White Educators: We Must Do Better

Last night sleep eluded me for far too long.  The events of the past few days - two police shootings and then police officers being shot in Dallas - have rattled me yet again.  You see, I am the mother of an almost-thirteen- year-old black son.  My son arrived eleven years ago, on July 16, 2005.  He was almost two years old, in foster care.  He has taught me more about patience, love, and the resilience of the human spirit than any other human being on this planet.  He has a huge heart, which is evident watching his endless patience with younger children.  It is evident in his stories from school as he looks out for anyone who is misunderstood or teased.  My son is also extremely anxious - this comes out in fingernails bitten to the quick, endless chatter, and quick darting movements - an ever-vigilant awareness of everything around him and laser-like focus that jumps from one thing to the next and the next.

Over the years, I have witnessed first hand a variety of educators and administrators dealing with my son. Some have believed deeply in him - loving him fiercely, making him feel safe and valued, teaching him, helping him grow.  Others have looked at him and seen only a disruption - an off-task, hyperactive problem to be managed.  I've seen teachers who had high standards and demanded that he achieve more (and I've seen him do it), and I've seen teachers who accepted work that was sloppy and poor quality, sending him (and me) the message that they thought this was the best he could do (I've seen him live up to that too).  I have walked into meetings to shocked faces that I was his mother.  Did we get treated different then because I am white?  Yes. We. Did.

I call it the white umbrella, this fake shield of protection that I hold over my children's heads.  One teacher told me she was so happy to meet me because she had thought my kids were from the housing project that is integrated into my kids' elementary.  Others tell me my kids will be safe growing up because I have done such a great job raising them. How many times have I been called an angel for "saving" them?  If people knew the seething, raging disgust these comments raise inside me, they would be shocked.

My son is going to be thirteen in a month.  He is not safe walking my nice suburban neighborhood in a hoodie.  He is not safe stopping by a grocery store with his backpack and friends to get a snack after school.  He is not safe questioning a teacher who accuses him of throwing a pencil across the room when it was the white kid next to him who did it.  It doesn't matter who his mother is.  It doesn't matter how well he was raised because our country has an underlying problem of racism that is long and deep.  We keep seeing the problem when events like the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille are made public.  Our sadness and outrage flares.  And then it's too much so we tuck our heads back in the sand and hope it won't happen again.

White Educators:  we must do better.  We are the front lines with children.  We believe in them.  We nurture and teach and model every single day.  We must acknowledge that we are part of the problem  We must become more aware, and we must commit to changing every single interaction with every single child every single day.

Where do we start?

1.  Read All American Boys  by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.  The characters in this book help us look at the complexity of police brutality and the complexity of our deeply embedded racial views.  We see the victim, Rashad's, perspective.  We see his father, his mother, his brother.  We see the police officer, Paul, through the eyes of Quinn, a white classmate of Rashad's who witnesses the attack, who has grown up idolizing Paul.  Instead of just seeing this as a book for our students (which of course it should be), we need to see it as a book for us, as teachers.

2.  Read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  This is a father writing to his son.  It begs us to consider the history of racism in our country (and how much of it has been unseen before phones with cameras and social media) and the deeply embedded fear in parents of black children.  How do we raise our children?  What keeps them safe?  How do we improve life for everyone in this country?

3.  Watch Bryan Stevenson's TED Talk, "We Need to Talk About Injustice".  (http://goo.gl/nsuA5s)  Listen to his statistics, his work with prisoners, his stories.  We need to know the history and we need to know that we can help.  You can also read Bryan Stevenson's book, Just Mercy, and follow him at the Equal Justice Initiative on Twitter @eji_org.

4.  Read Michael Dyson's article in The New York Times, "What White America Fails to See" (http://goo.gl/fcIDpR).  Read it slowly.  Read it more than once.  And entertain the possibility that it does apply to all of us.  ALL of us.

My own journey of learning, increasing awareness and making better choices will continue throughout my whole life. The decision to live aware and help our world is one I make every single day.  Do I screw up and make assumptions?  Yes!  All the time.  But step by step, one interaction and thought at a time, I catch myself, and I choose different.  I choose to question my thoughts, my assumptions, my words, and my actions.  And that is something all of us must learn to do.  Because without awareness, nothing can happen.

We all must question every single assumption we make. We all must reflect on our actions.  And then, educators, we all must do better.



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