The summer began with me thinking a lot about the question, What does antiracism look like in math class? It’s a broad question that guided much of my summer learnings and reflections. I attended workshops, had lots of conversations, and sparked an antiracist book club with colleagues. As the weeks passed, thinking about that question made me focus a lot on my Algebra 2 curriculum. I asked myself related questions like how can I change my curriculum to expose racism? and how can my curriculum be a lever that decenters Whiteness?
As the summer winds down, I think I was asking myself the wrong question. While my original question targets racism, it overlooks my White racial identity and the role it plays in fostering antiracism in my classroom. In other words, the question is colorblind. Because I am a White man who has avoided reckoning with his racial identity for his entire life, I find this aspect of the question deeply problematic. Understanding my White racial lens is vital to doing meaningful work in my classroom and spotlighting antiracism didn’t allow me do that; it kept me separate from the work, it protected me.
I realize now that the question I should have been asking all summer was, As a White man, what does it mean to teach Black and Brown students math? By racializing the question, I have to confront my Whiteness in order to respond to it. Of course, as a good meaning White person, this is something I would rather not do. Given 85 percent of my students are Black or Brown, this question is also far more personal and direct. It’s local. It recognizes the sharp racial disparity between myself and the students I serve and brings that to the fore. Unlike when I centered my question around antiracism, I can’t choose to answer this question abstractly, to detach myself from my response. Explicitly addressing antiracism in my wonderings, while important, allowed me to dance around my racial identity and the personal work I need to do as a White teacher who teaches students of color. The truth is, my new question triggers racial discomfort for me — which I need.
All this reminds me of James Baldwin, who once said “You and I are history.” It’s a simple saying, but holds so much. We have to know not only our story, but also the story of our people. For, whether we are aware of it or not, we are carrying all of this weight as move through the world. As a white teacher, it’s important to see myself, my pedagogy, and my curriculum not racially neutral because schooling in this country has never been racially neutral. In doing this work, I have to reject the individualist lie that who I am and what I do with my students is distinct from our country’s ugly history. That perspective is what got us here.