Dear White Educators

Dear White Educators,

I struggle with you. I struggle with me. I struggle with how, if, and when to write us this letter. There is no perfect time, no perfect medium, and no perfect collection of words.

And yet, we are out of time. Long have been. The time is now, as it was five hundred years ago.

So here it is...

For a very long time, a tragically long time, the idea of white shame did not resonate with me.

I am lucky enough to have a mother who raised me to understand that my white male identity gave me tremendous unearned privilege in our society. In school, I learned some of the history of marginalized peoples, and I sympathized. So when it came to me and the possibility of my white shame, I felt confident that, having long "understood" the realities of oppression, I should have none to grapple with.

After all, I am kind to people who are different than me. I have friends and colleagues of color. What shame should I really have to process?

It is at this point that I must confess to you that when I was nine years old, I called one of my classmates a nigger.

It was the fall of 1992. My family had just moved from New Mexico to Tennessee, and Mr. Powell's fourth-grade class was the first time I met and made black friends.

Mr. Powell was a quiet and stern man who was missing two fingers. His missing appendages and the fact that he never smiled encouraged our obedience.

It was early one morning when my friends and I were sitting together and joking around before class began. One of my friends told us the story of his bus ride to school.

"The bus driver says to me that I have to sit down and be quiet. You know what I told him? I told him, 'You be quiet, honkie!'"

All of us laughed, two of us black and two of us white.

Having only recently been introduced to the N word by my friends in what I interpreted as playful ways, I thought I'd try to fit in by responding, "Well you know what I would have said? I would have said, 'You stop talking and be quiet, nigger!'"

Just before that sentence fell out of my mouth and into the world, the chatter among the rest of the class inexplicably died, and a void of silence was created such that everyone could hear exactly what I had said.

My friends 'OOOoooed' and laughed for a moment, but then became deathly still. They saw the look that came over Mr. Powell's face, who looked directly at me with a sternness I didn't know that even he possessed.

More than two decades later, I find myself thinking about my role in struggling through our country's very complicated history of racial oppression. I have been struggling toward some sort of voice that works to counter racism, but I often also find myself questioning how exactly to fashion that voice when it comes from a white male.

Along the way, I've fallen over and over again into a harmful trap. It's a trap that I'm afraid many white people fall into as they begin to gain an emerging level of consciousness regarding our race problem. The trap I'm talking about is that of buying into a discourse of charity that, in the words of Lise Vaugeois, valorizes the giver while maintaining the inferior position of the receiver.

It is at this point that I must confess that I have spent a great deal of time trying to help people of color in ways that, in actuality, only served to perpetuate my privilege and their oppression.

My decision to move to Washington, DC, a city I was not from and had never lived in, to teach at the age of 26 strikes me now as a corollary to that of calling a black classmate a nigger at the age of nine. I did both believing they would help me fit in with people of color, and both, because of my ignorance of the experiences of those around me, had the potential to do harm to others.

I recently had a dream in which I was a lawyer in a courtroom arguing before a judge about whether a statement before us was racist. (Forgive the strangeness. It was, after all, a dream.) I argued passionately that the statement in question was racist. I remember that the lawyer on the opposing side was white, although the identities of the jury and the judge were unclear.

In reflecting on the dream, I realized that this is something that I do often. I regularly attempt to point out injustice, particularly institutionalized racism. But upon further reflection, I noticed something disturbing. I most often spend my time calling out racial injustices when I'm in the presence of people of color, as if they need to hear about such things from me.

The question becomes, Why? Why do I do this more often around people of color and less often around white people?

I can rationalize it in a way that makes me feel good. I can imagine that I know people of color will be more willing to listen to talk of oppression, and that white people are less likely to accept it. But isn't that why I should be talking about race and racism around white people more often rather than less?

I can equally look at it from another perspective. There's a good chance that my talk of race and racism around people of color serves a desire I have to distance myself from other white people. The attempt to distance comes from a refusal to see ourselves in others, and I have to admit that I find myself doing that often. It was in this realization that I had my first inklings as to the existence of my white shame.

I used to think that white shame was probably an issue for some white people, but as someone who received a progressive education and had a mother who called out oppression for me at every turn, I thought, "White shame? I guess, but I don't have any of that."

Not true.

If I didn't have white shame, I wouldn't spend so much of my time attempting to distance myself from whites who haven't yet come to terms with their place, their history, or their privilege. I realize that my shame is an insidious form of shame. It's the shame that hides, unconsciously, in the mind of the self-righteous individual who doesn't realize that his demons are waiting anxiously to be wrestled.

