It’s no wonder that teaching has one of the highest turnover rates of any profession in the country. I thought my time in college was rigorous while I pursued three majors. But what we call Institute at Teach For America—where we learn how to be a teacher in five weeks and teach summer school to kids in Tulsa Public Schools—college did not prepare me for. It seems like an impossible feat to keep up with all that is necessary to be an excellent teacher.
This is hard. This is one of the hardest thing of this academic nature that I have ever done. And this is coming from someone who would rather do homework than go out on a Friday night (I’m one of those). This is coming from someone who has been obsessed about school since the first time I stepped a foot into pre-K at two years old.
It’s hard because you don’t just get a B for falling short of excellent. Mind you, a B was always the end of the world to me back in the day. No, here, if you’re not excellent you’re failing a kid—a child with a real LIFE. You’re failing to give her what she needs to be successful, to be able to reach those big dreams she has of becoming a famous writer, a doctor, a teacher, an engineer. Our kids have those dreams. If we fail them here, we become a barrier for them to get to those dreams.
If we fail these kids now, during summer school—even in this short span of time we’re together—we potentially fail them for the rest of their lives. Because once José and Ashley and Yesmia and Brandon leave me, they’ll be inserted back to the system. And who knows what will happen to those precious children then.
Systemic racism and classism will throw punches at them as often as they have a chance to look up and see where they’re going.
So this is hard. There are deadlines to meet, skills to master in a short amount of time, knowledge to internalize all day, every day. There’s no test or quiz at the end. There’s just the classroom. We are no longer independent college students—because everything we’re doing and learning we don’t have a foundation for. It’s all fresh and it’s all new.
It’s hard, but it’s hard because I’ve hardly ever had to really work to understand something. I’ve never had to put so much thought into what I’m doing for it to come out right. It’s hard, most of all, because the stakes are lives and not grades anymore. A teacher’s work is more serious than brain surgery. We’re molding the future. And we can’t redo what we’ve done once it’s done.
It’s hard. But there are students in my class who go through this kind of challenge—on top of so many others, like poverty, racism and the threat of their parent’s deportation—every day they step into my class, or anyone’s for that matter.
Some of them are reading at a first grade level when they should be going into seventh grade next August.
Miguel* is a student in my class with the sweetest face I have ever seen, who stares at his in class assignments when I pass them out. That’s all he can do. He doesn’t raise his hand—it’s embarrassing for him. He just stares down with a furrowed brow and looks up at me as I make my way past each table of children, like he’s trying to tell me something sad and secret.
I look down at his paper every time to find no a single mark, though all the other children have at least tried to write down something. I kneel down beside Miguel and he looks at me, begging for help because I can see it in his eyes that nothing on that page makes sense.
So I read the directions to him in a whisper. Sometimes they make sense to him, but sometimes they don’t, and I have to reword the question so that he can better understand what its asking. Still his answers are simple sentences because he can’t write. Every word he needs help spelling. While the other kids are writing multiple sentences on their own, Miguel gets through one or two with my help.
If he comes to class every day, the state will push Miguel along to the seventh grade despite the fact that he is basically illiterate. If at every level he is so far behind his peers, will he stay in high school? Will he get too frustrated with himself to push through? Will he slip through the cracks of a big school serving too many kids just like Miguel—kids that don’t have the opportunities to work the system in their favor the way white middle class families can?
Miguel will not leave my class—no matter how hard I work and how hard he works—having grown six grade levels. That would be an impossible task for this short four weeks and this brand new teacher. But I’ve fallen in love with little Miguel in five short days, and he wakes me up in the morning and keeps me up at night planning, planning, planning how to make him learn quickly and effectively.
Still, he’ll leave me soon and I won’t know what the system will do to him—or not do to him.
While I have him and all the other beautiful children in my class, I’ll wage a brutal battle against the system that has held them back. I fight for them because they need to know that someone will. They need to know that they deserve a teacher that loves them and takes their lives and their futures seriously. They need someone to show them their potential and love them enough to push them to fulfill it.
