I wrote a post last week that got just as much praise as it did condemnation. The negative responses took me somewhat by surprise. I thought my message of reverence and thanks to my high school teachers — who were, with the exception of one, all white — for holding me to the same high academic standards that they did as the white students was both obvious and genuine. Well, based on the comments I read, my message was not received by all with the intention with which it was written and that’s fine. A conversation was started. Others were even inspired to write their own pieces addressing what I said. A nerve was hit and a revelatory dialogue ensued that I suspect needed to happen a long time ago, and one which needs to continue along its course until action is taken. Change rarely happens without such uncomfortable discourses and responses occurring first.
The social activist and change-agent parts of me are pleased with the results of that post, everything taken into account; however, the English teacher and writer in me was not pleased with aspects of the responses it received and so I wrote a follow-up blog to clarify my initial point. I thought that, after so doing, I could lay the whole thing to rest, but here I am a week later and one comment keeps blaring resoundingly in my mind.
A reader referred to my initial blog as one that was wrestling with “White Savior Complex.” Whoa! Wait? What? White Savior Complex? Anyone who has read my writing and/or knows me personally or professionally knows that I am far from a docile, status quo, socially unawakened, shucking-and-jiving Black woman when it comes to co-signing to mainstream White American ideologies about anything, least of all education. I find it disturbing that revering my White teachers is likened to being some kind of Uncle Tom.
Let’s just keep it 100 percent: Whether as a teacher, student, or parent, do we not know of White teachers who teach all Black and Brown students who don’t think very much of what their students are capable of accomplishing? Have we never encountered White teachers who are afraid of their students for no other reason than their misconceived notions of their students’ skin color? Am I the only student-turned-educator who is willing to publicly admit that there are more than a handful of White teachers who really have a disdain for and lack of understanding of who their students of color really are and that their skewed thinking plays out in Black and Brown boys and girls not getting the instruction or opportunities that they would if they were a White kid in those same teachers’ classes?
I know of such teachers. I’ve had the displeasure of working with such teachers. I’ve sat at many a table at many a professional development or scoring site where White teachers have let their hair down and let their true colors show as if they forgot that my Black self was right in front of them. I’ve heard White teachers refer to Black students as monkeys. I’ve seen White teachers who teach high school give their students work that Black teachers gave those same students in middle school.
Given those experiences, is it no wonder that I am all-the-more grateful to have had White teachers during the eighties and nineties on Long Island — still one of the most segregated educational and real estate constituencies in the United States — that, by my own account and the account of other students of color from that era, never let our skin color or theirs get in the way of providing us with an excellent education with all of the amenities that an excellent education affords its recipient? It shouldn’t be. Low teacher expectation is far from a new phenomenon in the world of education. Apparently my experiences were not convincing enough regarding this matter. Perhaps a study about the effect of low expectations of White teachers on their Black and Brown students in comparison to the expectations of Black teachers of those same students will carry more intellectual weight.
According to a study from John Hopkins
When a black teacher and a white teacher evaluate the same black student, the white teacher is about 30 percent less likely to predict the student will complete a four-year college degree, the study found. White teachers are also almost 40 percent less likely to expect their black students will graduate high school.” Furthermore, “With white students, the ratings from both teachers tended to be the same. But with black students, boys in particular, there were big differences—the white teachers had much lower expectations than black teachers for how far the black students would go in school.
MY WHITE TEACHERS NEVER CONVEYED LOWER EXPECTATIONS FOR ME, not only in school but in life. They told me how smart I was — not smart for a Black girl — just smart. They echoed everything my parents told me about going to college and doing something great with the many talents they saw I possessed. They told me I could be anything I wanted to be if I worked hard and persevered. My teachers and I had very different upbringings and I don’t know how many of them had much real-life, hands-on exposure to Black and Brown students — especially ones like me who were not only intelligent but very outspoken, opinionated, argumentative, and even rebellious, at times — prior to teaching at Elmont Memorial High School. If they were racist, I surely didn’t know about it because that wasn’t the vibe in my classes. The teacher sets the tone in the classroom and the only tone these White teachers from Elmont set for me was that of excellence.
I’m thoroughly impressed by that track record — a track record from which I have most definitely benefited. I’m mean, just look — you’re reading the blog of a product of EMHS! Were they the only people who affected my success? No. Of course not. Did my teachers have a big stake in me being who I am today? Hell, yeah, and, for the record: I’m allowed to shout out my White teachers without taking some pseudo Ben Carson-esque heat for not talking enough about the need for Black teachers (which is a lie because I do that all the time) just like I’m allowed to remind this country that Black Lives Matter without having to state that all lives matter.
EMHS definitely needs to hire more teachers of color but the fact is that this didn’t happen in the six years that I was there for junior and high school and it hasn’t happened in the twenty-five years since I graduated from high school. It’s pretty clear that diversifying its teaching staff is not on the top of its priority list and no amount of acknowledgment for the White teachers that they do hire is going to change that. That approach is too simplistic. Too easy. I am not your scapegoat. But I just might be your game-changer.