Currently, I have decided that teaching will be my life’s work. I’m happy to say that I am on my way there as I begin my practices as a teaching intern. I find that choosing to teach in today’s public school system—which is becoming an increasingly standardized and militarized space—has become a political decision. So many questions come to mind: How does a teacher resist these structures as well as work within them? Are our students ready to go out into a world where increasing hostility and secrecy have become the norm? As a teacher, what are the tools I will give my students to analyze their lives and the larger society? And my more political question: How will my students go beyond the classroom and eventually mobilize to resist our current white patriarchal capitalist supremacist state (you can add on to this list as you wish)?
I have learned that the road to understanding these answers is a messy process. All the while, some parts are quite basic. For example, as a teacher who wants to see a more just world, What does community mean? What does empathy for a group of people who have different life experiences than you mean? What does connection mean, as well as seeing political, economic and social connections? I think of my professor who said something that has become a principle of mine as a teacher, “I will affirm the best of human experiences and oppose the worst of human actions.” Believe me. This ain’t an easy task.
I am a teacher of color in a playing field where about 83% of the current teachers teaching are white women. Also, I happen to be teaching with an all white staff and faculty (not really a surprise with the exception that most of the staff of color are custodial workers) and primarily white working to middle class students (with a sprinkling of students of color). Furthermore, in my teaching program I am the only visible person of color.
I find that as a teacher of color, especially as a black woman, I am at the source of my white students (and all the white people I must deal with) fear. Not only have I had to hear racist statements from the students, I also hear how white teachers (mostly self-proclaimed liberals) reproduce the same very thoughts and actions they seek to untangle. Therein lies the arrogance of supremacist thinking, and the contradictions of being in this struggle. Moreover, my days are often filled with amazing hostilities and headaches, with little to no support. Fortunately, I love the labor. Of course there is no pure place where this work can be done and I too am working to decolonize and sort out my own thinking. And yet, there is a longing for something else.
I love to teach and I love the students (and I will be teacher) but there is a lingering question: “How much can I stomach?” Doing this work in this particular area has brought many questions, yearnings and contradictions to the surface. I believe that white people, especially our young white students need this social justice work more than ever. I am not sure if I should be the one doing it (but someone has got to do it). That is why I am often perplexed when I hear the majority of white teachers seeking to go out and teach poor black and Latina youth. I have seen many “well intentioned” white teachers carrying a sentiment that this population is the source of our current problems. There is always a voice in my mind wanting to say: Go out and work in your own community! Let me go there. As a teacher I have seen that white supremacist thinking must be liberated from itself and if people (especially white people) are looking for a place to start, please start at home and you may find you have your work cut out for you.
It has been no easy task working with my students. However, some of the greatest teaching moments I have had, have come out of them spitting out their fears and contradictions. The list of their responses follows:
“Well we don’t want to be bad people. We’re not all bad.”
“Didn’t black people have slaves too?”
“Well Obama is president. He’s like the most powerful man in the country.”
“Well blacks had a hand in their own oppression too. It wasn’t all white.”
“Well I feel so guilty, so insignificant”,
“Well why should I feel responsible, its not as if I have any power!”,
“Well, change takes time but things have progressed.”
“It just sounds like complaining.”
"Well people of color can be racist too?!"
“Well why should we hate people because they’re rich? Don’t they obviously have to work hard for their money to get it?”
“Well if things were to really change, then what would happen to us?”
These are all statements at one point in time my students have blurted out. We have had to work through these thoughts together, to get to a place where we can learn and struggle forward. I wasn’t very surprised by these statements (I mean seriously, these thoughts are quite dominant and mainstream and have become ways to stop a thorough analysis of our reality). In fact, I was thankful that they had the courage to spit out their largely white-class privilege (or internalized white class privileged thinking) fears and attempt to challenge it. This is something I find many adults won’t even do.
I have also seen that these thoughts usually are never questioned and are almost always unchecked. They become hidden and tucked into their consciousness and reproduced in the most subtle actions. Why isn’t there enough work being done in predominantly white areas? And exactly WHO is doing this work, and WHO has the responsibility to do this work?
The only thing that keeps me going is understanding that there are many other people who have suffered and are still committed to doing this work. Past and present. So I stand in solidarity with these people. Although lonely, we do not do this alone.
I also think of my friends of color, who are mostly activists and organizers. They have decided that we are living in a time of political urgency. Where unemployment is rampant and the U.S. is becoming increasingly unsafe for POC, for workers. More frightening, these sentiments and actions are becoming further legitimized and legalized. My friends have gone off to work on immigrant rights, organize against globalization and neo-liberalism, labor organizing, workers rights and working with POC in low income areas. They can easily hook into the experiences of those they work with and this further commits them to doing this work. So naturally, I wonder why I spend most of my days having these crucial conversations with predominantly middle class white folks and wonder if I should make an intentional choice to spend the majority of my time having this conversation with predominantly POC and working class folks. Everyday I think about it and I become further enraged. But for now, I am a teacher of color who works in a predominantly white working to middle class area with mostly white students (and a sprinkling of students of color). And there is hope in those students. They are not what they have been told to think…yet. There is still time. So I do this work in solidarity with my friends and hope that this is but one drop in the large bucket of toil.