Yes, It Is Time Teachers Start Actively Challenging Racism in the Classroom

by Marilyn Rhames

It’s 8 a.m. I reach for my cell phone to turn off the alarm, and I notice an email from an unfamiliar name. Turns out, it’s a middle-aged white science teacher and self-described motivational speaker from New York City.

He just wanted me to know that I’m a “racist.”

As an African-American woman who has lived and taught in the most blighted and dangerous areas of the South Side of Chicago, I’ve never been called a racist before—certainly not by a white male doctor.

He had read my recent op-ed in Education Week, titled "Racial Injustice is Rooted in a Lie," and he joined the small chorus of white teachers upset at me for asserting that, to varying degrees, some teachers believe the racial lie that whites are inherently superior to blacks.

“In 15 years I have never worked with a teacher—black or white—to make a racist comment toward any ethnicity,” he wrote.

Apparently, the Good Doctor believes that only people who make “racist comments” at work can hold beliefs of racial superiority (or inferiority) toward others.

In the shadow of the recent church killings of nine blacks at the hands of a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, Education Week invited me—along with the Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, a UCLA professor, and two other distinguished educators—to write an op-ed answering this question: Are there steps the K-12 community can take to change the current narrative around race?

My thesis was simple: The first step teachers can take to rid America of racial injustice is to self-assess to what extent, if any, they believe the racial lie. For example, if you would teach black children, but no-way-in-hell live next door to them, you probably believe the lie.

You see, I have this radical view that teachers are just as human as anybody else, and that we sometimes give ourselves a pass because, after all, we’re overworking, self-sacrificing teachers. I founded the nonprofit Teachers Who Pray because I’ve discovered that even the most well-meaning educators sometimes fall subject to universal human failings, including racial prejudice. Teachers need healing too!

Little did I know that my op-ed would set off a firestorm of controversy. While the majority of the feedback I got was supportive, a few educators wrote comments like this:
… the leading cause of the huge disparity in social statistics for Blacks: a ballooning out-of-wedlock rate resulting from irresponsible/promiscuous sexual behavior.
Recalling ‘white flight’ of 20 (more like 30), years ago really has no relevance today. The only thing that this type of rhetoric does is to reinforce the negative and mistaken opinions that some Blacks have about society today.
If you are going to throw that kind of visceral indictment [that some teachers have low expectations for black students], you better have some empirical evidence, and [Marilyn] doesn’t have any…
Forgive me, but for the purposes of a short opinion piece, my life as a black student and now teacher in a poor, racially isolated inner-city community was the “evidence.”

I’m sure the Good Doctor is a great, charismatic guy, but he left me speechless when he informed me of my “victim mentality.”

“Ms. Rhames, what the mind believes, the mind achieves,” he wrote. “I am waiting for one of my black colleagues to write an article pointing out how they do not see a need for racial definitions…”

His words are the perfect illustration of white privilege—race doesn’t matter; race is neutral and has no historical context.

Good Doctor, racial injustice is not merely a figment of black people’s collective imagination. It was the chains of our enslaved ancestors, and the handcuffs that disproportionately incarcerate African-American men today. It caused the whites to flee when blacks moved into the neighborhood, and it has no interest investing in the ghetto. It caused the bloodiest war in American history, and it keeps scores of Americans clinging to their beloved Confederate flags.

My sincerest apologies if my op-ed assigned blame to my white colleagues. Guilt will never lead to racial unity, and shaming was not my intention. In fact I wrote, “Sadly, some [blacks] have internalized the lie and have surrendered any will to defy it.” I challenged ALL educators—black, white, and in between—to look within themselves to squash the racial lie before for expecting others to do it.

To combat racism we first have to acknowledge it, not minimize it as a negative frame of thinking. Only then can we see just how much the insidious lie of white supremacy/black inferiority has permeated society—Hollywood, the news media, Wall Street, the judicial system, and, sadly, in the unjust systems of education. Once we see the injustice, we can find strategies to end it.

So the question remains: To what extent, if any, have you—dear teacher—believed the racial lie? He who is mad at the question is just afraid to answer.

Photo: Shutterstock

Marilyn Rhames has taught in district and charter schools in Chicago for the past 11 years and currently serves as alumni support manager at a K-8 charter school. A former New York City reporter, Rhames’ award-winning education commentary is featured in Education Week and on Moody Radio in Chicago.

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