They need someone who will give them a path to their big goals. They still believe they can reach them, and they should always believe that.
We were asked by Teach For America as corps members to write a short "Story of Self," which illustrates a moment in our lives that challenged us and yet showed us who we really are. This is mine.
We drove thirty hours in a broken down Suburban—a family of six piled in. I was fifteen and terrible, the rude product of too many years growing up in the invisible smog of White Privilege. For most of my life, I’d gone to private schools for the rich, despite the fact that we were really quite poor.
I had a paradoxical identity. I was the daughter of a white immigrant from Jamaica, who got knocked up at the age of 18 and had me. We grew up together, living above our means entirely, and feeling the strain of a low income frequently. After eloping and remaining married for a whopping month and having another daughter, my mother married a Mexican man seven years her junior and accidently had two more girls. Jaded and overprotective, I abhorred this new husband, associating his culture and his race with him and lumping them all into the same hate bundle.
He and his family were different, and I didn’t like it. Life at home was miserable for me, so I estranged myself from my family and clung to my private school friends whose wealth and privilege abounded. It was, at least superficially, a lot greener on their side. I became an elitist without the official certificate—I didn’t have the bank account to back it up, but I still believed profoundly that I was special by affiliation and (without explicitly admitting it) race.
Needless to say, my admittance to Mexico was coupled with a jarring culture shock like I’d never experienced before. As soon as we crossed the border, it was as though I’d been transplanted to another world. The disarray was overwhelming. Men latched onto our cars, asking for money in exchange for directions or assistance. People scrambled about outside, speaking loud Spanish and dragging little children by the arms. The cars were shoddy old things, blaring horns seeming to be their only fully functioning part. A mixed smell of manure, fried foods and thick pollution struck me as we drove through the cities.
I remember the Mexican flag—the biggest flag I’d ever seen. I looked up, out the window, behind the glass that kept me sealed from that world. I got the message loud and clear, but I didn’t understand it. This country—these people—had pride.
For the first part of our stay there, I could not figure out why.
Our trip was meant to be just two weeks. By some act of fate, however, the car problems we’d had on the way down ended up prolonging our stay to almost a month. It was in that month, without even realizing it as it happened, that reality slapped me out of delusion. And despite popular belief, the reality was a whole lot better than the sealed bubbled I’d been living in.
Trash littered the streets, the smells of fried food permeated the air, the pollution was thick, graffiti covered the walls of every building, the people were loud, the food was strange, the Spanish was incomprehensible, the buildings were dilapidated, hungry stray dogs roamed the roads, the bugs were rampant. I had never been outside of the manicured suburbia of America, and Mexico was diametrically different from everything I knew.
I wondered on an hourly basis during my first weeks in Mexico how anyone could live this way. It was like the chorus to my lamenting song about how much I despised everything Mexican.
In time, though, I became too distracted to notice the hum of that sad song in my mind. Something was happening to me as I was coaxed by time to take off my shoes and hang up my jacket and stay awhile. Get comfortable. Sit down. Have some tortillas and homemade salsa. Play soccer in the streets with the little boys in the neighborhood. Make friends with my cousin’s friends, taking pictures at the sites we visited. Fall in love with the precious little boys and girls that lived nearby. Succumb to the cheek-kissing and the hugging at every greeting and goodbye. Dance to the traditional music with the uncle that asks at every nightly gathering. Enjoy the fresh taquitos made by the old woman at a stand on the roadside in the mountains. Stand and look out at the splendorous pyramids made by the ancient peoples of this beautiful country.
The invitation was there every day, and without meaning to, I took it. And in the meantime, I fell deeply in love.
Though my initial journal entries don’t show it, a transformation was taking place in me after every day spent with the Mexican people of my stepfather’s family and friends. There was something authentic about them that I’d seemed to have forgotten could be a trait of humanity. They were not polished and plastic the way Americans were. They were people filled and colored by a rich cultural heritage that centered on family and community. Their hospitality and genuine kindness were warm and filling.
