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.


  1. I understand what you write about here.

    Throughout my 13-year career, I have never once had the pleasure of having a black colleague in the history department. This is for many reasons that many of us in NYC know all too well.

    On top of this, I've mostly been the senior U.S. History teacher at the schools I have worked at. On top of this, I am usually the only teacher who grew up in inner-city poverty. Given all of this, I feel it has been my duty to teach not only black history, but the history of all oppressed people in the U.S.

    And I do not do this through segregation. I try to do this by weaving the stories of oppressed people into the same narrative as the more well-known and mainstream themes of U.S. History. In short, I do it everyday as a natural part of my curriculum.

    And I say MY curriculum because there is no room in the textbook for this type of teaching. This was the main reason why I threw out the textbook many years ago. My goal has been to get students of all colors to see how we are all interconnected. My goal is to demonstrate that, while all groups have differences, what binds us together is much stronger.

    My favorite lessons are when I can provide examples of races coming together and how quickly that togetherness is targeted for destruction by the wider power structure. The Populist Party tried to unite black and white farmers. The Black Panthers tried to marry racial struggle to class struggle. In each instance, the powers that be went to great lengths to destroy these movements. Why are they so scared?

    Unfortunately, the term "black history" or even "white history" speaks to a type of segregationist thinking right off the bat. I use the term history. "Black" history and black culture have played as key a role in this thing we call America than anything else. Separating "black" history into a month, unit or lesson only serves to detract from this point.

    My question, albeit sarcastically, is: is this the "right" way of teaching?

    1. Hey thanks for that comment! I agree that the People's History approach is much more interesting, and much more enlightening in the long run.

      But within that approach, I think special attention should be paid to the groups who brought us that history (from time to time throughout the year). There isn't anything more powerful for me than to teach the second Great Migration to descendants of the second Great Migration living in south Queens. It brings a special 'you're part of this story' aspect and resonates in a way that not much else does.

      In addition, I don't think we in the classroom should turn our back to the way this country's important people treated the three large groups who never asked to become American (Natives, Africans and Mexicans living in the west). I think we need to help our students face that in a real genuine (read: NOT trivial) way.

      Of course, that's all within the context of teaching one history (well, two, rich people and poor people lol).

  2. Well, I thank you for highlighting my post and for giving it the critical eye that I thought it would get. Unfortunately, for the sake of the argument this blog is making, you and I come from different life experiences, and one that, through no fault of our own, highlights our differences as much as the similarities.

    Take, for example, the issue with the title. That was borrowed directly from a White teacher and colleague who I respect, who read my first post about BHM a few weeks back and had similar questions to what you had. It wasn't sensationalist; if anything, I answered the question directly, and was hoping to get others to do the same. People far smarter than I am, like Mike and Sherman Dorn who replied later, did a very good job of at least trying to take the challenge on earnestly.

    We can also be honest and understand what "right" means. Obviously, "right" is a subjective term, and by clearly defining my version of "right," I sought to have people understand two things: that I want teachers to understand Black history as American History (Yes, as integrated, not segregated) and that we ought not forsake the experiences and histories of underrepresented people by diluting it into the common (i.e. majority) narrative. Giving our best effort in this case is better than the half-hearted attempts of the past.

    Obviously, curriculum demands come into play, but, if we simply bogged (blogged?) down about that which exists, then why blog at all? We bloggers, published or otherwise, have a great platform for discussing solutions, and to that end, I presented a couple of people who exhibited good paradigms for doing it "right." I should hope you at least took into consideration the commenters who were more eloquent in their replies than I could have been in my prompt. They evidenced that which I, nay we, hoped for.

    What's most transparent about all of this, however, is that you've made a strong case for the systemic / institutional racism, for if finding narratives of color are so difficult even with Google readily available to curriculum developers and PD planners, and plenty of educated people of marginalized groups who will readily have a professional dialogue about this sort of thing, then we've got a long ways to go before we can remedy that which ails us.

    Then again, as is your privilege, you're going to tell me that, in order to have a true NYC edu-discussion, we ought to have one bereft of some of the factors that influence where we educate our children, what they receive, and how they receive it. If you know anything about me, it's that, if anything, I strive for fairness and equity for all children, but I'm also in a rare, fragile, and awesome position of being able to tell certain people when they're wrong about the children we serve and, in duality, the child I once was.