And so I come back to interrogate my dream. While my subconscious still likens me to a litigator in the trial of racism, I must confront the reality that that is not my place. I am not the lawyer, not the judge, nor the jury. In this metaphor, I stand most appropriately in the shoes of the accused. I am the accused not because of any conscious malice on my part, but because of the body I inhabit and the identity that's been cultivated within it over years of social conditioning.

At some point in time, all of us have to sit down and take inventory. We have to clear the smoke from the mirror and really look at ourselves. In this difficult process, we come to realize that as we come to accept ourselves, we also must learn to accept that much of who we are is rooted, like it or not, in the roles society has created for us. To deny this is fantasy.

For you see,

         "All the world's a stage,
          And all men and all women are merely players:
          they have their exits and their entrances;
          and one man in his time plays many parts,..."

Nobody else can play your role. I do not get to run from or deny my whiteness. It is one of the many parts of my role for which I am responsible to play in this life. No, I did not have a choice, but that does not alleviate me from facing a socially constructed identity for my public life that history demands I own.

It's true that I can try to feel better about using the N word when I was young by remembering that I didn't know what I was saying. But it is also true that ignorance is capable of just as much harm as intentional violence.

Moreover, whether I choose to identify as white or not, others will continue to identify me in that way. As a result, I have and will continue to benefit consciously or unconsciously in ways that have and will continue to harm others.

In my inner life, my spiritual life, there may be space for aspects of my public identity to fall away. In my public life, however, this is not an option. I must learn to own this identity that I've grown into.

Part of the work here means involving myself in the never-ending task of identifying and acknowledging the many ways that unconscious bias inherent in our language and institutions affects our behavior. As Verna Myers said, "We were all outside when the contamination came down." The roots of our dysfunction are incredibly deep and extend back centuries.

In a sober assessment of his own whiteness, Abe Lateiner suggests that, for white people, there will never be some final conscious awakening in which we're capable of seeing all of the delusions we've lived with since the dawn of white supremacy.

Lateiner writes,
"As I embody the understanding that I am always going to be delusional, I can accept that I am not in a position to make demands about the road to freedom. I've lived for my first 30 years of life unaware of the existence of my own velvet restraints, and I'm only just now beginning to create a vision of my own freedom."
At this point in my journey, the deconstruction of my own privilege is most pressing in the classroom, particularly as a humanities teacher. The space I inhabit with students is most obviously the space where the things that happen will quite directly serve to liberate or oppress.

And so the question finally becomes: How does a white male in the United States work in public schools with students of color day after day? How do I deconstruct my privilege to create space for colleagues of color to have their voice heard? How do I honor my students perspectives on complex issues without attempting to whitesplain the situation? How can I be an ally to families of color who yearn for equitable schools that provide their students with an excellent education?

In my struggle to deconstruct my privilege, I experiment with ways to bring all voices into classroom discussions around delicate subjects. I search constantly for books and professional learning opportunities offered by experts of color. I search for the courage to be vulnerable in speaking often about systems of oppression and owning my identity in the healthiest way I know how, most importantly with other white people.

After I made my racist comment that morning in fourth grade, Mr. Powell made me sit in time-out for fifteen minutes. I remember being confused and scared. And I remember having the distinct sense that I should never use that word again. But without many desperately needed follow-up conversations to help me begin to grapple with race, I'm afraid my growth in this area was stunted.

When I think back to my young white body sitting in that fourth-grade desk confused about what had just happened, yearning for a stronger sense of clarity, I wonder if that is not who, underneath it all, I still am, who many of us still are.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes of the infantile unconscious:
"We carry it within ourselves forever. All the ogres and secret helpers of our nursery are there, all the magic of childhood. And more important, all the life-potentialities that we never managed to bring to adult realization, those other portions of ourself, are there; for such golden seeds do not die. If only a portion of that lost totality could be dredged up into the light of day, we should experience a marvelous expansion of our powers, a vivid renewal of life."
In writing of the work of Werner Erhard, Peter Block says of personal change in his book Community:
"The way this [personal change] happens is by changing our relationship with our past. We do this by realizing, through a process of reflection and rethinking how we have not completed our past and unintentionally keep bringing it into the future. The shift happens when we pay close attention to the constraints of our listening and accept the fact that our stories are our limitation. This ultimately creates an opening for a new future to occur."
Our dysfunction is in our unwillingness to reconcile our story. We are either unaware of our past, or we refuse to look at it. In either case, we are unable to own our identity, live in fantasy perpetuated by delusion, and neglect those golden seeds.

Those golden seeds have not died, though. Our capacity for change, for new possibility, never dies. That is our potential for salvation. The moment we realize the possibility, we have found the potential to change the world.

