Identity in Education and the Responsibility of Power

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Yesterday, a white male educator was wrong on the internet. Well, lots of people were wrong about many things but this particular wrong was unique in that it hit upon the overlap of identity in education and who wields power. The wrong-ness wasn’t a bright, flashing, neon orange, hand-to-mouth “say what?!?” wrong but a soft, tangerine, muted “oh… oh dear” that was likely reflective of the author’s dawning understanding of gender-related issues.

For some in education, there is a visceral response to the third and fourth word in the first paragraph. The response is often followed by a need to insist that demographic attributes are irrelevant; his writing should stand separate from his race and/or gender. Yet, in another post in this publication, Audrey Watters describes the inherent flaws in trying to achieve some sort of “identity-less-ness.” Absent visual or cognitive impairments, we see genetic attributes assigned to racial categories. We see cues that signal gender in our society. To separate them out is ignoring the complex human that is the author behind the words, especially when those words are about race and gender. With that thought in mind, I want to reach out to the author of the post with the tangerine wrong, and engage him in conversation.

So, to that gentleman, I’d like to say… and right here is where I run into one of the direct consequences of my identity — I am a white, heterosexual, cis-gender woman born in the 1970’s who grew up in a middle-class, predominately white community, and I was socialized to be polite. Not just “please and thank you” polite but here are your lanes.* Know them, stay in them, and if you deviate … game over. To “call out” someone, especially a white man, for being wrong? Good girls simply do not do that. Things like that might end on your permanent record.

Girl at the mall, 1989: Image Credit

I, and fellow white generation Xers, raised by the sisters of Gloria Steinem feminism, was given the charge of “just do it” about the same time Nike saw the power in those words. Our mothers had yelled and called out in their youth and our job was to do. To do meant to be liked and being liked meant being polite. In all the doing, we picked up the message that not talking about something was more polite than talking about it.

We were coached to be hypersensitive of our gender while simultaneously being told to ignore it, because girls could do anything boys could but being a doer without being pretty was nearly impossible. This was a mixed message that has not been without unintended consequence. Today, men who sat next to us in class as boys comment on women’s bodies and defend their actions by claiming their words are compliments or only a joke. Soraya Chemaly speculates that a focus on girls’ poor self-esteem resulted in a generation of over-confident men. Amusingly enough, those behaviors that were drilled into us as girls in the 80’s are now labeled as passive-aggressive or not direct enough. We’re told we apologize too much. Between the leaning in and out, women of a certain age are in a perpetual state of hokey pokey. Creating a generation of head down, hard working, good girls impacted more than just the girls who got the message.

We were told to not see color because we should see people for who they are, not what they look like.** Being “colorblind” was a sign of politeness. Meanwhile, our mothers read (Ok, we read them, too) certain books with paper inserts right around the good parts. The books sent the message “tall, dark, and handsome” was an exotic archetype of masculinity but “happy ever after” was found with the boy next door.

We excelled at school; likely because the majority of our teachers would check the exact same identity boxes as us. We became class presidents and swelled the ranks of national honor societies. We were so good at school that we’d return to it in droves — resulting in a teaching profession that is predominately white and female.

That list of demographic traits about myself that I rattled off? It’s only been in the last decade or so that I’ve become comfortable with using words to describe my or others’ identity. Yet, I grew up with foster siblings of color. My parents both came out once us kids moved away. And still, while student teaching in college, my supervisor asked me why my voice modulated each time I said the word “black” when talking about slavery during a Civil War unit.

The girls we were are not the women we became. For me, the life I have at 40 would have been incomprehensible to 17-year-old me. Identity is rarely as simple or as sweeping as I suggested above. At the same time, there are patterns that need to be unpacked, habits that need to be unlearned, and implicit bias that has to be explicitly addressed.

Teachers attending the Presidential Awards for Mathematics and Science applaud as President Barack Obama enters the State Dining Room of the White House, prior to the “Educate to Innovate” event for excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM), Jan. 6, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Looking at demographics, it would appear that white women wield power in education. In many ways, it’s clear that’s the case. That power is made manifest when a group of white female educators of students of color wear t-shirts supporting police officers who had just killed a black man. When the teacher-created curriculum doesn’t include the names or faces of black Americans until lessons on slavery because the designers weren’t aware of resources that tell a more comprehensive story. At the same time, that power is not fungible. The power is so specific to a particular setting that Madeleine Albright’s quote about women in positions of power helping other women in positions of power has become utterly stripped of its context.

