Teaching (History) While White

Much has been written, though not enough, concerning the dynamics of a public school system where the teacher workforce is increasingly white, and the student demographic nonwhite. Studies show that in California, the percentage of white teachers is roughly equal to the percentage of nonwhite students, around 70 percent. Center for American Progress Teaching Tolerance has a great resource for white educators facing this predicament known as “teaching while white.” Teaching Tolerance

My own experience as a white teacher in a school that is roughly 64 percent nonwhite has been very formative in my personal understanding of implicit bias, institutional racism, and white privilege. This is compounded by the fact that I teach American slavery as part of my 8th grade U.S. History curriculum. All white educators have an obligation to address race relations as a classroom reality. White teachers must affirm their whiteness to students of color, and seek to create an environment that minimizes implicit bias toward those students. Furthermore, it is imperative for white history teachers, in an effort to teach the development of race relations in the U.S., to consistently connect to the ways those developments continue to effect the teacher-student relationship in their own classroom.

Allowing my Whiteness into the Classroom

The examples of my curriculum and classroom management colliding in this way are too numerous to write about here. One rather significant story will serve the point. I have never personally had much interest in genealogy. This detachment may be related to not feeling a strong sense of “home” having moved a lot when I was growing up. Over the last four years of teaching American slavery, the desire to have my students connect with their own past has grown each year. But in effort to connect my students with their past, I have failed to connect with my own. This became brazenly apparent to me last semester in an impromptu interaction with one of my African American students. In a moment during direct instruction, the student interrupted me and asked a very pointed question, “Did your ancestors own slaves?”

I am well acquainted with difficult discussions involving race. It’s something I embed into each and every lesson plan. But I must admit, I was not prepared for this question. I looked the student in the eye and said, “I don’t know the answer to that question. I should. But I don’t.” That was approximately three months ago. I am still in the process of answering that question. I do not think white guilt is the most productive path toward racial healing, but these are the moments that teaching history gives to white educators as opportunities not to be overlooked or feared.

White Privilege in the Classroom

I am quite careful in my classroom about partisan politics, and my language was especially cryptic during the election last year. However, I unashamedly promote tolerance, multiculturalism, gender equity, LGBTQ+ rights, and anti-racism. And I have always felt comfortable critiquing the President of the United States, both then and now. I am fully aware that the freedom that I enjoy in my classroom is available to me in large part because of white privilege.

White privilege is of course, in the long run, a thing to be recognized and dismantled. But in the meantime, white privilege is something that can be employed in the shifting of ideas and the reorganizing of institutions away from racism. White history teachers cannot afford to speak in any way about this country’s long and continuing problem of white supremacy except boldly and unapologetically.

Teaching history while white is a daily undertaking. I still have more questions than answers. I still fail frequently, but I continue to go daily to difficult places for both me and my students. I still occasionally, awkwardly, and mistakenly ask my colleagues of color to be my confessors. I still wonder if I should be coordinating events for Black History Month. My teaching does not create representation for my students of color, but I can hope that my teaching creates an environment that is a microcosm of the lessons learned from the history of race relations in the United States.

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