show them how valuable their language and all the other parts of their culture truly are.

Allowing a person, student or adult, to treat another human being as disrespectfully as you have shared is never ok. Students shouldn’t be fearful in their school buildings and neither should teachers. But there is a difference between allowing that kind of unsafe and misguided behavior to continue and having a zero tolerance policy that continually perpetuates suspension and expulsion of students who call out in excitement during class or celebrate with their friends in the hallway in between classes in a way that some perceive to be “too loud” or “disruptive.” I am not saying we should look the other way and never discuss with students the consequences of their actions, positive and negative, but many policies take a concrete, “This is right and that is wrong” approach that often favors white students’ backgrounds without considering how students of a variety of other backgrounds and cultures express themselves or behave.

The article is not saying that bringing a djembe to class is cultural appropriation, or advocating that we not expose students to diversity in the art forms and history we teach, but making your best attempt to dress in traditional African clothing while holding a djembe and thinking that this somehow connects you to your students’ cultures is misguided at best, and while it comes from a purely thoughtful and heartfelt place – we have to think twice about how we make those connections. I would also encourage teachers to take a step back and consider their curriculum and standards from the perspectives of the students in class, because the fact of the matter is that much of it is written by (and often for) whites. Just because the guide says to teach about a particular culture doesn’t mean the way in which it says to teach it is correct or necessarily the best way to do so. Talk to your students and their families, find connections in the community who can come and share their perspectives and experiences when you are teaching units that address cultures beyond your own. I recently heard someone say, “Can I be the one to teach my kids about space? Absolutely. But it would be far better for them to also hear about space from someone at NASA – after all, I’m not the one who has actually been in space!” It isn’t that we can’t or shouldn’t teach and discuss other cultures with our students, but whenever possible it is more impactful than you might imagine to have them also learning from someone who can share firsthand about their culture and historical experiences.

As for saying that students of color deserve to have teachers of color, yes – that would be ideal. And it would be ideal for white students to have more teachers of color as well. That doesn’t mean bringing back segregation (which still very much exists in far too many places), it means having intelligent conversations and problem solving TOGETHER to find solutions and create an education system and a society that embraces diversity among professionals in all fields. It is the same reason we should be discussing the importance of having more female engineers, scientists, mathematicians, computer programmers.. – when children see themselves in the role models being put before them it sends the message that they too can achieve. It isn’t good enough to tell girls they can be amazing at math or science and then surround them with only male mathematicians and scientists, and it certainly isn’t good enough to tell children of color they can succeed in school and become successful professionals and then surround them with only successful white adults and teachers.

I am sorry that your husband works in an unsafe environment where teachers are fearful of students, and I am sorry that you have tried your best to share about different cultures with your students only to receive hateful comments and attacks on your blog – it is clearly something you feel passionate about and I can absolutely see why. But I question how we are ever going to solve our current problems and have true diversity in our schools, and in our society, when we choose to pick out very specific pieces of the whole story or discussion and make assumptions about what is being said. The way you were attacked when sharing previous posts about the things you have taught and the way you are taking an attacking tone with your opinions is one of the very reasons people don’t share when they make heartened attempts at teaching multiculturalism and don’t talk about race and diversity as much as we need to.

In her TED Talk Color Blind or Color Brave Mellody Hobson says,

The first step to solving any problem is to not hide from it, and the first step to any form of action is awareness….We cannot afford to be color-blind, we have to be color-brave…We have to be willing to have proactive conversations about race, with honesty and understanding and courage. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do.

I found Mellody’s talk really helpful and think it is a great discussion-starter. If you want to read more about my thoughts on the video you can read those here. But more than anything I would encourage us to really think about how we are choosing to have these important conversations and to do what Mellody suggests by being proactive, honest, and understanding. We all have an entry point and reason to be having these conversations, whether we often realize it or not, and the more we can share openly and ask the hard questions of one another in a respectful way, the more we can really make progress and support all our students and colleagues.

What do you think about these 2 articles? I’d love to hear your responses via tumblr, Twitter, or in the comments!

One thought on “What I’m Learning: Respectful Discourse on #educolor

  1. Thanks for this post, Jessica. You very respectfully pointed out the flawed, and honestly counterproductive, arguments in the tumblr response. It is so important for us to engage in the conversation of race in education, and specifically for white teachers (like us) to to move beyond the early stages of racial identity development (out of guilt and anger) and into a more productive point to become allies in the conversation.

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