As I let myself become fully immersed in their world and their culture, my perception of them was renewed: they were not strange “others” anymore; rather, they became humans that I could value and appreciate and, most of all, love.
The journal in which I wrote during my stay in Mexico is filled with (sad and yet comedic) rants about how much I hated it and dreaded being there. But my last entry—written on the drive back home—reveals what a transformative experience that adventure was:
“I really wanted to go home—I really and truly did. But when the entire family lined up outside those two bright pink and bright green houses, it took too much effort not to let that ball in my throat get the best of me. God, I hate Mexico. But I’ve found that I can’t really hate Mexico if I love the people who make it up.
For all the times I hated this place, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy coming here. Some truly beautiful people live here. They don’t have to have the fancy, beautiful, expensive house. They don’t have to have the perfect looks. They don’t have to have anything but their friends and their family and the love that binds them and allows them to be truly, sincerely and genuinely happy, comfortable and content. They are family, they are together, they are love—to the realest extent.
I sit with my back to the seat that is supposed to be in front of me so I can watch it all pass by me. I can’t stop myself from crying. The horizon is empty without the mountains that seemed to play the role of a pair of giant arms, bringing everyone as a community, as a city, as a state, as a Family together as one.
I miss being there every day surrounded by that family. I miss the food, the homes, the constant warmth. I love Mexicans and look down upon myself for ever being prejudiced against them. I can call myself, shamefully, a hypocrite. Stupid, prejudiced people are my greatest pet-peeve, and yet I was just that. I don’t like who I am sometimes. There’s a person in me who is close-minded, but I swear I’ll send an army in to throw her out. I could be so much more than I am right now.”
That was the day I decided to wake up. Since that time, my world has been enriched because I have become fascinated by and appreciative of the cultures of people of color. I went to college and studied the world as one of my majors. I studied abroad in South Africa and Israel and Palestine and listened to the stories of the beautiful people that comprise those places. I developed a mission while in college to do everything I can to ensure that those narratives are not silenced by mainstream Western culture. Being a Teach For America corps member is my first step in a career dedicated to making sure that all people are perceived as and treated like the invaluable humans that they are.
I’m reading an excellent book right now called Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice, by Paul Kivel
. As you can imagine, the book is about the way in which white people benefit from our racist society, what the implications of being a person of color are, and how white people can really grapple with issues rather than stare, dumbfounded, at them.
The other day, I was having a discussion with a group of people about—you guessed it—racial inequality. I was railing on about white privilege and the injustices that plague this country until one of the group members shrugged his shoulders, held up his hands, and said, “I’m not denying that any of that exists, but what am I supposed to do about it? I’m going to be an engineer. I have no say in these things.”
I opened my mouth and said something to say something, but his question was actually thought-provoking, honest, and at the same time extremely saddening.
Okay, I thought, so maybe people aren’t born to be activists for the rest of their lives. My friend is going to be an engineer, and let’s be real: most engineers don’t take up social activism on the side.
So his question about what he was supposed to do to address issues of race and class in this country was legitimate—especially for someone who doesn’t study this stuff for fun (like I do…because I’m real fun).
Moreover his question indicates a genuine (and expectable) misunderstanding about the root causes of social injustice. In America, because we are a materialistic society, we think about social justice in terms of resources allocation—the distribution of wealth, resources, social positions, jobs, etc.
When we think of socioeconomic equality, we think about fettering out goods, services and money in a more equal way.
Thinking in these terms is problematic for a couple reasons:1. By thinking of social justice as the more equal distribution of certain resources, we take ourselves out of the picture. We think like this: As your normal, middle class white girl or boy, what could I possibly do about the allocation of resources? Isn’t that the government’s job? Isn’t that the job of big-time organizations and lobbies that focus on this stuff?
2. Associating justice exclusively with the distribution of wealth and resources misses a huge component of socioeconomic inequality: domination and oppression.
