Confronting our Biases as White Educators

This is a piece from Laurie Walden, A white educator whose bio is at the end of the piece.

In light of recent events surrounding the murder of George Floyd, many White educators are asking how they can be an ally for their Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students.  As a White American woman living in the UK, I wanted to share my answer about how I confronted my own racial biases and how that has informed my current work.

As a White educator in the US, my confrontation came four years ago through a two-day seminar sponsored by my school district, called “Courageous Conversations About Race” led by Glenn Singleton, based on his book.  Out of all the powerful work that we did, two aspects were life-changing for me. We were asked to spend time thinking about specific examples of racism in our lives.  Immediately, I recalled one specific memory: 

I came home from a sleepover to my father’s horrific racist tirade directed at me, a 14-year-old, because a classmate from an acting class, who happened to be Black, had phoned me while I was away.  This wasn’t the first time I heard racist language come out of his mouth, nor was it the last, but it was the tone of sickening rage directed at me and the vile words directed at someone I knew, which burned that image into my memory. 

We were then asked to partner with someone else and share.  I was partnered with an African American administrator (leader).  As I started to speak, I was shaking and eventually broke down in tears.  I had never told anyone this story, and now I was admitting my shame to a man who was only too accustomed to racial abuse.  He didn’t say a word.  He didn’t need to.  He listened while I dealt with those emotions. 

Later in the day, we were asked to fill out a questionnaire about our experiences with racism.  We had to put a check by each situation we had dealt with.  Out of 50 scenarios, my score was 0.  We were then asked to line up by our answers:  from 0 to 50.  I was the sole White person at 0.  The facilitator then bluntly said, ‘Every White person should be at 0’.  It was simple.  I have never been, nor will I ever be, profiled, stopped, looked at, yelled at, denied, beaten, shot, or jailed because of the colour of my skin.  That is White privilege.

I had never considered myself a racist.  However, it took a long time to understand the difference between the passive act of not being a racist, to the active role of being anti-racist.  As a young person, I did everything in my power to not be at home, so I didn’t have to deal with it.  I took comfort in my colour-blindness and just treated everyone equally.  Now I embrace the difference between equal and equitable and what that means for people of colour. My dad died 25 years ago. Shortly after, I became a teacher and got my master’s degree in education, with a multicultural focus.  I am now undertaking a PhD in culturally responsive pedagogy with a focus on BAME students in Scotland. And yes, that’s White privilege too.

Without knowing where our beliefs and attitudes come from, how can we change and grow?  I am now at a point where I not only own and understand my White privilege; but also understand that White supremacy is the foundation of systemic and institutionalised racism.  I’m still listening and I’m still learning.  This work never ends.

So, to my fellow White educators all over the world… we must do the work!  Before teachers can be culturally responsive to their students, they must confront their own biases and attitudes about race and ethnicity. It should be uncomfortable, maybe even painful; and it should never stop.  Until we get to the heart of why we think the way we do, we cannot hope to understand and help our students confront the racism that Black and Minority Ethnic students face. 

Laurie Walden is an American working on a PhD in Glasgow focused on how Scottish schools use culturally responsive pedagogy and inclusion to foster agency and engagement in their BAME students, including migrants and refugees.

I will be writing a teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders guide to anti racism in the coming few sign up to the mailing list for updates here.

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