And I know you like a jazzier title, so…..
Don’t tell me your kids are too white to care about black people!
Life has a funny way of throwing truths at you, doesn’t it? One minute, you’re happily living in your self-selected bubble of radical, leftist, anti-racist educationalists who are as right-on as right-on gets (because, you know, we’re right)….. and the next minute you find yourself in the heart of conservative America, being told that diversity and social justice are just “too much” for kids to handle. Nope, yep. That’s exactly what I just said.
People use air quotes. I use air quotes. My 8 year old uses air quotes. It’s fine – and sometimes it’s even funny. But when you “air quote” the word diversity when you’re talking about curriculum, you know what you’re gonna get? A blog post. That’s right.
So here’s the thing: I didn’t realize that the need to add diversity to the curriculum was still up for debate. I thought that was something upon which we all just agreed. Years and years of history taught through the stories and documents of white men? Not anymore. 4 years of high school English with only 2 female authors. No thank you. Not discussing homosexuality as a normal part of the sex ed curriculum. Over it.
Except, we’re not.
So, for those of you who would like a little helpful advice about how you could integrate diversity into your school which is composed entirely of white, working class kids, I have compiled the following tips. And for those of you who do not fall into this category but just want to become a little more right-on in your teaching, I present the following.
- Teenagers are great at empathizing. No really, they are. As long as you can tell them a story that absolutely 100% relates to them and some emotional trauma, friendship drama or personal experience they’ve had, then you can get them right on board. And yes, my tongue is in my cheek here, because obviously this probably feels next to impossible given that every soul in your classroom has lived a different life up to the moment they walked through your doors.
However, there is one thing that all the kids can get on board with, because it is the default position of pretty much every single teenager I’ve ever met – injustice. If you know teenagers, then you know that many, many times they have had to suffer the injustice of mistreatment by their parents, teachers, friends or store employees. Now, it is not for me to say how many of these injustices are perceived and how many are real, but the simple fact is they all know what it feels like to feel like they’ve been wronged. SO, every novel that focuses on injustice is fair game for teachers, and perhaps that’s why To Kill a Mockingbird has endured for so long. But seriously? A novel about racial injustice where the main (white) character acts as savior to the one-dimensional black man? How inspiring.
You want to teach your kids about injustice? How about you read The Hate U Give? Teachers looking to explore the theme of injustice need look no further than this story which features a black teen killed by a white cop for no good reason. Here’s betting that it’s truly not necessary for any of your students to be black to see the injustice in this novel.
- There are gay kids in your class. No really, there are. And every novel you present that glorifies (sanctifies) the heterosexual norm is like a nail in the coffin for that kid who just doesn’t know how to find their space. Why don’t you give them something to read where they can actually see themselves in the text? And hey, as an added bonus, maybe it will inspire some empathy in the heterosexual students and we can all just. stop. using. gay. as. an. insult.
Modern YA fiction which center gay protagonists are easier to find than cheap socks at the dollar store, but there exists amongst high school teachers a reluctance to stray too far from the canon. So, if you’re not feeling too risque but can at least acknowledge that your curriculum is looking pretty hetero-normative, why not add The Color Purple to your reading list? Walker’s text allows teachers to introduce intersectionality and the ways in which race, class, gender and sexuality are all part of the human condition rather than big ‘issues’ that need to be addressed.
- Your students are racist. That’s true and I’m sorry (not sorry) if that offends you. We are all racist. You know why? Because we grew up in a white-centered world with white values and white traditions being accepted as the norm and everything else being ‘agreed upon’ as other. Because white people don’t have to worry whether being white will be a barrier. Because white people don’t go about their day thinking of themselves as ‘white people’ – they just think about themselves as people. Black people don’t get that luxury.
So, we’re going to stop pretending like we don’t have to talk to white kids about their whiteness because there aren’t any black kids around to offend. We’re going to admit that being white in this town or that city or any old place is a whole hell of a lot easier than it is to be black. And we’re going to make that clear and simple for our students to understand. Because even if they never see a black face in this school, they’re going to have to toddle out into the real world eventually – and wouldn’t it be nice if we could send them out there not waving confederate flags?
For this, you will have to do a little inventory of your bookshelf. How many of those authors are white? How many of those authors are European or American? Once you’ve done that, ask yourself how many of those books contain characters of color? And of those, how many are presented as 3-dimensional, interesting and vulnerable people with intelligence, emotional honesty and wisdom? So much of our American fiction presents black people as needy, simple or emotionally uninvolved – if this is the only type of black character our white kids read about, then guess what they’re going to think about black people? I mean, it seems to me that in an all-white school it is even more important that our readers are exposed to a diverse range of authors and characters so that our students can learn to see the beauty in all people – not just people that look and think like them.
It would take me all day to make you a list of books that would fit this bill, so how about we all agree that Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Ellison’s Invisible Man, Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Butler’s Kindred or Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God will not raise eyebrows with the school board – and may well be collecting dust in the back of your book cupboard anyway. The point is that there are literally thousands of excellent texts written by black authors who center their black character’s experiences either in relation to their existence within the white dominant culture, or within their own communities. Either of these experiences will be eye-opening for your white students and should be taught as opportunities to understand their own whiteness as well as develop empathy for the types of experiences that black people have endured over time.
- Yes, you really should be teaching this. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone tell me that they’re not sure that we should be teaching this stuff in school, questioning whether this is just all too political or declaring that we don’t have a race problem, well, I’d have like, a dollar. But whatever. The point is, our students get their influences from about 3 places these days: their families, their school and the media. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like there’s a great deal I can do about the trash that the media puts out into the world, so I’m going to cruise right past that. I’m pretty willing to admit that I can’t do much about what a parent is teaching a child at home – but I do know that when that child walks into my classroom with racist views, it becomes my responsibility to do something about it.
Because, being an anti-racist isn’t just about theoretical arguments with people who already agree with you or random arguments with strangers on facebook. It means saying hard things in hard situations to people who don’t necessarily want to hear what you have to say. Being anti-racist means committing to having those difficult conversations, even if it means risking my own white security. Because if I don’t challenge my students’ racism, then who exactly is going to take responsibility for that? Surely not the parents who taught them the racist ideas in the first place? Surely not the society who prizes light skin and straight hair above all other beauty standards.
The simple fact of the matter is that it isn’t just our job to teach kids about their racism, diversity and inclusion, it’s our job to make them interact with these concepts. It’s our job to give them the space to understand and reflect on their own attitudes and figured out where they came from. It’s our job to support them so that they know that they can be honest with themselves and still be good people. It is our job to provide them with the guidance they need to find a new way to approach the world. In truth, wouldn’t they be better off with teachers taking responsibility for this than half the crap we dish up to them on a daily basis because it’s ‘in the curriculum’?