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When we look at who has actual power in America, lawmakers are predominately white. Predominantly male. The same holds in education when we look outside the ranks of teachers towards building administrators, superintendents, and state education leaders. Asking why is a needed question from a systems approach and sociologists, writers, and researchers have theories and frameworks. Understanding and describing why is important. But more important is now what?. This requires that those with power in schools take a critical look at our collective selves. Are we, the white daughters of the 70’s and 80’s, making it better or worse? Are we perpetuating the mistakes of our parents and our teachers? Are we still teaching our girls to be good secretaries and our boys that they alone can solve all the problems?

What is our responsibility in this system of our own making?

A few paragraphs ago, what I wanted to write was:

So, to that gentleman who made that tangerine error and to your fellow, middle-aged white guys who are semi-famous in some education circles? Please reconsider the power your voice carries. Stop sharing your thoughts and insight into gender and race. Write in your journal, email a friend, write your post but keep it in draft form. When you want to hit publish, Google something written about education by a male teacher of color and boost him instead. When you want to tweet a thought on gender, find a tweet by a white female teacher who is doing something amazing in math or science and share her work. When you’re tempted to jump into a conversation and tell a female teacher of color that it’s not about race, don’t. Go back into your draft posts, read what you wrote, and consider for a moment that maybe your thoughts aren’t new or ready for prime time. Still want to share? Share your growth and struggles, hold onto to your solutions.

For my fellow mall-going-NKOTB-loving-jean-pegging good girls, now grown women in education — speak up and use the power of numbers to make the changes needed so every child feels comfortable and successful enough to want to return to school as a teacher and knows they’ll be welcome. Consistently reflect on your voice as a member of the dominant demographic in the profession. Are you making it better or worse? Are you trying to maintain comfort by returning to something familiar? Is what you’re doing going to make students other than white girls want to be teachers?

Consider whom you boost. Are you repeating patterns in a hope school will return to what you remember from your childhood? Or is it about breaking down that structure and building something new? Before re-tweeting a text written by a white, male author, seek out something written by an educator of color. Share texts about systematic racism with other white women and talk. Talk until you feel comfortable saying “Black Lives Matter and here’s why.” But talk quietly. There will be a desire to share insights publicly as they occur. Don’t. That was the tangerine mistake made by the white male author. He had an insight about gender and wanted to share it. We don’t get accolades for having insight into race and gender. We don’t get cookies for seeing what we always should have seen, doing what we always should have done. We're not excused from the work but we don’t get rewards for doing it.

Writing that feels mean. It feels unkind, and impolite, and disrespectful. In other spaces, I’ve written about how we shouldn’t criticize teachers who publicly share their thoughts and we should encourage conversations and forgive mistakes. And here I am, using this space to call out and silence.

Yet, I know there are white, male educators who are saying important things about race and gender. I’ve seen the incredible work of white, female educators around rich, challenging pedagogy that doesn’t explicitly address race or gender. I know we need white educators of all genders to become more comfortable with talking about race and that’s not solved by talking less.

We should celebrate that work and those conversations and this profession I adore. I just want to adjust the settings on the sound mixer — lower some voices, raise others, stop some, and add some new notes to a few. And then apologize to those I asked to listen instead of talk because wow, socialization runs deep.

Systems create feedback loops. Patterns occur across groups. Change itself, though, has to come from the individual level. It stands to reason that if white women hold some degree of power in public education through sheer numbers, then it is our responsibility to take the lead and fix as many of the problems within our control as possible. I wonder if part of that responsibility is calling out our former classmates who didn’t become educators but appear to be working to return school to what they remember from childhood.

There are people, organizations, and resources for figuring out what actions makes sense at our individual point in the system. I’ve linked to some of them in this post and listed some below. We don’t have to replicate patterns. We can break them down and rebuild.


*The first time I heard the phrase “stay in your lane” was on the podcast, Another Round. It’s one of their many great episodes — writer and researcher Dr. Adrienne Keene talks about cultural appropriation and how speaking up resulted in Netflix changing their description of Disney’s Pocahontas. The whole podcast is wonderful and Tracy and Heben’s laughter is one of life’s great pleasures.

**Ashley Ford wrote about how we talk about race and identified the “don’t talk about race” default setting for many white Americans. Her observation: lots of white people are either raised to believe NOTICING someone is a different race or talking about race is rude, taboo, gauche. She’s spot on, in my opinion.

Reading Recommendations: Anything by Robin DiAngelo and the book Revealing the Invisible: Confronting Passive Racism in Teacher Education by Marx. Both great authors. Both white female teachers who look at the issue of passive racism and sexism from within the profession.