In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of the danger of good intentions, noting that “‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”
As a Black woman working in a school dedicated to reimagining public education in the South, I’m surrounded by well-intentioned white people. My colleagues and I work long hours — for comparatively little pay — because we say we believe in social justice, in creating deep and lasting change in communities by providing children with a world-class education.
It’s important to acknowledge this before I say the next part. Because here’s the truth: The entire education community needs to look itself in the mirror and commit to shining a light on the historical racist practices in education and how we are complicit, not hide behind good intentions.
Of the roughly 3.5 million teachers in America, 79 percent are white and 76 percent are female. These numbers have changed very little over the past 20 years, even with an increasing national awareness of the importance of racial diversity in our teaching corps.
We must not relent from the goal of recruiting a more diverse corps of teachers to serve Black and brown children. Yet in the immediate term, white educators have to get it right, or divest entirely from the field. Either change who’s in the classroom, or change yourselves. There’s no other option.
This may seem harsh. But Black educators, myself included, are tired of beating around the bush. This moment requires a willingness to speak, hear and accept hard truths. It will also require a shift in how our white colleagues labor alongside us toward racial justice and educational equity. We do not need passive supporters; we need radically accountable allies, willing to confront their own biases and seek out ways to contribute to the existing culture of liberation that Black communities have fought to build and uphold.
Here are three pieces of advice for white teachers who want to become accountable allies:
1 Examine your relationships with Black colleagues and parents
It’s tempting to say “I’m not biased” when you are a white person who spends most of your waking hours educating Black children. But ask yourself: Do you regularly seek out Black colleagues to get to know them on a personal level? Have you ever made an offhand remark about how a Black parent is “difficult” or “culturally different”? If you answered yes to either of these, consider that your relationships with Black people might be built on your sense of internalized superiority. If you can’t build an authentic relationship with me as a colleague and an intellectual equal, I can’t trust you to build a relationship with someone whose brilliance might not be fully manifested in their role of student.
2 Avoid performative allyship
Being an accountable ally means going beyond showing up at Black Lives Matter protests and posting on social media. As women, we’ve been taught to lean in. But remember, sometimes the right thing for an ally to do is to step back, and let the spotlight shine on someone else. This means giving up space — both personally and institutionally — to a Black colleague who might be struggling to be heard. It also means supporting Black colleagues when they identify microaggressions in your workplace. Remember that whenever you decide that you’re tired of fighting, racism is still going to be a daily fact of life for your Black colleagues. Don’t let us face it alone.
3 Do more than pay lip service to a culturally sensitive curriculum
The classes I’ve been most successful in were classes where I could show up, not just as an appendage but as my whole body. Designing a school around a liberation philosophy is about more than playing a rap song, or posting pictures of Black authors on the wall. It’s changing the way that we analyze the world, critically examining the ethnocentric nature of our curricula, and rethinking what will best connect with our kids. If that seems abstract, here are a few tangible ideas: Teach a personal finance class that allows our students to learn about investment and generational wealth. Hold report card night at a community center or church, to flip the power dynamic that’s usually present at these events. Change the history curriculum to be far less Eurocentric. These are just a few concrete examples of a broader shift that needs to happen within the walls of our schools.
At my own school, I’m surrounded by white colleagues who genuinely want to be part of the solution and are searching for the best way to be an ally. My advice to those colleagues, and to other white teachers who care about equity and justice, is to look inward as critically and intentionally as you look outward, and commit to tangible change within yourselves. If there is an unwillingness among our white colleagues to interrogate their complicity in white supremacy, our culture is not and will never be a fit. Education is the praxis of freedom. Our fight requires individuals who are willing to go the marathon distance; sprinters are not needed.
LaTrina Johnson is the assistant principal of curriculum and instruction at RePublic High School in Nashville, Tennessee, where she and her colleagues seek to reimagine public education in the South. She is an aspiring revolutionary with goals of becoming an “angelic troublemaker” for years to come.
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