On being white, teaching math, and seeking racial discomfort (Murd Letter #1)

My school colleague Stephanie Murdock and I are writing letters to each other this summer and publishing them on our blogs. We are both white math teachers leaning on one another to improve the anti-racist stance that we take in our lives, classrooms, and school. This is the first post in the series.

Dear Murd,

Thanks for writing me! I was moved by your letter and would LOVE to be your penpal for the summer. I too have many budding thoughts and feelings that need exploring when it comes to racial injustice. They seem to be growing in breadth and depth with no sign on slowing down. Letting them breath in these letters is exactly what I need. Let’s write to find meaning, to learn from each other, and to be better white teachers.

I feel your hesitancy to wrestle with issues of social justice in your classroom. I hear you. The parallel you made to solving a tricky math problem — the need to dive in without knowing how it will end — was interesting. Knowing you as well as I do, this makes sense. I also find it challenging to bring in anti-racist, culturally-responsive topics into the classroom. This work is incredibly complex and delicate, so out of fear, it is natural to wait until the time is right. And being held hostage by the Regents doesn’t help matters. Instead of discussing the alarming rates at which black and brown bodies are incarcerated when compared to white bodies, for example, New York State would rather us focus on cell phone plans and the cost of t-shirts. Doing anything with a social or emotional conscience requires that we break the rules. By doing so, we have to take risks that may hurt our students in June or earn us a reprimand from our supervisor. This makes it tough.

As a white math teacher, when I actually am bold enough to voluntarily bring up race in my classroom, I often feel that I need to know exactly what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it. I have to control the conversation. There’s a need to not offend any of my students, yes, but there’s also my subconscious need to protect my image (read: my white privilege). This disappoints me.

I’m realizing, much like you, that by waiting until we — the white people — feel comfortable to discuss and act on matters of racial injustice, we only perpetuate centuries of white supremacy. All I’m doing is affirming my white status while sustaining the resentment that our country has towards black and brown people. As a math teacher, just because I have a mandated curriculum that pretends that racism doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean I am exempt from speaking out and acting upon anti-racist ideals in the classroom. In fact, as an adult who students admire, appreciate, and rely on so heavily for direction, I feel I have more of a responsibility to lean into my white vulnerability, shoulder the burdens of our racist society, and seek out math that illuminates and fights racism. If nothing else, I owe it to my kids.

But this is deeply personal work that extends far beyond what I do with students. Unlike factoring a polynomial, I can’t leave it at school if I choose to. My whiteness lives in and around me all the time. It’s with me at my dinner table. It’s with me when I read the newspaper. It’s with me when I parent my children. Yet, despite how it blankets my life, I have been socialized not to see it. I have been conditioned to ignore the racist perspectives I hold and actions I have taken. Uncovering its reach and ramifications will take a lifetime. This is humbling.

To this end, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to put myself in positions where I experience racial discomfort. (Writing this letter helped me realize this just now since it is making me uncomfortable.) I know I need it, but figuring out how to do it without being completely overwhelmed and shutting down is tricky. I am social, but I don’t have many friends, so I think our school and my teaching will be huge parts of my racial growth. This seems fitting for a lot reasons, but this letter is getting pretty long, so I’ll cut it short.

I’ll close with some wonderings. I feel that white teachers, like ourselves, at times need exclusively white spaces to discuss racism. I’m not sure most white people can truly confront their racial vulnerabilities and own racism when black or brown people are present. I wonder, would this fly with admin? What would other white teachers think about these white spaces? What about teachers of color, how would they feel? Also, I have a tendency to be pointed and somewhat expressive when it comes to matters of race — specifically whiteness. How do I make other white teachers feel? Should I care if they’re uncomfortable? Should I care if they’re upset with me? Isn’t this how black people have felt since 1619? Isn’t it about time that we white people began to feel racially anxious?

Look forward to hearing back. :-)

Yours Truly,
Brian

1 thought on “On being white, teaching math, and seeking racial discomfort (Murd Letter #1)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s