The shame will persist as long as it is ignored, as long as we refuse to own our identity and find healthier ways of being white and teaching our children to be white. The more I can come to terms with my own frailties and ugliness, the more I can acknowledge those things to others, and the more I find ways to create equal space for other identities, the closer I come to peace about who I am and what I do.

Education is not the work of technocrats. It is the work of rational, emotional, intuitive, and ethical beings committed to creating healthy communities for a healthy society. As such, we cannot imagine our role as educators to be limited to the aiding of students in acquiring information. We must also acknowledge the crucial role of the health of our own identities and the relationships those identities form with the students and communities in which we work.

If our own children are to be saved from the same miseducation we received, then we're going to have to take it upon ourselves as white people to put ourselves in the uncomfortable position of clearing the smoke from the mirror, of re-educating ourselves, and of removing the infestation of that unconscious bias in our minds and in the minds of our children. Our young people need that retelling of our story that could have served us all at a young age. It's time we own our role.


  1. You don't have to "deconstruct your privilege" to be a successful white teacher at an inner city school, you just have to build relationships and stop teaching like it's 1950. In my new book I explore the process of turning around a failed school.

  2. I would be more upset with the memory of laughing along with an obnoxious kid who insulted the bus driver than calling the obnoxious kid the N-word. I'm not downplaying the word you used. It's offensive. But if the obnoxious black kid didn't want to be called names maybe he should have refrained from doing so himself. As far as white guilt goes....I and others I grew up with clawed our way out of our poor white trash environment to make a better life. Our white trash neighborhood became a racially mixed trashy neighborhood by the time I was in high school. White trash. Black trash....trash is trash. Maybe others in society made it more difficult for kids with darker skin tones to claw their way out. I won't deny that. But I was too busy working in McDonalds after school and weekends at 14 in order to pay my catholic school tuition in 1970something so I wouldn't have to go to my neighborhood's crappy public school. My point is not all us white kids had privilege. Some of us know what it's like to have an absent father and a mother who worked like a dog to feed us and keep the roof over our heads. We were kept up at night because the drunk next door was trashing his home and berating his family. We did our homework by candlelight on several occasions because the utility bills could not be paid. We had one pair of shoes to wear until our toes started to bend and it was time to scrape together money for another pair. Some of us white folk already understand how poverty can try to steal your soul and we already identify just fine with poor people of all colors.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Anon.

      I affirm that being white does not guarantee anyone an easy life. By no means. I hear you on that.

      The point here is not that white privilege has granted every white person an easy life.

      I might suggest checking out this piece:

      Again - thank you for participating in the discussion.

  3. Your entry was really encourage for me as a young almost to be urban educator. When I tell people I want to teach in the city I get a lot of "how are you going to relate to them, you're a white little female". At first I let this get to me and I questioned if the city was the right place for me. However, this thought did not last because I refuse to let my race and appearance deter me from doing what I've always wanted to do. Just because I might not come from the same background as my students or look like them doesn't mean I am incapable of teaching them. My job is to get to know them and find out who they are and how they best learn. I hope to encourage my future students to learn about other cultures unlike their own so they don't hold stereotypes against other cultures. I want to emphasize the importance of learning from each other, this is how stereotypes are broken and facts and empathy are learned. A saying that I have always tried to live by is something like you never know what someone has gone through, be kind, always. This saying goes along with a previous comment on how just because we might look one way doesn't mean we haven't had our own struggles too. I am expecting to have some judgments made towards me on my first day that I teach, but if we all take the time to learn about each other and where we come from, I believe a richer understanding can come about. I really appreciate the honesty in your writing and the learning process you went through as a result.

  4. Why do we have to discuss it at all?

    I, too am an Educator. The kids I'm teaching were born in 2002. Why must we saddle them with white shame? Public education teaches students how to game the system. Black students learn they can get away with more because of the white shame.

    At my first school it was very strange to hear the terms "white" and "basic white girl" used as insults. Why do we continue to allow racism coming FROM black people?

    I live in a state where white people are now the minority. When is it our turn? Do you think ANY black teacher EVER will EVER post something like this? Some come-to-Jesus, confession about calling someone a honkie or cracker when they were young? That will never happen because they don't care. Being racist to white people doesn't count.

    1. I think I would define racism differently than you. Racism is not merely prejudice against people of another race. Racism more usefully defined as the systematic oppression of a people of a given race. In the context of the United States, that's about powerful white racial prejudice, which we call racism.

      Prejudice is one thing. Harmful, but prejudice is not the same as racism. Prejudice against white folks coming from black folks doesn't have anywhere near the negative affects as the other way around. As white agents of an institution like public education, an institution that has, historically, functioned as a means of institutional racism, our duty is far more nuanced and complex that to simply try to be colorblind. I'm afraid that approach doesn't get us very far.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts