The White Girl

“Hey, Ms. L!  Did you hear what he called me?  He called  me the n-word!” said one of my African-American boys about another African-American boy (who also happens to be his best friend).  I stared at him.  This was another game of lets make the white girl squeamish about race.  “Oh,” I replied, not taking the bait, “he called you nice?  No wonder you’re shocked.”  It was his turn to stare.  He tried to engage me again in the “n-word”, but after my “Really?!” look, he quieted down.

There’s a lot of discussion about creating “teachable” moments about race in the classroom, but in my classroom, it’s mostly joking about one’s own race.  My students are very diverse and probably know more about other’s races than the average kid.  It’s quite often that I’m the only white person in the room.  It often seems to me that all my kids need is acknowledgement from me that I’m white.  Once a student noticed my blue rose tattoo and immediately asked if I was a Crip to which I responded with a curtsey, “I’m just a little white girl from the suburbs.”    Evidently, though, it’s not always clear.  One student  once pointed out how there were no white people in class, and some others pointed at me.  What followed was a heated debate about what color I was, because according to some, I was not “white”.   Years later, I’m still not sure how that discussion came about or why it was debated.

When I worked on my credential, one the classes I most anticipated was the one on the mullti-cultural classroom.  This was information I needed!  Unfortunately it was the worst class I ever had.  The professor had our first meeting be a three hour discussion of multi-cultural awareness: do we do it or do we live it?  I still don’t know what it means, and the question was so poorly worded with abysmal grammar, that I will never know.  He asked me, “Who is the minority in your classroom?”  He didn’t believe me when I said, “I am.”  How could I be the minority?  I’m white.  He also didn’t believe my peer– a Japanese-American teaching at an affluent school with a predominantly white population.  She was the minority in her classroom.  All we learned in that class was how not to teach.

To make up for my noodle-salad up bringing, I went to the source. My first year was spent pumping my kids for information.  We did projects about heritage and family. They brought in their traditional foods.   One girl taught me island dances. They explained what quincineras and debuts are. We looked on the map to see where they were from.  I shared my stories about growing up white (they’re amazed that I am only child and have only five cousins who do not even live in my state).  They tell  me about Fiji, Pakistan, India, Samoa, Vietnam, and Cambodia.  I tell them about far off places like Michigan.

Learning how to deal with race had it’s tough moments. One class of freshmen went through a phase of saying that everything was “racist”.  I was racist for asking them to open their books, turn in their homework, or answer a question.  I really wanted to tell them that they were really racist: they didn’t do their homework because I was white.   I didn’t say that, but it would have been nice for the shoe to be on the other foot, so they could see that racism wasn’t just something only white people do.  Instead I tried to tell them that calling a non-racist person racist degraded any valid claims they had to real racism.  It also didn’t honor the work of those who had worked tirelessly for equality, sometimes giving up their lives.  Those crusaders didn’t make the strides they did so some kids could call the wind racist for blowing.

The real lesson about race is to not hide from it.  I used to be afraid to acknowledge my students’ race– I felt like I might “out” someone.  I was also afraid to share my stories, that I would have nothing to offer them, that my past was not relevant.  However, To hide the fact or not acknowledge the fact that a student is black, Cambodian, Hmong, Russian, or whoever they are, is to deny them that part of their identity.  Being open and honest about their experiences is one way that we find our similarities.  I also have to be upfront about who I am, where I come from, and the experiences that  shaped me into this little white girl at the front of the class.

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22 thoughts on “The White Girl

  1. I think my best learning moment was when I allowed a student to read Shakespeare in “his accent.” Although he was a Canadian Asian student, he did a fantastic job and made grade 10 students enjoy Shakespeare. Another awesome blog post. 🙂

  2. I like Michigan, it’s not too far off for me. Good read, I am so tired though of this country being completely obsessed with race. It’s so out of hand.

  3. Yay rainbows! I love that you acknowledge race and create lessons about it for students. You teach English, right? Have you ever considered assigning Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man? Most powerful book about race I’ve ever read. It taught me some very important lessons.

    1. Thank you. First I have to read Invisible Man for myself. I don’t think it’s been okayed by the district, nor do we have copies (I have to check). I have heard great things about it, but the most I’ve done/read is Richard Wright’s Native Son. That is one grueling book.

