Sunday, July 28, 2013

Supporting Teachers of Color

This is cross-posted at Educating Grace.

First, this post was co-written with Grace and heavily influenced by a post by Dr. Isis and one by Feminist Griote.

Second, we're writing about race in this post. To echo Feminist Griote, we're not trying to play Oppression Olympics. We're not here to argue who has it worse. We understand that different oppressions intersect and reinforce each other. However, we're using race as a center and, specifically, race in the United States.

Third, when we talk about racism, we don't usually mean, "Someone called me a name." What we're talking about is the broader internalized, structural, and institutional racism that permeates our schools like the smell of the cafeteria. And like that smell, it is its omnipresence that normalizes it. In most of the United States, we are less likely to be talking about overt racism as we are color-blind racism. Thus while it is important for all of us to address our own individual biases, it is our participation in a system of racist oppression that ultimately does the most damage.

The following are some Do's and Don’ts for supporting teachers of color.

1. Don't ask us to justify ourselves. To put a twist on the popular Hari Kondabolu quote, asking a teacher of color for evidence of racism is like asking a drowning person for evidence of water. Start with the assumption that racism exists.

Do acknowledge our experiences. We are not looking for approval and we are not looking for acceptance. What we do want is for you realize that we live in different realities. We have very different lived experiences and part of your acknowledgment is knowing that you can never really understand.

2. Don't expect us to educate you. We appreciate you asking. We really do. There are two things. First is from point 1. It often feels like we're not educating but rather defending. Two, it just gets tiring. It is like that kid in class who asks the most basic questions day in and day out and saying, "Look on the board" gets old.

Do educate yourself. We want you to be part of the conversation, but we need to get past the introductions. None of us will ever know everything. Education will be a constant. Do some basic googling. Read bell hooks. Some Omi and Winant. Learn about privilege and cultural wealth and stereotype threat. Start noticing the daily microaggressions and racial battle fatigue that we experience. Learn to check yourself anytime you want to mention the achievement gap or use exceptionals and majoritarian storytelling or the myth of hope. Once you get the basics down, we'll be happy to sit and have a conversation. This goes double for anything related to our specific race or ethnicity. Don't, for example, turn to us during Chinese New Year and ask what year it is. Seriously. Google. And please stop asking us where we're from. One of the main tenets of White privilege is that you don't have to think about racism or race. As an ally, it is your duty to start.

3. Don't make it about you. If there's one thing that's going to cause teachers of color to throw up their hands and walk away, it's re-centering the conversation. It is not time to talk about your own experiences with racism. Or how your grandmother said shocking things. Or how your own experience as an INSERT HERE makes you qualified to understand what we go through every day. We know that you're probably trying to connect our experiences with your own. But the consequence of this is often derailing the conversation and re-centering it on yourself. It can also feel defensive and lead us back to needing to justify ourselves.

Do seek out uncomfortable spaces. We need allies. Your voice is important but while racism is an issue for all of us, our experiences are uniquely our own. Challenge yourself by sharing in our discomfort. Until you've felt a sliver of our daily pain, we can't know that you aren't paying us lip service and then retreating to the blissful ignorance of color-blindness once our backs are turned. Only by sharing in our discomfort can we be sure that you are invested in creating a more just and equitable world.

4. Don't co-opt. Provide support, but we don't need you to solve our problems. We need you to solve your problems. You do you. We might have something we want to try. Let us try it. But don't jump in and offer "help" and suggestions. If you've reached point 2 and you've educated yourself, you know that your lived experiences in this world are completely different from ours. We will take the steps we think we need to take. At times, we may ask for some help, in which case, come in and then step back again.

Do the work on your end and we'll work ours. Racism needs to be fought from the side of the empowered and the side of the oppressed. Interrogate your privilege and then make every day a battle to fight it. Be prepared to be an ally, especially when you enter a space without any teachers of color. Call it out when you see it and help educate others in the White community. Closely examine the racial dynamics at play in your school. Whenever any systems in school re-create our social hierarchies, begin with the the assumption of racism and work from there

5. Don't enter our safe space. There are times when we just need a place to talk to each other. At the Institute, Jason reported actually feeling a physical change in his well-being. Sometimes we need that. We need to not worry about being judged because every one of us has held our tongues because we don't want to be the Angry Minority.

Do see yourself as having an important role. There are times when we need a safe place but if we're going to fight racism it will take all of us. There will be more times than not when we are working together. We may often be traveling different paths, but we are both heading towards the same destination.

6. Don't assume we have allies because there are other teachers of color on campus. So many teachers we talk to speak of feeling isolated even at schools with a high concentration of teachers of color. Conversations about race are difficult within communities of color as well and we aren't all in the same place when it comes to critical consciousness.

Do help create a safe environment. A campus racial climate survey might be a good way to get things rolling. Gather some data about participation (PTA, AP, remediation, extracurriculars) and talk about the results. Simply letting others know that you notice racism is a start. Being able to start a conversation about racism without worrying about being accused of being racist is part of your privilege. Use it for something positive.

Please continue this conversation in the comments. Which one of these most resonated with you? What will you do next? What have you seen other allies do that you’ve found supportive?

If you would like to comment anonymously, email Jason (jybuell - gmail) and he will add the comment himself.


  1. Jason, and Grace:

    Thank you for the post. I've also followed the comments you've (Jason) been making on Twitter. I want to tread lightly regarding issues you've raised because I am that white male, yet I don't want to get stuck in inaction. So, with a fear of not showing the value of the suggestions you made above, I ask about my greatest curiosity: in what ways do you see mathematics involved in racism, and in the enactment of racism?

