3 Things I Learned as a White Woman Teaching Students of Color

Editor’s note: In light of constructive feedback, the following piece has been revised to protect the privacy of those involved. Names mentioned are not real. Tales of their awesomeness, completely real.

When I was hired to teach Songwriting to 6th graders in the South Bronx in what was described to me as being “the poorest congressional district in the country”, I mildly panicked. I didn’t panic in a “Dangerous Minds” kind of way, although many of my friends showed no mercy in making the recurring joke. I’ve never been “color blind”, so it’s not like I was in for a culture shock. My panic was in my fear of letting these students down before I even opened my mouth.

I was about to embark on a path that would essentially encourage these students to bare their souls in front of one another, and for many of them, keeping their guard up was their primary method of survival. My role in the class was to navigate them through their vulnerability, but what if they saw me as the enemy? What if all they’d known of white people were the horrible things they saw on the TV (and in real life), the rallying support of our president (gag me) who rose to popularity through hate-filled rhetoric?

…I was wrong.

1. Be their ally, not their appropriator.

While my songwriting class wound up being a handful of about 10 loyal students, the other teachers and I were ultimately responsible for all of the few hundred students in the program throughout the day. I’ll never forget the first day, surveying the cafeteria and realizing that of those hundreds of miniature humans, the only white face in the room was my own.

I made sure to accentuate my obsession for 80’s style by wearing bright green lipstick and fluffing my asymmetrical haircut to its peak volume. My hopes were for my naturally outrageous taste in cosmetics to act as its own ice breaker with whichever students were bold enough to approach this strange, oh-so-white, white woman. It worked.

Without introducing themselves, several of the young girls crept toward me staring. “You’re pretty. I like your lipstick… Can I touch your hair?”

It was the request of touching my hair that made my heart collapse. I know that eventually these girls, if they hadn’t already, would have their hair touched by complete strangers who would never even think to ask permission to lay their hands on someone else’s body. They would spend their lives being accused of being “bitches” should they decide to ask someone to stop, or they could be questioned for having hair that’s “so unusual” to the stranger assaulting it.

I gladly knelt down within their reach and let them feel my head. They giggled as some of them felt how soft the side of my shaved head is in contrast to the crunchy curls on the other side, freshly dowsed in mega-hold hair spray.

As time went on, they would periodically catch me braiding the basketball teacher’s hair, who happened to be a young, African-American man. On a whim one day, he’d asked me to fix one of his braids that had come loose, and I was happy to be able to put it back into place. What began as a one-time, quick repair turned into a recurring scene of a pasty white girl who could braid hair. I was happy when the students would see me doing it, hoping they’d view it as an example of how they should be treated by others; not touched unless requested, and treated with care always.

2. Sometimes, you won’t be who they need.

Life can be unbearable as a prepubescent child, trying to navigate all the whacked out changes that occur in your body. But what I didn’t anticipate was that some of the most challenging students were trying to navigate more than just hormonal changes, they were questioning their sexuality and the possibility that they might be gay.

The pressures of conforming to the expectations of a society that has an ongoing history of mistreating people of color is only magnified when you add the label “LGBTQ” to the mix. For example, a young boy can harbor doubts about living up to a standard of traditional masculinity, especially when raised in the same neighborhood that birthed hip-hop.

While veterans of the culture like Jay-Z have come forward to change the narrative by showing support for gay rights, other members of the hip-hop community such as Brand Nubian’s Lord Jamar have been outspoken about their unwillingness to accept homosexuality as a “natural” occurrence. Even a legend like Mister Cee has grappled with his sexual identity, admitting that he’s afraid of “not being looked at the same way”. For a culture that has become so popular, so cherished, and so wide spread amongst fans of all ages and all backgrounds, bombastic attitudes like Jamar’s only perpetuate self-hate in LGBTQ youth.