Domination and oppression manifest themselves in the institutions that those in power—white middle and upper class Americans—create and maintain in the U.S. They are the results of age-old prejudices against people that are historically and presently perceived as “different” from what is white, male, and Christian.
Here lies the answer about what we simpletons can do to address the issues of racism in this country: we can acknowledge that domination and oppression exist not just in the faceless “system” but in everyday social interactions that occur within the institutions we comprise.
We—every single one of us, no matter whom we are or what we plan to do with our lives—can do something about racism in this country. It begins with recognizing that we have indeed crafted a culture of power and understanding what that culture’s message is to excluded groups
If we have the power to oppress we certainly have the power to stop.
More on this later.
If we’re going to discuss education, we cannot leave out the family. Students are children first, which means they aren’t born in a classroom, they’re born into families. The family forms the first environment in which a young child develops.
One of my dearly beloved professors and I have wonderful debates on a weekly basis about social justice and education—because I make him have these debates with me, and he kindly obliges (probably secretly rolling his eyes when I walk through the door).
In my last post
, I discussed the issue of teacher quality and the lack of strategies established at the state and federal level to consistently recruit, teach and develop excellent educators. But my professor decided to rail me in our discussion, insisting that, essentially, teachers are only half the story. Parents, he fervently asserted, parents are part of, if not the root of, the reason for students’ lack of achievement. While there is no doubt evidence that family environments have a crucial impact on a child’s cognitive and non-cognitive development
, I think a concerted and genuine effort to bridge the gap between parents and educators can help to mitigate the challenges that parents and children from lower-income communities face.
This requires incorporating social justice classes into teacher education, first and foremost.
What often happens among white, middle class teachers is the otherization of parents from lower classes. This kind of otherization is, I believe, the result of a grave misunderstanding—a misunderstanding that is rooted in the fallacious meritocratic theory of success. When teachers harbor this kind of misconception of the “other,” i.e. parents from lower classes, they not only marginalize those parents further but they also maintain an ideology within the classroom that marginalizes those parents’ children. There is a serious and detrimental lack of cultural synchronization between teacher and child, and teacher and parent.
Too often parents are dismissed as negligent or are perceived as not caring about their child’s success. This kind of assertion teems with misunderstanding and prejudice.
For parents from the working class, caring about their child’s academic success—whether they’re doing well on tests, turning in their homeworking, behaving in class as the teacher demands, learning the essentials—is often not feasible
in the way many educators would like. Not all parents have the time to check their child’s homework, study with their children for their tests, or give them a quiet room in which they can do their work. Many of these parents work multiple jobs, work the night shift, and/or just don’t have the resources.
Furthermore, too many parents—especially those that come from lower-income communities—don’t understand the inherent value of school because they didn’t experience
it. Many parents’ aspirations for their children are to land a job out of high school so they can contribute to the family income. Too many parents have been jaded by the system that has oppressed them—a system that is so ingrained into the fabric of American life that they don’t even think to fight it.
The issue is so much bigger than just parents. I would venture to say that a tiny fraction of parents actually
don’t care about their children. The majority just doesn’t have the time, the resources, or the hope that education will be their ticket out of poverty. The bigger issue—and the issue that future and current teachers alike absolutely must understand—is that our country and the institutional and social structures that comprise it are riddled with racism and classism, which ensures that people of color and the poor are locked out of middle class privileges.
If our teachers learn only pedagogical methods in school and fail to learn and comprehend the social workings of this country (which seems like the very thing a school in conservative Oklahoma would leave out) then they are only half qualified (if even) for the profession.
We cannot blame the oppressed for their own oppression.
When my family came to the United States, they endured the struggles of immigrants who’d left everything behind on their island home. But they left as upper middle class white Jamaican Anglophiles and arrived, fairly well-received, as middle class whites with strange accents but similar cultural nuances. Assimilation was not exceptionally difficult. America was certainly a far cry from the slow and steady pace of island life, but they still enjoyed certain middle-class luxuries.