    I do get the personal pressures of trying to reach beyond the curriculum handed to us, but if we don't fight for some autonomy, then let any discussion we have regarding overtesting of children or teacher evaluation malpractice be moot.

    Thanks again.

    1. Hey, thanks so much for your comment. There is a lot to respond to, but I think it's a good idea for me to digest some of the very important points you've made before I do.
      Thanks again for dropping by.

    2. So much to respond to!! I'll just respond to each paragraph with a number next to each that corresponds with it.

      1. & 2. I did feel like your title was a clever, subtle way of illustrating the differences between teachers. If you say it wasn't, then of course, I defer to you and I accept that. Moving away from labels like sensationalist for a moment, the fact that you spent the rest of the post answering the question directly was wonderful and amazing. But the question itself (and you're the first person I've seen ask it) seems to presuppose that it's better when addressing this topic -actually better- to identify how we're coming from different perspectives (race? class?) instead of similar ones (professionals who are deeply committed to our students) and I think that's problematic.

      3) I have to apologize for not coming away from the post with a clear sense of what your idea of 'right' was. My sense was that you felt the definition stopped at the idea that it should be woven into instruction beyond just a month. Part of giving my best effort was writing that post and calling attention to the lack a commitment demonstrated by people more important than you or I. Your issue of forsaking experiences is interesting for one reason: As a math teacher, I'm not sure how often you have a chance to consider that problem with history. As a social studies teacher, I have to live with it every day ... for 12 years. I can't explain how terrible it is to have this choice: Either ignore wonderful social history of amazing groups by teaching to a test, or have my test scores suffer because I have engaged in real history -one that my student can relate to. Ask ANY history teacher in NY worth the daily salt and they're tell you, it's a tough -sometimes depressing- balance to hold. In defense of myself, part of the motivation for that post was an expression of that frustration, which, for me, tends to flare up during February and March. Apologies if you felt any of it was directed at you.

      4) And I'm absolutely grateful for the prompt as it allowed those commenters to publicly illustrate the great way they brought the topic about in their classrooms.

      6) [[[Then again, as is your privilege, you're going to tell me that, in order to have a true NYC edu-discussion, we ought to have one bereft of some of the factors that influence where we educate our children, what they receive, and how they receive it.]]] You CLEARLY don't read this blog, do you? It's really no big deal. I wouldn't read it if I were you either (in fact, I write it and I don't even read that often!!!). Suffice: My philosophy has nothing to do with the presumption you have made here. In fact, my background (which you've seemed to just have assumed to know and I sense you're misinformed about) dictates precisely the opposite.

      5) [[[What's most transparent about all of this, however, is that you've made a strong case for the systemic / institutional racism ...]]] Woah! ... I can't describe that in any other way but offensive. I wrote a blog post complaining about the lack of support and direction available to classroom teachers like me to help bring Black history to my students. I ended it with a direct note from me to you asking for specific advice and you just responded by telling me that if I don't go figure out on my own that I'm guilty of contributing to institutional racism. Wow man. Wow.
      Look, I do appreciate you engaging. Although we (clearly) don't see eye to eye on some of these issues (and btw, I think we do on some of these issues as well), I'm still a big fan of you and of what you do.

      Best wishes and be well!

    3. erm, top paragraph ... of course, you're *NOT* "the first person I've seen ask it" ... pardon the typo

  3. We the social studies dept in my school took it upon ourselves to have events throughout the month on tolerance and respect for all. Thankfully I don't have useless PDs like most of my friends around the city, the administration allowed us to plan, with students, forums and activities that deal with the subtle racism, sexism, and classism at my school. I know this is Wrong because none of this is common core aligned, but we with our administration decided to be proactive in dealing with these issues and using more than just 1 month. Since we're not busy developing units that no one will ever use I apologize to the DOE, but instead we're trying to deal with real life issues. Great read as always doenuts

    1. Thanks Mike! It sound like the culture in your soon is built around the students. I think that's pretty cool. I've got done pretty good admins over me too, and im going to raise some of what you mentioned add possible suggestions.
      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Check out the nonprofit, Border Crossers. They do teacher workshops on “Talking About Race”. :