The teachers quickly ate our lunch in our cluttered office, interrupted only by the occasional obnoxious knock on the window by a rowdy student who wanted to smoosh their mouth against the glass. The kids knew that was the extent of the disruptions we would tolerate as we had our “me” time. So when the door flew open and one of the students burst through, we knew it was serious.

He began to beat his fist into his palm, pacing back and forth with tears racing down his cheeks. A few of his classmates had been bullying him, calling him a “faggot” and saying other horribly explicit things about him. This boy was a brilliant student, a pain the ass, but so talented and bright. He was the “secret weapon” of the school’s step team and had a big, boisterous personality. But here he stood, seemingly broken by what kids, and by his perception, his community were saying about him. Thank heavens, Jeremy was there.

Jeremy was one of the two African-American men on our teaching staff who both happened to be openly gay. Sensitivity was not Jeremy’s strong suit, but his “tough love” approach was exactly what this young man needed. I sat there watching him coach the boy on how to calm himself down and stand tall, so grateful that this student was looking into the eyes of someone who’d lived that life, someone who looked like him, and who most importantly survived it all.

I learned so much from observing the interaction they shared, but it was nothing that I would be able to do should I encounter that situation. Jeremy being this boy’s reflection taught me that each school needs teachers who are from the LGBTQ community, especially ones of color. Imagine how many lives could be saved if only these questioning youth could interact with the very people who prove that it does get better!

3. They are much older than you were at that age.

Ah, to be young again. Barbies, Gak, Skip-It, Lanyard… I was the ultimate girly-girl who thought that when you get married you just get to kiss your husband for a really long time. After all, Ken didn’t have any equipment to teach me otherwise, and you couldn’t convince me that penises were a “thing”.

My students had popped out of the womb just 11 years-ago, but they carried themselves as though they shared the burdens of people twice their age. I couldn’t even dispute it, their gate was heavy and completely genuine. A couple of the kids even had a deep, raspy voice in the same vein as Tone Loc.

The truth is that many of the students were living in shelters, foster care, under the “care” of parents who had drug and alcohol addictions, abusive partners, cousins who were involved in gangs, family members who’d been murdered, etc. Our staff training emphasized the school-to-prison pipeline and the microscope these kids’ vocabulary test scores were under. I cannot even fathom what it feels like to know that from the moment I enter the world, my prison cell is being measured for me with each spelling quiz I fail.

It was another child, a 9 year-old girl from Charlotte, North Carolina named Zianna Oliphant who inspired my kids to write their first song. Zianna was featured in a viral video speaking a powerful message before her mayor and city council about the injustices of being black in her community. My students jumped at the chance to write a song for her, and so they did.

I guided them through what I considered to be a mock-style “studio session”, and we were meticulous about each word chosen. I encouraged them to confidently disagree with one another, but to make sure they explain why they felt a certain word choice was better suited for their sentiment. Votes were held to choose which person’s argument made more sense, and the songwriting would continue. It was organized mayhem, ideas being shared like lightening bolts, with the students in complete control of sharing their opinions and feeling how each idea mattered. The kids became so enthusiastic about the exercise that one of them took it upon himself to assign homework for his fellow classmates.

I was on a complete and utter high after that class. I felt like I had found my calling, that teaching suddenly made sense and that all the politics behind it were worth it to enjoy days like those, where I knew I was making a difference. But my joy came to a halt once dismissal came and I was kicked back to reality…

Procedure was that after we dismiss the students, we have to stand outside and make sure they go immediately home instead of lingering on the sidewalks. The reason? That area’s high probability for stray bullets.

I’m grateful to still be in touch with my former students. One of my favorite updates was Anthony bragging to me about how Sarah had battle-rapped against a boy on the playground and won. Writing bars was an untapped skill of hers we’d developed in my classroom. She told me I inspired her to practice her gift after teaching her that it all began on Sedgwick Ave, right in her very own neighborhood. I told her that she inspired me, in more ways than she and her classmates could ever fathom.

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