When I joined Chemeketa Community College, in Salem, Oregon, in 2011, word quickly got around that the English department finally had a faculty member who could check the box for Hispanic on the job application. Brown and black Hispanic faculty and staff rushed to my office door in those first few weeks of the term, eager to meet me. They were visibly crestfallen when they took in my alabaster skin.
It was uncomfortable. I wanted to explain myself, defend my Hispanic-ness. But I didn’t. Partly because I’ve tired of doing so, but mostly because they were right. Hispanic or not, my skin tone means I have no idea what it’s like to be a brown or black student looking at yet another white teacher at the head of the room. It means that even when I was wearing jeans and a hoodie on finals week, no one questioned why I had a key to a faculty office. It means a stranger has never asked me, “Where are you from?”
The skin color of educators matters, for all kids
Non-white students at Chemeketa—and at community colleges, universities, and K–12 schools across the country—deserve to see themselves reflected in their teachers. Proof of success right in front of them can help them see what they, too, are capable of. Research shows that the current, predominantly white teacher population tends to have lower expectations of brown and black students, which can lead to those kids selling themselves short. Students also tend to do better in school when they have a teacher of their race or ethnicity.
Racism is learned, not an innate, unchangeable characteristic.
White students, too, deserve to be in spaces where the voice of authority is not overwhelmingly white. Racism is learned, not an innate, unchangeable characteristic. It is only by frequently engaging with authority figures different from themselves that youth can truly understand—and combat—the myth of white supremacy. The myth that has brown and black people succumbing to COVID-19 more than whites, has brown youth living in cages on American soil, and has killed countless black people, from as far back as 1619 to George Floyd on May 25, 2020.
Whether brown, black, or white, few students are being given this chance. As Aaliyah Samuel noted in the first post of her three-part series on equity in education, “The teaching profession has historically been—and still remains—a field dominated by white, middle-class women.” And while many of these women are committed to equity, “it’s possible that, for some of them, the privilege that’s inherent in being white and middle class could make it difficult for them to know how to reach children who are different from them.”
It is only by frequently engaging with authority figures different from themselves that youth can truly understand—and combat—the myth of white supremacy.
The death of George Floyd must be the catalyst for any of us concerned with social justice to finally bring about real, lasting, and meaningful change. In education in particular, it behooves us to work tirelessly to ensure brown and black teachers and administrators are supported in their work—and that they cease to be a minority in their school communities. Here are four things you can do:
- Support black and brown educators already on your team. The Black Teacher Project recommends beginning by focusing on retaining black educators in your district. Organizations like Illinois-based Grow Your Own do this by relying on mentor programs and cohorts to provide long-term support.
- Provide professional learning. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) training is critical for understanding racism and having productive conversations in your district. The National Education Association (NEA) has a free toolkit that touches on various topics including race, ethnicity, and social justice. Organizations like the Center for Equity and Inclusion also partner with school districts.
- Make equity part of the curriculum. Teachers likely need help on how to discuss race and social justice in their classrooms. Point them to resources like the free discussion guide for the 2019 Ava DuVernay Netflix series “When They See Us” published by the Campaign for Youth Justice, or this free discussion guide for “13th,” also by DuVernay and also on Netlfix. Share our ebook “Why equity matters in education—and what to do about it,” which includes numerous suggestions, including for diverse books and podcasts worth listening to.
- Recruit educators of color. As recommended by the Learning Policy Institute, follow best practices for attracting diverse candidates, including hiring early and partnering with teacher preparation programs in your community, like Today’s Students Tomorrow’s Teachers.
ANet’s new site, “Anti-racism and equity for teachers and leaders,” is a fantastic resource that can assist you in working toward these goals. It includes recommended activities and reading, ideas for summer planning, and content connections for literacy and math.
Things don’t have to remain the way they are. We can begin by teaching today’s youth and, through them, creating a more humane society.