White teachers, please stop judging your black students
The fine line between empathy, pity and casual racism in education
“Black people just aren’t united like Asians and Hispanic people are.”
I quietly listened to the white male instructor go on and on about his knowledge of African-Americans and Africans during an opening speech. Apparently he’d gotten his “expert” opinions from classroom teachings and a handful of books. My first thought while hearing this diatribe was, “If this is supposed to be your invocation speech, how does this qualify? The entire point of this particular speech is to provide an inspirational thought or pledge of the day.”
Meanwhile this flippant comment only succeeded in making the one African-American person on the virtual call irritated before the meeting could even pass the five-minute mark. And considering how united our speaking group usually is, I was caught completely off-guard by the judgment and alienation of an entire group of people.
Everyone has a right to their opinions. I hear them often in public speaking groups. And while all of my opinions do not mirror Patrick Henry or Voltaire, I can get on board with one of their most popular quotes: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
I don’t have to agree with every single person’s opinion — black people included — but there is a protectiveness I have when a non-black person decides to dictate how a group should act based on a group they will never be a member of. Yes, you can state your opinion, but you better be prepared for the backlash. And as soon as it was my turn to speak, I responded — with examples of how this generalization was absolute b.s.
What I did not say on the call is why this comment makes me even more irate. Being vocal about what black people are doing “wrong” is one thing. Being this vocal as an instructor — a white instructor —is far more serious to me, especially with a largely African-American student base. In a prior post entitled “Stop doing these 5 things to your new black employees ~ I know you think it’s harmless, but it’s usually offensive,” I discussed why five particular things will easily alienate African-American employees in a corporate environment. One Medium user asked if I would write a version for instructors. While I’d been putting this post off, that “invocation” speech was what finally lit a fire under me to respond to that request.
Get to know each student instead of lumping them into one group.
One of my favorite instructors in elementary school was a computer teacher named Mr. Clerk*. He was an older, white man who always reminded me of the game board character in “Operation.” Extremely sensitive, passionate and hell bent on teaching us how to type (asdf jkl;), he was adamant about us learning how to navigate computers when the Internet was still a foreign concept. (This was the very early ‘90s.) He was also one of very few instructors who I talked with for pleasure even when the bell rang.
When students would grow bored or impatient with lessons, he talked to us all one-on-one as human beings and wanted to know where our interests lie. We didn’t get passive aggressive questions about our upbringing or how disconnected we were in comparison to his own social circle. He just wanted to know what made us tick. Because he took an interest in my personal likes and urged me to push on with a mystery short story series I’d played around with (I still own copies of my “Mr. Slick” newsletter series), that lit a fire under me to pursue a career in writing and later self-publishing. When I wrote a short book in my Girl Scout days and dedicated it to him, I was startled when his eyes filled up with tears and he stared down at that simple read like it was a Nobel Peace Prize.
Remember they are children, first and foremost.
Mr. Clerk was a bit of a hot head and on several occasions would raise his voice when we were being restless children. We knew we had successfully pissed him off if his face turned beet red. The whole room would grow quiet, and he’d walk out the room. I caught on that he was outside counting to ten (sometimes 50 or 100). Then he would come into the room, apologize for his frustration and try explaining what he wanted us to do in a different way. As a yeller myself (who got it from my mother), I took that tip from him. Too often, teachers (especially white teachers) can completely overlook the fact that black children are indeed children. If you would not call the police, call the principal and/or kick a white student out of your classrooms for being little assholes (sorry, but sometimes we were), don’t do it to your black students. I cannot recall Mr. Clerk ever doing so. In turn, every single person in our class liked him. We often apologized if we were particularly annoying. If memory serves me correctly, somehow we even remembered his birthday and made him cards.
Read the room and guide the entire classroom.
In a prior public speaking meeting, I listened quietly while the same teacher (not Mr. Clark, the one who inspired this post) listed off a bunch of male members who he would want to be his mentors or to help assist him in his classrooms when he was having trouble. After he was done, a different member (also white and male) gave a diverse list of men and women of various races who have helped him throughout the years in his professional and personal growth. I smiled, appreciating the latter member for trying to seek expertise from a wide variety of people.
Afterward, I made a note on the teacher’s feedback form that all of his mentors were only men. His response was that he wanted male mentors because “I’m a guy.” He felt that men would be the best choice to assist him in classroom leadership, including one African-American club member. I assumed that he must teach at a boys-only school. That made sense to me.
Months later, I found out that he taught both girls and boys. Whether consciously or subconsciously, for a male instructor to decide that the only advice he wanted was from other males even if he’s teaching female students, that speaks volumes about how those female students are overlooked. Black women and girls have piles of examples of being underestimated and disrespected in work environments, social circles, religious and political organizations, etc. The last place we need to be undervalued is in our early years. If you cannot find any useful advice from women just because you’re “a guy,” there’s a pretty high chance that the girls in the classroom can feel that vibe from you, too.
Stop dictating what minority groups should do.
As has been mentioned in “The most efficient way for black businesses to never succeed — is to let self-hate and self-doubt get in our way,” I have a bone to pick with anyone making umbrella statements regarding any group. One businessowner is not the mirror image of another one anymore than one student has the exact same life as the one sitting at an adjacent desk. Nothing good comes from being a non-black person telling black people why we’re not “united.” Even worse, it is simply not true. Without going off on a laundry list of examples, we can look no further than Divine 9 groups who are notorious for doing community service and working as brotherhood and sisterhood groups.
Even outside of traditional black greek organizations (BGOs), my mother was a member of Eastern Star growing up and is now a member of Red Hat Society. My godfather is a Mason. My father, a deacon of an extremely active and popular church, is involved in so many church groups that I’ve lost count — prison ministry, feeding the homeless, visiting the elderly and so on. And for me, even outside of public speaking groups, I have been connected to a wide assortment of people. In my earliest years, I had an outstanding group of African-American women who mentored me in Girl Scouts of America. As an adult, the only reason I managed to make it as a vegetarian for the past 15 years was largely due to African-American vegan and vegetarian restaurant owners and African-American vegan groups who taught me how to eat. Additionally, I was a member of Sigma Tau Delta, another group that can be used to connect black writers.
I can point to almost anyone in my family on either side and tell you a business or group that they are affiliated with. Some are directly related to religious or predominantly black organizations. Others are not. Young, black children take note of this pattern as they grow up and often copy those actions. What we do not need is white people complaining to us about what we need to. It often comes across as, “You need to be united like this better minority group.” Or, “You need to be more like white people.”
Instead of instructors telling both adult black people and children what we need to do and what we don’t do, try asking us what we actually do first. You may be surprised that you, as an instructor, learn more about how united we actually are than what you’ve assumed. What we will never do is unite or even attempt to share how united we can be with those who continuously use discriminatory logic to try to pit us against each other. Ignorance may be bliss, but it shouldn’t work that way in classrooms. Thank you sincerely to the Mr. Clarks of the world who treat black students like insiders and make us then want to involve them in our united groups.
* Not his real name although I am pretty sure I thanked him by his real name in my first novel.
Interested in more thoughts from Shamontiel on education? Check out the following reads:
Black teachers, please don’t tear down your black students
Contrary to popular belief, words do hurt
The one thing teachers cannot teach — earning trust from their students
Why my Creative Writing teacher became my liaison in a sexual harassment incident
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