Discourses from the perspective of a white teacher
I have been absent from the blogging sphere for a minute; however, in an attempt to compensate for lost time and lost reading, I have taken the liberty of submitting for your perusal a book review that I recently completed. Again, the purpose of this blog-site is to bring to the attention of the general public information that is apposite the livelihoods of all ethnic groups and racial entities; though commensurable with those voices that matter most respecting the marginalization of voices in the public domain. That means that where voices are customarily muted regarding issues concerning an ethnic interpretation ( here that means sometimes other than White) are absented the public dialogic, they will, as an effort of inclusivity, be alotted here. Sorry about the egregious delay in providing stirring research material. Alright, I’m about to redeem myself… please read on.
A White Teacher Talks About Race
Two disparate and excerpted dialogues that include the author, Julie Landsman, as a signal interlocutor, yet remain tangentially inseparable—conceptually—regarding the juxtaposition of student to teacher, aptly frames the complexities associated with extant concepts of the interplay of race and education in American society. Whilst one conversation involves being a white teacher who is occasionally posed the risible question as to “what do black people want for their kids anyway?” (Landsman, 2009, p. 143), the answer to that inquiry, though paradoxically situated, is provided in a response to a question that the same white teacher had received from a black student in a seventh-and-eighth grade class that she teaches. Whereas the former question was queried by a white, graduate student (representing the likes of similar comments and questions posed by the author’s white colleagues and acquaintances), the black student, Shantae, was responding to two queries that the teacher had asked the multi-racial and multi-ethnic classroom of students to answer. After having had read excerpts of a book dealing with the Holocaust, and being pointedly asked to provide an answer for “things they would hope to never occur again,” Shantae responds, as if contextualizing the discord that represents the unfamiliarity that some white teachers harbor concerning the culture of their students of color that perhaps underscores notions of academic expectations and cultural diffidence, that she “hope[s] never again to feel the kind of prejudice I feel everyday when I walk down the street, or go into a store, or stand in line somewhere,” and, all the while expressing the desire to “wish I was an American” (Landsman, 2009, p. viii). Since both scenarios revolved around Landsman as the pivotal “teacher” the nexus of race, education, and anti-racist activism is located within the adduced intersections.
Seldom, due to the individualized and taboo notions with which conversations about race have been entrenched within the social and public psyche (hooks, 2003; Tatum, 1999; 2007), do unguarded and deregulated discourses concerning race and its academic implications emerge; especially where those dialogues are directed in an anti-racist manner as evinced within Landsman’s A White Teacher Talks About Race (2009). And how could they materialize, in writ or confabulation—especially amongst white female teachers—when Landsman explicates that “most white teachers are hesitant to bring up what stares at us with brown or blue eyes, what is obvious when we see a coffee-colored, freckled, or dark blue-black hand resting on a white page”? Moreover, that reluctance to notice and be cognitive of racial difference is also, according to Landsman, a holdover “from the 50’s, and from the Reagan years when it was considered wrong to recognize our differences,” and, as a result, “[we] white people hide from the fact of skin color difference” (Landsman, 2009, p. xi). However, because American society is situated along racially sensitive fault-lines that still illustrate the social and pedagogic inequalities evident after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and the Civil Rights Movement were supposed to eradicate all vestiges of inequity, the conversation upon which race is the fulcrum for understanding educational disparities remains abidingly difficult. The fact that a black man has been elected into the highest and most powerful position in the world, as president of the United States of America, is another component that presumably bolsters the salience of race as being deemed a negligible topic of consideration because now, race may not be seen as the most significant impediment to success. For as Landsman reminds us, “[t]eachers are not alone in such hesitation [to discuss race]. Many of us, in many walks of life, are nervous talking about race. We are so often afraid we will say the wrong thing, and so we say nothing” (Landsman, 2009, p. xi); even though, as Shantae, reminds us, much is recrudescent of times past.
As a white teacher of Language Arts at an inner-city school for predominantly non-white students perduring the complexities and conflations that race interplays with socioeconomic and political realities, Landsman’s ephemeral analyses and synopses of relevant problems persistent throughout schools that are hyper-populated with students of color is both emblematic and profound for what it represents in scholarly research. The stark truth is that the power-differential that is demographically represented in classrooms today, where the majority of teachers in the K-12 school systems are preponderantly white and middle-class, is indicatively correlative to the resegregation of school systems. And, as Landsman intimates about the skewed ratio expressed between teacher and student within the ever-plentiful skills-remediation and special education course she teaches and observes, “[i]t is no mere incident that this program is… 80 percent black, combined with others who are Latino/a and Asian… [and] about 10 percent of my students are white” (Landsman, 2009, p. 2). In addition to her instructive first-person perspective, other scholars have proffered similar data.
According to Beverly Daniel Tatum, in her book, Can We Talk About Race?: And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation, where the primary teaching corp in K-12 is comprised of roughly 84 percent of whites, the remaining 15 percent constitutes the teachers of color who are thinly dispersed throughout the system. The socio-pedagogic imperatives of such are that “[m]ost students of color today are being taught by a teaching force that is predominantly white and female, particularly at the elementary school level” (2007, p. 25). While the incongruity that results from the lack of relative and accurate information in the curricula that a majority of whites are deprived regarding the realities of variable American ethnic experiences retards sympathy and appreciation for others, “[n]owhere is the current cultural mismatch between students and teachers more visible than in urban school districts where white women make up to 65 to 76 percent (depending on the grade level) of the teaching population” (Tatum, 2007, pp. 25-26); respectively though, the teachers are arrayed against a student population that percentage-wise parallels their own inverse ratio. Therein, according to Landsman’s analysis, lies one of the implications of a racialized, hierarchical school system that reflects the inversion of ethnic teachers and student demographic ratio. Since marginalized students’ voices and experiences are an accompanying prefigurement to the muted historical experiences such student realities represent, the absence of such information for teachers’ comprehension is problematic. The ideological and cultural mismatches are a consequence of the socio-historical experience that has culminated in such arrangements.
