I applaud the many rage-filled responses I’m hearing from white people — and white teachers specifically — about the injustices that surround the horrific murder of George Floyd. They’re appropriate and needed.
But I’m about to call out good-meaning white teachers across the country. This includes some of my closest colleagues — and myself.
As a white person in America right now, there is an expectation that I meet this moment with an empathic comment and open ears. It’s trendy. It’s what’s happening. I need to say things like, “Racism still exists, this is horrible” or “We white people must listen more.” If I don’t in some way affirm the rage that is sweeping across our nation, I’ll stick out like a sore thumb. So what do I do? As an educator with good intentions, I tweet about how upset I am and tell my friends and teacher colleagues how terrible this whole situation is. I donate money. I reply to emails expressing my support for a virtual Town Hall at my school. Although I may not have voluntarily brought up race with my students before, I acknowledge the validity the protests in my classes. I try to help students cope. This harrowing moment gives me the opportunity to talk about race openly and support anti-racist causes, and I jump all over it. I stand up for what’s right and make sure that others to see me standing up for what’s right. (For us white people, this last part is critical when it comes to race.)
The problem with all this well-timed rhetoric is that it’s too convenient for us white folks. Speaking out right now isn’t hard. Everyone is doing it so naturally we feel less vulnerable in doing it too. There’s little risk for us. We can be momentarily outraged, ask for deep reflection on the parts of ourselves and other white Americans, but our words and surface-level actions can be completely void of any deep introspection and ownership of our racist American culture and school system. Saying the right things right now means nothing for lasting change in ourselves and the implicit racism that we all carry with us.
While many of us of are engaged allies for our black and brown brothers and sisters, if yet another black man wasn’t killed in the midday sun by a white police officer, if there weren’t bold protests exerting their pressure on us to pay attention, if our white friends weren’t talking about it, then I’m convinced that we would still be sitting comfortably in our white privilege. We’d continue to say that we don’t see color. We’d continue to sit in workshops filled with only white teachers and not even realize it. We’d continue to fail to notice that our department is 80% white and 60% white male. We’d continue to view our curriculum as neutral. We’d continue to overlook the contributions of black and brown mathematicians. We’d continue not bring up our whiteness or race at faculty meetings and, of course, open up our laptop to check email whenever it’s brought up by someone else. We’d continue to remain invulnerable when it comes racial discomfort. We’d continue to be silent.
So, sadly, in three months time, when the protests have died down and the media decides that the appetite for social justice has been satisfied, I fear that we white teachers will think that the risk to speak up is too great. The safety and security of our whiteness will be far more inviting. We’d rather obsess over our Zoom settings and figuring the best question to ask during an EdPuzzle video. Instead of reading, listening, and doing work on ourselves to think courageously about how we are complicit in creating racialized schools, curriculum, and pedagogy, the summer will help us white people to forget about George Floyd. It will help us push Black Lives Matter further away from our minds and classrooms. The anti-racist affirmations from today and tomorrow will be long gone. Our classrooms and schools, however they may look, will not reflect a commitment to racial justice, like they are right now.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope that we white teachers can be better. We need to be better.