    Can a mathematics education serve in liberatory ways? Or, in allowing it to provide that power, does it remain a racist structure?

    And so, should mathematics education refuse mathematics? And what other questions? What actions should shape our work as math teachers?

    It is my interest to interrogate the intersection of racism and mathematics, or more specifically mathematics education. It is hugely clear to me that mathematics itself plays a significant role in the institutionalization of racism, at least here in the US.

    I wonder, might we create a monthly or bimonthly conversation on this topic of racism and mathematics education in the San Francisco (or greater Bay) Region?

    1. Thanks Brian. I'm defering to Grace here and am hoping she'll catch this when she gets back from vacation.

      I feel like I wouldn't be saying anything new to you. We've talked about many things: broadening what it means to be smart in math, valuing what students bring and their ways of knowing, using math as a gatekeeper, etc.

      Ultimately I think the danger about math in particular is the assumption of neutrality. It's easier to see the values embedded in the choices we make about history and literature, less so in math.

      We'll talk more. This is its own post at some point and if you want to get that started on your own blog, I'd love to read it.

    2. I also think the role of math as a gatekeeper can't be ignored. This is very much related to the idea of neutrality as someone is deciding that math tests (ie the SAT) should play a crucial role in "advancement" and is also deciding what these tests look like.

    3. I'd be eager to continue this conversation, although I don't know what I'd have to add that y'all haven't already been thinking about. When I consider the intersection of math and racism, the first things that come to mind are a) that assumption of neutrality and objectivity that Jason mentions - after all, we can't argue with numbers, right? b) the values implied in what we often believe or describe mathematics to be - what are we implicitly or explicitly saying matters when we say that we strive for "logical" "rational" "linear" and/or "abstract" thinking, particularly when presented devoid of context? c) the use of mathematics as an instrument of power - not just as a gatekeeper of access/opportunity in the form of standardized tests as Avery describes, but also in maintaining confusion and consequent compliance when it comes to things like subprime mortgages, payday lending, tax liabilities and/or government benefits, etc.

      I'm sure there are many more factors here, and Brian, I think we agree about the role of mathematics in the institutionalization of racism. I also think there are many ways in which teachers can provide students access to mathematics as this language of power - like what Jason describes. What I wonder is what our role is in refuting this relationship, rather than just helping students navigate existing structures.

      Sadly, I'm not in your time zone, but I hope we can find other ways to keep chatting!

    4. @jybuell I believe I will take you up on writing a blog post on my current thoughts on the intersection of Math and Racism. Maybe I'll share some of the key thoughts I have, at least at the moment, here.

      First, Avery's note that it acts as a gatekeeper is in many ways primary in importance. For me, it is very important to understand that dynamic much much further. And that math is not neutral, in fact it is highly political, is a second core issue here.

      The "Math" that we attend to in our culture and in our schools is overwhelmingly the mathematics of a bunch of white dudes. And hence, that makes it appear that the white dudes know/do math. This line f thought goes further, but where my interest lies in that , although all mathematics is the product of human minds, and that all human minds are mathematical and thus constantly doing math, there is an expectation that most people are NOT mathematical & incapable. To me, that systemic belief allows certain people to be labeled as better than others. Math tests are like our current IQ tests--designed to weed out the incapable.

      Grace mentions how our language values very certain ways of thinking as "better than." I also appreciate the line of thought that has taught many people that they cannot reason through the mathematical experiences of their lives, and risk the actual oppression of such relationships (previously my comments emphasized the intellectual oppression).

      So--there is some value in delineating the ways in which Math (I use the capital when I speak of School Math as opposed to children's math). However, the bigger value, for me, would be to list some small number of subversive steps a teacher could take, within her/his classroom, to empower her students against the intellectual and social oppression of Math. Further, to act against those oppressive forces and make change for our society more broadly. Although it is often trivialized, I suspect evidence that we are achieving that begins when more people say things like "I can do math" and "I enjoy doing math." Notice I did not use capital M.

      Thanks for allowing some stream of conscious.

  2. I like those tips. Very insightful. I can definitely relate to alot of what you and Grace talked about.

    1. Thanks. We appreciate hearing that. If you have anything you'd like to add or critique, post on your blog and let me know or I can give you space on my own blog if you'd like to be anonymous.

  3. Thanks for this post. So much to think about and thanks especially for the further reading recommendations. As someone who's trying to move from "look at me, a white dude in a diverse school!" to being an active ally, this list is something I want to print out and keep at school.

    1. I can't speak for Grace, but I know when I started writing this post "print it out as a conversation starter" and "let other teachers of color know they're not alone" were my two highest hopes. Thanks for saying that, it really helps.

    2. Agree. Thanks for your thoughtful reading :)

  4. I read the linked article "Hope Required when Growing Roses in Concrete". Have you actually read it? Real hope is about improving students' lives so that the already existing real world has a few more successful people. It is not about claiming fiat to change the world remotely.

    As more and more people are awakening out of the spell of Postmodernism, the leaders of Postmodernism are using ever more hardball tactics to try to reclaim the loyalty of the public. And this myth of a "system" of racism, which you unfortunately seem to have SHL&S, is their latest campaign.

    If reality is a story, then its author is formless -- without race, gender, or any other category mere mortals hold against each other.