Over the past few months I have had the opportunity to read White Rage by Carol Anderson and How to Fight White Supremacy by Akiba Solomon and Kenrya Rankin and both of these titles have put me into some deep personal reflection. Over the years I have never been “that” teacher … you know the one the kids of color all label as the racist. In fact, it has been quite the contrary. The kids of color have always been drawn to me and my advocacy, but even with those successful relationships I have had to look at myself and my history.
Let’s backtrack a bit. I am the son of a white Father and a Hispanic Mother from Ecuador. I grew up in a town where we could count the number of people of color on one hand … my Mom and Brother were two of them. Even though my Mom was a Spanish speaker, we were raised in an English only household. There was no contact with my Mom’s side of the family (which is a story in and of itself) which left me surrounded by the dominant culture and in essence denying my Hispanic heritage. As strange as it sounds I was 18 and at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island before I held a conversation with a Black person from a Black family who was not a missionary from Africa visiting my church.
Was I raised a racist? No, but I was raised ignorant.
The ignorance created when raised in an environment absent of “different”. You might be wondering how I can use the expression of “absent of different” when my Mom was indeed “different” from all the other people in town. I never looked at my Mom as anything other than my Mom and when I looked in the mirror I saw a white kid. I never thought of myself as Hispanic and no one ever referred to me as Hispanic … unless you count the guy across the street who always called us kids “half-breeds”. I remember filling out my first college financial aid form and my wife looked on the paper where I had checked the “white” box and told me I was NOT white … I was Hispanic. It was an epiphany moment … the moment I realized I was Hispanic … I was 22.
I was not raised in an environment where overt racism was conducted. Then again when you are only around white people the talk about people of color just really did not happen unless there was something happening on the news or was seen while watching television. The people of color on Welcome Back Kotter, The Jeffersons, The Cosby Show, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and 227 shaped my thinking, but then also created this strange sense of reality and fed the argument that was prevalent then an even now; that if you work hard you can make it … even if you were a person of color and if you did not then it was your fault.
It was not until adulthood when I started associating with people who were not like me. Being exposed to the sounds of Public Enemy and N.W.A. and having my mind blown not only by the content of their lyrics, but by the people of color I was meeting … and realizing the stories told on television were not the truth. My ignorance had fabricated a false narrative about a group of people who I really knew nothing about. Through this ignorance I said stupid stuff and laughed at stupid stuff.
What has helped me?
Getting to the truth of the matter. Throughout my childhood I was given the impression that people of color were only looking for the free hand outs from the government. Seriously, that is what the news media was showing. Then, in an Introduction to Education class, the professor asked the question to the class, “What group of people are the biggest recipients of welfare?” … his response … “White Honkey”. Not sure why this moment sticks out so much, but it was a moment that got me thinking. I guess it was the moment that I realized everything I had previously learned was a lie. This triggered a quest to know more.
Getting to know people of color and listening to their stories without prejudice. I am always interested in the stories of the kids. As a teacher I have learned so much about people though the kids I have taught. I remember an enlightening conversation with a group of black students when I asked them if the preferred to be called “African-American” or “Black”. It was enlightening because it exposed another facet of ignorance in my life. None of the group identified as “African-American” … they were Haitian … Jamaican … Trinidadian … Puerto Rican … and they let me know they are black and proud of their heritage.
This conversation helped me understand a flaw in my relationship building. I was not paying enough attention to the pride kids have in their heritage. These kids were NOT black … the were Haitian … Jamaican, but this not just something that pertains to black kids. It pertains to all kids. Hispanic and Asian kids want you to know they are not all the same. They come from different countries with different cultures and religions and they are proud of who they are.
Being honest with yourself … this is a tough one. I have always had a positive relationship with kids. The majority have enjoyed being in my class. I have open communication with kids of color … and I thought I was good. Until, I had that moment of clarity … when after 12 years of teaching it happened. A black girl called me out … “Why are you always getting on me?” … and I said it. “You’re just louder than everyone else.” Her response, “that’s right … i’m Black and I am loud.” There was no malice here … I was not mad at her and she was not mad at me. However, this was a moment of clarity. I thought I was good with the people of color … an advocate … someone who they could come to when they needed help, but there I was … having a subtle racially biased moment without even realizing it.
Making a change takes a cognitive effort. It is not easy to to look at yourself using a different lens, but it is something we all need to do because laws, mandates, and rules do not change people … we have to be willing to change ourselves.