Speak Up

Op-Ed:
White Teachers Need to Check Their Racism Before Teaching It

Akiea Gross is the founder of Equitable Schools Inc. and Woke Kindergarten and the visionary behind the initiative, #BlackTeachersMatter

Let’s imagine for a moment that we live in a post-racial America. Our classrooms are staffed with Black and Brown faces. Students, eager to learn, see themselves as reflections of their teachers. You are finally able to relish seeing no color, because racism is an unspoken piece of the past.

Let’s snap back to reality. It’s 2018, and Black children are suspended and expelled at rates disproportionate to their white peers. Black teachers only make up about 7 percent of educators in the system. Black people are still being killed by police. White teachers still aren’t talking or don’t know how to talk about racism in their classrooms.

In order for you to teach your kids the truth about these racist systems, you must first acknowledge that you, and the white students you teach, are all beneficiaries of its oppression.

As a Black educator and instructional coach who has spent the past 10 years in the public education system, I have witnessed how white teachers and white students benefit from racism while many claim to not be a part of the problem. What is important to understand is that, at the very minimum, their presence is their privilege.

For white teachers of white students, conversations about race and racism live within an invisible cloak of privilege. From my perspective, it seems like many white people have adopted this idea of, “What we refuse to see, isn’t there, and if it is there, we simply do not need to discuss it because it doesn’t affect us.” But racism does affect them, it just affects them differently. How? Because they benefit from it.

They benefit from it by having the opportunity to navigate the halls of intentionally segregated schools in pursuit of a world-class education, or by teaching in a school that has never once questioned their credentials or presence on staff.

If you benefit in this way, before you can even speak about racism in your classroom, first you need to acknowledge your privilege.

Say aloud, “I benefit from the privileges that racism and prejudice afford me.” Have an honest conversation with yourself about all the ways that this holds true. Dismantling racist systems starts by acknowledging, not ignoring, that you are a direct product, reflection and beneficiary of these systems.

The truth is, racism has enabled your life to be what it is thus far. It has protected you, shaped you, uplifted you and convinced you that the positions, wealth and other privileges you hold are because your skills are superior when in actuality, these systems have been very carefully constructed, designed and upheld to control the false narrative that other groups are inferior.

Systems like politics, which have protected you, your families and your students, have simultaneously oppressed Black and Brown families’ education, home ownership, health care and job protections.

In order for you to teach your kids the truth about these racist systems, you must first acknowledge that you, and the white students you teach, are all beneficiaries of its oppression.

Lean into discomfort and take the necessary actions to address and dismantle the thoughts that perpetuate these systems. This work is ongoing. It requires a lifelong commitment to introspection, discomfort and accountability, and it will force you to reexamine the world in which you and your white students have safely lived for so long.

While white teachers of all students have an obligation to address, disrupt and deconstruct racism in their classrooms, with their colleagues and in their personal lives, it is not possible unless they have addressed, disrupted and deconstructed the racist thoughts, feelings and actions that influence their prejudices and biases.

But how?

Teach history from a critical perspective.

You must be open to criticism in order for your students to understand that criticism is an important aspect of change. We want kids to think critically and to understand that all of history, including how teachers have traditionally taught it, should be questioned. When you normalize criticism, you promote and normalize change. 

Reflect your students in your curriculum.

Empathy is a critical tool in unlearning. Expose yourself and your students to other people’s stories. Make use of resources like the website, Great Big Story, the book, Teaching for Black Lives, and other curricular narratives and texts written by authors of different races, religions, genders, sexual orientations and cultures that tell other people’s stories.

Admit and acknowledge — don’t ignore.

If you say or do something egregious, or a student calls you out on something, admit and acknowledge it. And if you find yourself or a colleague or student mistreating another student due to bias, acknowledge it and take actionable steps to make it right. 

Encourage advocacy.

If you, your students or colleagues say something racist or prejudiced, address it. Advocates speak up and act; they don’t hide behind the safety of hashtags and photo filters.

Practice reflection.

Take time at the end of every school day to reflect on how you may have triggered any students or colleagues with your actions or words. Did you react or did you respond? Did you listen or did you speak over? What changes could you make to promote a more anti-racist, safe and inclusive culture of learning in your classroom?

Center other people’s truths.

If a child, colleague or friend tells you something is their reality, believe them and ask, “How can I support you?” rather than questioning their truths. 

Lean into discomfort.

Don’t get upset when someone calls you racist or says you’re being prejudiced, especially if it’s a colleague or student. Instead, take a moment to reflect and ask that person to elaborate on what it is you did that was racist or prejudiced. There is no room for defensiveness. You must be open to criticism. Teach your students to do the same. 

For Black and Brown students, true education is liberation.

For you, your white students, and your colleagues, it is acknowledging that you participate in systems that have detrimental effects on your students and colleagues of color. It is teaching these truths to your white students and their families, to your families, to your colleagues, and to your friends. It is advocating and making space for people of color to be seen and heard. It is listening to and believing in other people’s truths without question or doubt. It is being open and receptive to being called racist. And, most importantly, it is acknowledging and understanding that it is you who has to do the anti-racist, decolonizing work within yourself — and then actually doing it — before you can teach anyone else.