  4. I enjoyed this post thoroughly!
    Racism exists in so many different forms around the world.In India, we don’t have the color issue but rather religion, state, language or dialect. This may sound strange to you but there are people in the state of Uttar Pradesh who hate the people of the state of Bihar and we experience various forms of discrimination in everyday life just because of our tone or accent. Though sometimes it’s really subtle and most of us take it as a joke and move on. 🙂
    It’s really nice that you are teaching such a muticultural class. I think it also helps in our own growth process.
    I don’t think calling an Indian “Indian” or a Cambodian “Cambodian” is racism. You are right we have our own identities we should be proud of.

    1. Thank you! We do have prejudice here in the states about people from other regions of the country. In the 1930s there was a lot prejudice against “Okies”– people who moved from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. They were out seeking jobs anywhere, but no one wanted them around because they themselves needed work. I agree with you… we need to be accepting of each other’s identities in order to grow.

  5. Just back from Illinois. Hard to believe, but I think their school system is as bankrupt as California’s. From what I can tell from your posts, you would be a wonderful teacher anywhere, but you would be more successful if you had some decent funding as well as administrative and parental support. But your one-on-one interaction is spot on! Being outspoken about race is a huge step toward getting everyone to stop seeing the “other” as “other.”

    1. Thank you for your kind words! Funding, smaller class sizes, no more pay cuts, etc. would be nice. My admin is very supportive of me, but parental involvement is such an obstacle. When it comes to race in the classroom, I think it’s a case by case basis. Some kids are just making fun of themselves and some stereotypes are funny (I can’t dance), but others are more serious and demand to be spoken about. It’s a fine balance between creating awareness, keeping it fun, and allowing the kids to be themselves.

  6. Great post. It’s so true that racism can go in many directions. And good for you figuring out how to address race. If I were a teacher I would worry that students wouldn’t respect the middle class white girl. Sounds like you’ve moved past that.

    1. Thank you. When I first started teaching, I felt really irrelevant. Nothing in my life prepared me for them, and for the first time I understood what it meant to be “privileged”. But I slowly started to tell them small stories about my life, thinking that they didn’t care. One day a boy said, “Tell us more stories. We like your stories.” It really floored me that they even took an interest. That experience gave me confidence to be more myself in class, and I didn’t feel like I had to “hide” my life and experiences because they weren’t theirs.

    1. Thank you! That class and that professor angered me so much– such a waste of time and money. I got so mad one day that I had to say something during class, and you know me, I’m not confrontational. I wrote a page and a half on his evaluation (none of it good). It was insane.

  7. Amazing Post!! I grew up in the Caribbean and of course I knew I was black but Antigua is not a hugely racist place and we have a very big white population. When I moved to the Philippines, it was the first time in my life that I actually “felt” black. I’m not sure how to explain it but I felt like people always seemed to point it out. Why can’t I be that nice lady that lives up the block instead of that nice, black, lady that lives up the block? I think the world is obsessed with race and not in the good way of trying to educate themselves about other races but by bringing others down because of factors they have no control over. I guess this will be a battle fought for thousands of generations to come! Good going with trying to educate about race in a positive way!!

    1. Thank you for your response! I’m with you… I think people are going to argue about race for a long time. Our race is something we have no control over– it would be nice if we could all get over it. I read once that were on the cusp of the post-racial world because so many people are in bi-racial relationships and having children. Those children will have children and then no one will know what race anyone “Is”. How can we be racist if we’re all all things?

  8. “No wonder you’re shocked,” perfect! I love when you can apply just enough smartassery as to shut them down, without lowering yourself to their level. Well played!

    1. Thank you! Teens respond to smartassery (my new favorite word), as long as it’s not mean. Humor deflects a lot in the classroom, and the kids “get it”– they’ve been “shut down” but not humiliated or called out.

  9. I can thoroughly connect with ur thoughts… Currently my class has students from all the states of India and a few Americans, British, and French… It’s interesting to see the professors taking efforts to get through their thoughts in a way that those from different cultural backgrounds can relate to..

    1. That must be quite a challenge for your professors! It would be interesting to see what they say to the others about the curriculum and how your class is different from mine.

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