It can be uncomfortable to talk about race and inequity in schools. I get it. It can be even more uncomfortable to acknowledge and discuss the role each of us play in systemic racism, sexism, and all other forms of oppression.
But it’s especially important that white male teachers do so.
Combatting racism and oppression in schools is a partnership. As a result, I took the time to find out what I should do, drawing upon the perspectives of many teachers, including teachers of color. The message I share today is heavily influenced and inspired by many brave teachers. Many of their Instagram handles are embedded in the text below.
I encourage you to follow them. They’re pretty awesome.
“One of my first steps is to work on myself. And be more aware of my white privilege and my microaggressions and work against those,” says Nate (@mr_lyon_4th), fourth-grade teacher and LGBTQ advocate.
“Blaming white people is a tired argument,” critics will allege. But what’s actually tired is the idea that women and people of color are simply blaming white men. No one is blaming all white people or all white men. They are, instead, identifying white supremacy as a threat to overall safety and well-being of diverse groups of people. They are challenging the very white way in which the world is built and holding all of us accountable to being and doing better–because we certainly know better.
All of us are subject to proliferating whiteness and white supremacy–white male teachers, especially. But we can’t work on ourselves unless we are acutely aware of the potency of white supremacy. We must then accept that it is a reality–a reality we can work together to change.
It’s not about blame and shame. Instead, it’s about accepting that racist and oppressive tendencies exist in all of us. It’s about understanding that oppression is an inherent and unfortunate part of the human condition. But that doesn’t have to mean it’s hopeless, and that certainly doesn’t mean that we excuse it. We must, instead, be smarter than it.
As an evolved (and constantly evolving) species, it’s our responsibility to rise above these amygdaloid, animalistic tendencies that sow their roots in fear and flourish in the rains of scarcity. It’s our responsibility to know that they are patterns, ingrained in our genes through stubborn patterns of interaction and behavior, only exacerbated by media, politics, and the sociocultural context to which we are all subjected.
“The internal work is the hard part because we cannot be an ally without first putting ourselves in check and the people closest to us,” says Ashley (@thebehaviorbunch), 7th and 8th grade teacher.
The best part is, once we accept that we are all capable of (and likely guilty of) racist, sexist, and oppressive thinking, we see that we have a say in how we respond to it. We have the power to change our ways of being, thinking, and interacting with racism, sexism, and oppression. We have the power to unpack our privilege because we better understand how systems of oppression have worked in favor of us–the white men.
Once we do this, we can let go of enough guilt to roll up ourselves and engage in the important work of shining light onto our blindspots. What’s more, we can then do our part to amplify voices of people of color and work against oppressive social structures that have led us to where we are.
“Amplify voices of people of color”, says Asmahan (@teachingwithsugarandspice), 4th grade teacher.
Note: this doesn’t mean to speak on behalf of people of color. Instead, it means being intentional about representation in our curriculum and in our schools. It means finding children’s literature that tells all sorts of stories–stories that represent diversity in an intersectional and multi-dimensional way. It means that when people decide to listen to you–the white man–that you must use that opportunity to amplify the voices that otherwise go unnoticed and unheard.
“Sadly, some people will listen to you, a white man, over everyone else,” said Deirdre (@mrsgarciassuperscholars), kindergarten teacher.
She’s right. We white male teachers have something we didn’t earn–and that’s privilege. In a female dominated profession, we ironically seem to have even more. We are, for all intents and purposes, a novelty in schools–especially in elementary schools. Our privilege is somehow magically amplified by the fact that there are so few of us–an experience that is unique to white men. For most other populations, privilege is diminished–not amplified–when in the minority.
This makes our platform in schools all the more valuable, and it is incumbent upon us to use it well. Its value has the potential to transcend the walls of our classrooms and reach through space and time–impacting how students will experience and respond to racism and other forms of systemic oppression for the rest of their lives.
“They didn’t ‘want to get involved,'” says Christine (@mz_bogart), 9th and 11th grade ELA teacher.
They’re referring to white male teachers who stood by while students behaved and spoke in an overtly racist manner in their school.
It’s sad how easy it is to stand by and say nothing. I understand this from both sides–as both a white male teacher and as an openly gay teacher. I’ve been complicit, and I’ve also been the victim of complicity when faced with discriminatory actions or policies in my school. We can work against complicity and complacency by being advocates for people of color. While we can do this through amplification as previously mentioned, we can also do this by being role models for young, white men.
“Be an example to your male students,” Christine (@mz_bogart) continues. “Call them out on their language. Show them what empathy looks like. They listen to and idolize male teachers, especially those teachers that are coaches. Model for them what listening looks like.”
Advocacy is not a spectator sport. It’s a very public and very vulnerable way to live and work in a school. And it doesn’t stop with being a role model.
“Publicly let students know they are welcome and accepted in your classroom,” says Sarah (@thedesignerteacher).
We can’t assume that all students know they’re welcome. We can’t assume they all know they belong because many of them don’t know they belong. Why? Because they’ve been told this, maybe not explicitly, but implicitly through media and politics. Calling out their belonging could be one of the most powerful things we do.
That said, advocacy, amplification, acceptance, and awareness are all remiss if we aren’t holding ourselves and others accountable for their actions and their words.
“Hold your fellow white male and female community members accountable for their action or inaction online and IRL.” says Naomi O’Brien (@readlikearockstar).
I would go so far to say that accountability is the most challenging part of being a white male ally. Why? Because it’s easier to maintain the status quo. It’s more comfortable to let things persist in their current form and continue to adhere to outdated norms and antiquated standards for the behavior of young, white men. It makes sense why: it’s because it works in our favor.
“We gotta get boys away from the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality,” adds Deirdre (@mrsgarciassuperscholars).
Never mind that fact that “boys will be boys” plays into a mythical gender binary that is already oppressive in nature: giving young, white men an out by saying “boys will be boys” in any context not only invalidates white male teachers’ status as an ally, it makes them overtly complicit in the oppression of others.
SO HOW DO I PREPARE MYSELF TO BE AN ALLY?
Prepare for the worst. Hope for the best. Know that people will push back against you. Complicit colleagues will challenge your masculinity with toxic rhetoric intended to get emasculate you. They will say they “don’t want to get involved.” They will be wholly unaware of the degree to which their biases affect their behavior.
Anticipate these conversations. Think about what your colleagues might say, and figure out how you’re going to respond. Try and find ways to educate your white colleagues in moments when they’re de-escalated. Educating whilst in emotional escalation is dangerous; but finding teachable moments that build relationships can be incredibly powerful.
Be courageous. It won’t always be possible to educate while de-escalated. “Courage is born from struggle,” says Brené Brown, shame and vulnerability scholar. Know that if you’re struggling–struggling to unpack your privilege or struggling in the face of oppression–you’re not alone. “Draw deep on your courage,” as Brown would say, and keep doing the work.
Unpack your privilege. And keep unpacking it. Remember that it all starts with self-awareness. Those of you who have already started unpacking know that it’s a never-ending process that is just as rewarding as it is challenging and uncomfortable. You begin to see that through understanding and advocating for others, you can understand and advocate for yourself better than you ever have before.
You begin to see that it’s a reciprocal process, and you begin to see that it’s always worth it.