My mother was raised in this context. Both her parents worked—one as a teacher the other as an airplane auditor. They had a nice home in Denver, Colorado. They weren’t rich but certainly not poor. Just average, middle-class people.
They moved to Oklahoma when my mother was a teenager, and she became pregnant at the age of 18. It was only then that their middle-class life was rocked by the crises that lower-income families face regularly. My mother experienced a setback—a teen mom with no education above a high school diploma, she would seemingly be relegated to menial jobs.
A great majority of people in this country would say that racism is abhorrent. But what most people don’t understand is that racism is more than just overt prejudice against people of color. Certainly, we can all agree that facial racism unfortunately does still exist, just as it did in the past.
But there is an even more dangerous aspect of racism that is easy to ignore if you don’t know how to see
it. It’s a kind of racism that remains hidden because it is so deeply embedded into the system and into American ideology.
There is a distinction to be made between prejudice and racism. The semantics are important because word meanings translate into ways of thinking and perceiving. I subscribe to David Wellman’s definition of racism as a “system of advantage based on race.” This definition implies that it is not necessary to “embrace overtly prejudicial thinking” in order to be part of the racist system.
The system incorporates “cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as beliefs and actions of individuals” that place people of color at a disadvantage, writes Beverly Tatum in her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
This system has produced and maintained “White Privilege.” As white men and women we benefit from a racist system. Without doubt, we do not benefit equally—there are too many other “isms” at play: sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, heterosexism, etc. Nonetheless, we are beneficiaries whether we know it or not.
What is most striking about systemic racism is that the consequences are particularly dire. Poverty rates for people of color, specifically black and Hispanic people, are more than twice that of white people in America. “In 2010, 27.4 percent of blacks and 26.6 percent of Hispanics were poor, compared to 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12.1 percent of Asians.
Welfare programs, affirmative action policies and the War on Drugs have done little—if anything at all—to get at the root of the issue. They instead slap a Band-Aid onto the problem, hoping that covering it up will solve it. In reality, the primary source of the poverty trap lies within public schools and the public school system, which fail to provide children of color and children from low-income families the skills and attention they need to succeed.
Instead, schools promote the maintenance of the status quo, which belies the tenets of the American Dream touted by citizens and immigrants alike. The American Dream is about social mobility, and it relies on the premise that we live in a meritocracy. For many this might be at least partially true. For instance, for me, it has been. My mother raised me as a struggling single parent for much of my life, but I’ve been able to work hard, get good scholarships, go to college and graduate with three majors and with highest honors. Even so, my hard work has only done part of it for me. I have also enjoyed white, heterosexual privilege. But the reality for too many other people is that hard work and good decisions are often not enough to realize that great American Dream.
that social mobility is a possibility for all is nice. However, it is only an idea right now.
Realizing this is the first step to making it a reality. But we have a long, long way to go.
My family comes from a small island in the Caribbean, where the racial hierarchies and the legacies of colonialism and slavery were very alive. My grandparents had black maids that lived in their homes—a small step above slaves, for they were actually “free” and “paid.” They lived in a white neighborhood that was maintained and manicured by black hands. White privilege pumped through their veins just like blood—every moment unnoticed but such an integral part of the way life works.
I chose to study international relations when I came to college because I’d always had a love for other cultures. I was especially drawn to Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.
But studying the interactions between and within countries can be disheartening. It was in college that I really
learned about colonialism—how the arrogance and greed of the white man has had woeful consequences even almost two hundred years later—and about modern imperialism.
I developed a kind of self-hatred for being white—the same race as the very people that ruined entire countries and the lives of the people within those countries. I was appalled and moreover ashamed that my race
of people could have no sense of justice.
This was my initial reaction to recognizing that I am a race.
Before college, I had never considered myself to be a race. I had never been lumped into a people group, rather I was seen as, and taught that I was, an individual first.
Studying global affairs requires the study of other cultures, other ethnicities, other races. It requires that you take a moment to stop and recognize your own role in the world and your own people group, what it comprises and who holds the power in it. My experience with international studies showed me that I was The Bad Guy since I was affiliated with the white West.
