I taught in a Title 1 school; I was surrounded by people of color, children, every day. I prided myself on my dedication to my students; I wanted to change the world. I thought I knew what racism was, and I fought tooth and nail every time I heard someone say something offensive about my students. Little did I know how deeply it was ingrained in me.
Sometime during my third year of teaching, we had a typical professional development session. The session targeted English learners, which at the time we referred to as “ELLs” (English language learners). My principal, who I had the greatest respect for, was a six-foot-five black man with a booming voice and heart of gold; there was never a question that this man worked tirelessly for our students. His motivational speeches often left me energized, ready to fight the system that held my students back. That day was no exception. He began the session with a question (later I came to realize how many of his questions changed my life more than any other human that has ever crossed my path). The question was simple:
“How would you describe ELLs?”
Each group was given a blank, white poster board and a handful of colorful markers. We were broken into groups by subject; as an elective, all of the career and technical education teachers were placed in a group together.
We were a diverse group; we came from various industries including healthcare, law enforcement, engineering, environmental science, and media. Our department was a cross-section of every type of human you could imagine. Despite our differences, we were very close; one could not ask for a better set of co-workers. We were always considerate of one another, acknowledging yet respecting our differences. We quickly set to the task.
Because we were such a cohesive team, the adjectives immediately began to fly. Scared. Excited. Curious. Quiet. Once the low-hanging fruit was exhausted, we began to think about ELLs in more abstract terms. Persecuted. Newcomers. Fresh off the boat. I was the artistic one in the group, so I illustrated the concepts with cute little doodles. An unhappy face. The Statue of Liberty. A tiny boat. After ten minutes, our posterboard was complete. We taped it on the wall next to the others and waited for the principal to praise us.
As he walked from poster to poster, he would occasionally point and nod. Step, step, point, nodding vigorously. Step, step, point. “YES!” Step, step, point. “GREAT IDEA.” Step, step, point. “THOUGHTFUL.” When he reached our poster, he stopped.
“Which group made this?”
We looked at each other, grinning. Some of us raised our hands. He stood for a moment, staring at us, his face a mask of stony silence.
And then he ripped the poster off the wall, letting it fall to the ground.
He didn’t say anything else, resuming his perusal of the remaining posters. The staff was shocked, many of them looking at us with a mixture of disgust and pity. My heart was pounding so hard that I was sure they could see it erupting from my chest. I looked back at my teammates, who seemed equally shocked. Some hung their heads, others met my gaze with the same confusion.
What did we do wrong??
I don’t remember much of the training after that. My mind was racing, calculating, trying to figure out what we had done to upset this man so much. Eventually, a teammate quietly walked over and picked the poster off the floor, setting it on the table in front of us. We continued to exchange puzzled glances across the table, punctuated with silent shrugs and bewildered expressions. The principal continued to talk, but while he was giving his lesson, he walked past our table and simply pointed to the boat.
I didn’t get it.
Fresh off the boat? Why was he so upset about this? How was this offensive? My teammates looked as confused as I was. I racked my brain for all the contexts that I’d ever encountered this phrase. My father used to say this all the time. I’d heard my grandfather say it. All the old-timers at our tiny church said it. It seemed harmless to me.
To me, a white woman.
For two days, I continued to think about this event. It consumed every thought I had. I was too afraid to approach my principal and ask him about it; his reaction indicated that this was something I should have known. Something obvious. Something that deeply disappointed him. This is a normal reaction, I’ve been told. White fragility. I have it.
I made excuses. He must have had a bad day. People say that all the time. He was overreacting. He misunderstood our intentions. Maybe he was just crazy. Every time I replayed the event in my head, my pulse would race and my heart would pound. It wasn’t ME, right? (Spoiler alert, it was.)
After two days of trying to justify my behavior, I did what I should have done in the beginning. I researched the phrase. “Fresh off the boat” was a derogatory term used towards Asian-American immigrants, and eventually other groups as well, that had not completely assimilated into American culture, language, or behaviors. The phrase had history, and it wasn’t good. My first reaction was the typical white one: “I didn’t know!” I never questioned where the phrase originated, but I certainly didn’t want my Asian-American students to think I thought any less of them.
Suddenly, I understood. And now, my entire world became littered with language landmines. What else had I said that had this kind of history? Who else had I unintentionally offended with my ignorance? I felt sick. But in typical fashion, I made it worse.
I fell into “Woke Karen” mode. You know Woke Karen: she’s the one who doesn’t see color and wants people to tell her how to be a good ally. Now that she’s “woke,” she wants others to see what she sees. I can honestly say that my intentions were good, but my execution was awful. I’m told that this is normal, too. White guilt. I have it. White Savior Complex? Guilty as charged.
Eventually, a patient friend explained the privilege of my reaction. Looking back on it, I know how exhausted she must have been… explaining to yet another white person that she shouldn’t have to explain anything to. We should just know.
We should just know better.
Recognizing your bias is terrifying, and uncomfortable. It makes you feel uneducated. It makes you feel subhuman, and like you’re an awful person. The first time you feel it, you need to sit in it for a while. Stay in that horrible place, feel that awful rot in yourself… because it’s not even a tiny fraction of what people of color endure at our hands every single day.
And the bad news? It doesn’t go away. Once you see it, you see it in everything. That same year, I traveled with 45 eighth-graders; when you enter an airport with 45 people of color, the open hostility hits you like a brick to the face. After listening to yet another person throw a racial slur about being on a plane with my students, I looked at one of my girls within earshot and apologized.
“It’s no big deal, Ms. Z. It happens all the time.”
It happens all the time. I was full of rage from hearing it once, but she’d heard it so much it no longer mattered. And what did I do? I apologized to her… but didn’t say anything to the person who said it.
Every day that haunts me. I should have said something. There is a time to listen, to shut your mouth, to sit in silence and let things burn, but there is also a time to speak.
I should have said something.
That day the principal ripped the poster off the wall, he said something, but he said it with blistering silence. He spoke out for what was right, even though it made everyone uncomfortable. He made me think. It was more effective than screaming at me, or even calmly explaining it to me. Had he tried to explain it, I would not have felt that feeling that I needed to feel. I needed to feel what he felt, what my students feel, even though I will never be able to feel the depths of pain that they have endured. Just a tiny moment was enough to make me stop and realize…
… I will always have to fight this. If I want the world to change so my students are accepted, I have to admit to myself that I failed them, and try to be better. And when I try, I will not expect acceptance, or thanks, or even acknowledgment, because it is what should have been done right in the beginning. I will not ask you to educate me, because it is my responsibility to educate myself. I will not even ask for patience, because you owe me nothing. But I still want you to know… so our children can have a better future…
I will do better. I must do better.