Betwixt a sample of the chapters of Landsman’s book that stylistically and constructively delineate the ephemeral occurrences that frame the course of the author’s discourse, we find such titles that provide a vivid snapshot of her school day. Such titles as: “Before school: What I bring;” “First hour: Recognizing oneself;” “Third hour: Student Voices as the Center of the Class;” “My White Power Worlds;” Sixth hour: Expectations;” and, “Resistance: The Power of White Activism,” convey and explicate the critical and cultural relevancy of pedagogic transformation that Landsman infers is indispensable for white teachers’ attempts to bridge the cultural gap that exists between them and their students. Furthermore, such cultural gaps, and strategic means to bridge them may be best recognized within the contents and name of the second hour chapter title, aptly entitled, “History and Literature.” But how do we contextualize the “un-American” sentiment as expressed by Shantae—a young, black student whose ancestors’ arrival here three hundred years ago staked a claim to her unquestioned American-ness? Or, how do we frame the observations made by a group of black students who visited a Urban Education class that Landsman instructed at a nearby predominantly white university that elicited the remark by an attending black student that “[w]hite teachers show they are afraid of us” (Landsman, p. 106). And although all of the students that Landsman instructs are not black, why is it that there exists a preponderance of anecdotal and evidentiary material about blacks that frame the author’s prime teacher-student interactions the most, that manifest themselves in black students’ statements about how they perceive how white teachers perceive them? Perhaps, as Tatum suggests, “[w]e must always begin by acknowledging the social and historical context in which we operate” (2007, p. 40).
Prior to World War I, the bulk of African Americans resided in the southern states as a result of the entrenched history that America’s involvement in the three hundred year enterprise of slaver afforded them. As such, being that the system of slavery was plenary in the deprivation of all conveniences that were concomitantly associated with freedom and citizenry, i.e. learning, conducting business transactions, egressing and ingressing on authority of one’s own volition and leisure, and maintaining family ties, blacks were relegated to and brutally kept in a system of chattel servitude until 1865. Subsequently, blacks would walk in a literal “statutory limbo” until the Civil Rights Era when the victories won aforetime with constitutional amendments would be contested and eroded; yet eventually restored though in semblable form. However, between World War I and World War II, as a consequence of a combination of events such as the severe immigration restrictions that drastically curtailed the influx of Europeans seeking work and citizenship, and the increased manpower shortage experienced in northern factories in wartime, more than a million blacks seeking to extricate themselves from the inhumanity experienced in the south relocated, and sought refuge in the industrial centers of the northern cities (Franklin & Moss, Jr., 1994). Nevertheless, that historic traipse through such an ordeal, as appositely entitled by Franklin and Moss, Jr. was a journey “From Slavery to Freedom” that covered some intriguing periods of experience that were particularly influential in establishing how blacks would be perceived and appraised by others—most concernedly, whites. Simultaneous to the journey as adduced by Franklin and Moss, Jr., and one that firmly anchored the image of the blacks as subhuman and beyond the pales of educable potential and worth (thus making the quotient of fear that much more legitimate because it is the fear of a animal or beast) was the experience as delineated by Lee D. Baker in his book From Savage to Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954” (1998). Within the course of such scholarship work, Baker explicitly and fulsomely details the ideologies and scholarly personalities that established and controlled the imagery of continental Africans and their American counterparts; and how that propaganda, perpetuated by scholars associated with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and museums of national import—such as the American Museum of National History—propped up and bolstered the perpetual belief of black peoples presumed bestiality, ineducability, and “de facto-only” citizenship. The legacies of such are abidingly perduring and felt through Landsman’s experience and those of her students. Such are the sentiments as expressed when she laments that “[r]arely is there time given in the lesson plans, or in the text itself, for a discussion of the lasting effects of this history, effects that influence the way people think, act, and perceive themselves and others today” (Landsman, 2009, p. 33).
The intersection of the past and the present, for both students and teachers, is another epistemological merit that Landsman’s discourse exhibits. The fear of black people that was engendered within the author’s formative years—coming up in the 50’s in Texas—in addition to being taught at an early age that black people were “niggers” and were to be addressed on a first-name basis—irrespective of their age—lends texture to the ambivalences and ambiguities which some white teachers entertain and employ. Those chasms of misunderstanding that historical experiences have seemingly erased or glossed over, can only be bridged when both experiences of teacher and student are accorded equal merit and legitimation (Freire, 1993); no matter how un-standard those relevancies are. By using excerpts of student communications that demonstrated the richness of the inherent culture such students have, as opposed to deriding that which would conventionally warrant condescension when the students verbal skills don’t parallel (not to say that they don’t exist, but are rather employed in code-switching, multi-lingual fashion) that of the teacher, Landsman permits the students their voices as a means of “writing and verbalizing their own experiences and history.” This serves to bridge the gap between teacher and student, encouraging mutual respect for bilateral communication, and meeting students halfway. “And to meet students right where they are must involve an understanding of the racial history they have lived, as well as an understanding of our own racial history” (p. 164).
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Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Hancock, S. D. (2006). White women’s work: On the front lines in urban education. In
J. Landsman and C. W. Lewis (Eds.), White teachers, diverse classrooms (pp. 93-109).
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hooks, b. (2003). Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope. New York: Routledge.
Landsman, J. (2009). A white teacher talks about race. New York: Rowan & Littlefield
Tatum, B. D. (1999). “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”: And
other conversations about race. New York: Basic Books.
Tatum, B. D. (2007). Can we talk about race?: And other conversations in an era of
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