Monday, February 11, 2013

I'm Not White, I'm Caucasian

A recent post from one of the best education bloggers in the country, Jose Vilson asks the question "What If You're a White Teacher Teaching Black History?"
The premise of the title seems to suggest that Black History Month has some sort of rule book for teachers and that if we, we as "white" people, decide to teach it, we should just understand that it needs to be done 'right'. That premise is validated by the structure of the piece, which points us in the direction of ways to teach Black History (throughout the year) that he deems "appropriate". All in all it is, as usual, a good piece about an important topic written by a good writer.
While, as a blogger, I understand the need to be evocative when choosing a title for a post (and no one else does that as well as he), and I agree 100% that Black History needs to be taught throughout the year, not just during one month (which, after all, was the only thrust of this and another piece that he had written), I feel like I have to address a few issues I have with some of what I read.
1) There is no official way to teach it. Black History, I mean. Our district has no curriculum in place for doing so on the high school level (which is what I teach). Because of that, the way we go about teaching during this month is a bit confusing to begin with.
The task of teaching a topic like Black History might sensibly fall to a social studies teacher (hey that's me), but the state and city curriculum for high school social studies calls for ninth grade teachers to be teaching the Commercial Revolution right about this time. Tenth Grade teachers are told to be in the middle of teaching about the Cold War. Eleventh grade teachers are right around the topic of Containment and twelve grade teachers are teaching the basic principles of Means of Production. So with required curriculum either ignoring the topic altogether or pointing us in the complete opposite direction, exactly how can anyone suggest that there is a single 'right' way to teach this?
Here is a better question: How, in the midst of this mandated, test-oriented curriculum, do we address Black History (during this or any month) if it has been ignored by the curriculum and if it is not tested in any way? Because my state and my district are silent on the question.
That silence leads to a great deal of confusion -confusion that could be ameliorated by a few good, clear, instructive blog posts from some very wise teachers (cough). But all I read was an assertion, (that its OK if I teach it, as long as I teach it 'right'), filled with some circular reasoning (that I should go about the process of teaching the month by not teaching during just the month) and I don't mind saying that, for a teacher who would sincerely love good, sound advice on how to approach this topic, it is maddeningly frustrating to read.
I'm a twelve year teacher. I already know not to teach it during only February. Now what?

2) Writing a post and calling out "White" people as they approach teaching a month designed to honor "Black" people implies some type of separation between teachers that, in my opinion, isn't very productive.
The questions that should be raised by Black History Month cannot be for Black people only. They must be questions that are addressed by the society at large. Here is an example of what I mean: What were the achievements that were made by Black Americans? I think it is very important for the entire society to honor them. Here's another: Why did those achievements have to be made in the face of such harsh adversity throughout our history? I think every group in America needs to be able to address that question before they leave high school.
Like I said before, it appears that state and city HS curriculum both disagree with me. So in order for that to happen, a whole lot of people are going to have to come together around this topic. We're already abandoned by our curricular guides, left with a dearth (relative to all of the Common Core support we have) of local support from non profits and other government agencies for addressing these topics in our classrooms. Do we really need to be separated into groups with names like "white" by our own colleagues as we approach this topic?
(Rant): Is it just me? Am I a hippie to think that if we just -just for a few #%$& moments- stopped impressing ourselves with how cleverly we can point out our differences and instead deferred to our commonalities that we'd all be one hell of a lot better off? If so, just get me a pair of Birkenstocks and drop me off at the next hippie commune. But if not -if we have a responsibility to engage in true discussion that serves the purpose of advancing and enlightening (and if teachers have a greater responsibility toward that end than most)- then the implications behind that "white" people teaching "Black History" business wasn't very productive.
3) Look, I'm not white. I'm Caucasian. And no, I'm not being pedantic. There isn't anything right or just or pure or innocent about my (or any other) racial group. The term itself-white- was just advanced by racists hundreds of years ago as a way to conjure up those associations and encourage more racist behavior (see five paragraphs down if you don't want to read the whole thing. I won't mind). It was used by hateful racists for the purpose of advancing hateful racism and it needs, at some point, to go away.
Now if I were at the bar with friends or on the phone in casual conversation, I wouldn't very much mind hearing white instead of Caucasian. But to be clear, it feels a little different when I read it from a blog post -about race- penned by one of the best, and one the city's most read, edubloggers. Why? Well because race is a sensitive issue and, believe it or not, people still look to teachers for answers.
Were the answers he provided intended to validate our deplorable national tendency to look at a person's race first and all other aspects of our humanity second? Of course they weren't. In fact, I doubt they were intended to do much else than to make sure that people read what he had to say. But being a teacher who chooses to write about this issue brings with it a burden (to teach) and provides an opportunity to help colleagues who may need a point in the right direction with some help and I don't think the chosen title represented those aspects very well.
So Dear Jose,
I'm pretty good at what I do and I'm not so sure how to go about teaching this topic during this month. Tell me how best to approach the topic in my classroom, despite curricular restrictions, a lack of leadership and the usual racial polarization within which we live. Lead, and folks like me will surely follow. Otherwise, I think we're all going to have to let yet another February opportunity pass us all by without having this month as a key part of NYC's EDU discussion and I don't think that would be a good thing.