I started feeling hatred toward my own race, and it didn’t feel good. I wanted to remove myself, turn my skin inside out, do anything I could to disassociate myself with whiteness. The color became, for me, the archetype of evil.
I’ve moved past that feeling, but it has taken a while. I still have remnants of animosity toward white people who—knowingly or not—take full advantage of their White Privilege
. But I have to remember that a vast majority doesn’t fully understand the hidden workings of the system. That kind of knowledge is not yet mainstream.
The feeling of shame that I have had for the color of my skin is disappearing because everywhere around me there are white people who do
understand the system, who do
believe in social justice and equality, and who do
want to do what it takes to turn those values into reality. There are even those white Americans that don’t really understand that people of color are systemically marginalized but would do something about it if they did.
The beauty of race is that it is merely a social construct. Humanity, however, is something altogether different. It is for humanity
that we fight for social justice—not for a race of people. Certainly we must recognize the implications of race as they can become barriers to justice and equality, but race does not ever bar us from breaking down those barriers. If anything, it can make us that much more of a force against them.
I feel like I’m getting a quick minor in social justice this semester as I do my pre-work for Teach for America. I have been inundated with information, anecdotes and statistics about poverty and racism in this country. Everything I’ve read has watered the seeds of justice in me enough to force them to crack open the shells and sprout buds. I have been reminded, in each of my daily readings, to be mindful and aware of the realities of the world—the ones we tend to sweep under the rug because they have become as mundane as dust or dirt. I have been forced to quietly reflect on how my own identity has been shaped by the racial and other social dynamics at play in this country.
Like most white Americans, I never had to think about the color of my skin growing up.
I shamefully remember feeling utterly annoyed by a good friend of mine in my high school class that mentioned how black Americans are systemically marginalized. I rolled my eyes, turned up my nose and scoffed, “Black people? Are you kidding me? They’re poor because they don’t work hard enough. Women are the ones that are marginalized!”
Why did I consider women but not people of color to be marginalized? Because as a woman, I am constantly having to compete with, defend myself against and compare myself to the established “norm”: white males. As a white woman, however, I shared at least one of the characteristics of the dominant group: white skin. And so I have a share of the power scheme. The color of my skin has ensured that I am part of the American norm, and therefore it has never needed to be brought to my attention.
That boy in my class was, obviously, worlds ahead of me developmentally. He had clearly done some reading outside of school to learn about the reality of the American system. (They don’t teach you that stuff in school.)
While I was no doubt right that women in American face misogyny and discrimination every day, it is impossible to pretend that race does not also garner abject discrimination of the worst kind.
Criminal injustice, achievement gaps in education, and socioeconomic disparities in the U.S. all share a common denominator: ethnic and racial discrimination. But since the Civil Rights movement has passed, the issue of racism has been habitually swept under the rug by nearly every American that doesn’t explicitly experience it.
Take me, for instance, in my high school years: I was completely unaware that systemic discrimination of people of color still happened.
More than anything, I blame the education system, which has a bad habit of dancing around reality. (Consider what you learned about the treatment of African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latin Americans and immigrant populations throughout history. Rest assured, you didn’t learn the whole story.)
The lie that keeps the cycles of disparity and inequality alive in this country is the one we’re taught from our first days in school: we live in a meritocratic society in which people who put in the work and effort will succeed.
It’s not true. For white people, this notion merely reinforces negative stereotypes of people of color and of the poor in general. For people of color and the poor, this idea informs them that they are to blame for their own marginalization. Also not true.
None of this means that being white is a bad thing. It means that we have a responsibility to lift up the rug and shake it out. See what has been swept under it. Acknowledge that the color of our skin means something. It can mean that we continue to benefit from an inherently racist system and maintain power that way; or it can mean that we become vehement anti-racists and use our power that way.
For a nation that proudly claims to stand for justice, liberty and equality—the fundamental tenets of our civic culture—I think the duty of white Americans and the choice we face is obvious.