Today’s guest post is from a blogger who I’ve known online for a while. She’s guest posted for me before, here. Jen Marshall Duncan is a teacher, and also mom and wife in a biracial family. She understands racism well enough to teach black students about how to act in a world where they will be judged based on their skin color. She is insightful, articulate and intelligent. I am very glad that she agreed to write another post for me.
I am in my second year of teaching a class full of students who are all young black men. I do not look at the boys in my class and see only their skin color, their sagging pants, or their hoodies. I do not feel fear when they posture, flash signs, or rant about the things that make them angry. (In fact, the white kids I used to teach did the same things.) I do not feel fear when I see young black men at all–I feel love. I want to hug them.
I look at most young black men and feel the same warmth I feel when I see my own son. Then a minute later I feel my whiteness, and I want to apologize on behalf of a society that has all but abandoned them by making assumptions about their worth and their future. I want to teach them to navigate the ways of our predominantly white school/city/state/country.
I say things to my students like, “There are white people who will be afraid of you no matter what just because you are a young black man. You may think it’s not your job to make them feel comfortable, and that it’s not fair that you have to act a certain way. You’re right–it’s not fair. But the fact is that if you don’t try to protect yourself by learning the ways of white society, it can get you in trouble. In this town (state/country), it is proven that your word isn’t as believable as a white person’s.” (Questlove describes the way that feels here.)
Because the truth is exposed time and time again that anyone who is not white or straight or male or well-to-do is treated differently in our society, my class is about practicing how to act.
We practice what to say and what to do in white society that will help us be successful. We practice applying and interviewing for jobs. We practice how to behave in a predominantly white setting. We practice what to do when the police stop them (because the police will stop them).
In short, I try to teach the boys in my class how to protect themselves in a white society that is plagued by racism.
I do the same thing at home when I teach my own biracial children how to navigate a system that doesn’t acknowledge the half of them that is white. Most white people don’t look at my son and say, “There’s a nice white boy,” or even, “Look at that handsome mixed boy!” They see him as a young black man–exactly the same as the boys I teach.
As young black people, there are certain safety lessons that both my children and my students need to learn:
Don’t carry a big bag into a store or you may be accused of theft.
When you’re driving, keep your hands on the wheel if an officer stops you, so he doesn’t think you’re reaching for a weapon.
Always be respectful so no one can arrest you for disorderly conduct when no other charge will stick.
Be smarter, more polite, better than you think you need to be–because it will be hard to make some people believe who you really are.
Sometimes I feel like I am giving my students the key to a locked room, and I know that there are white people out there who would view me as a traitor to my race for giving them that key. I want my students to not only to survive, but to thrive in this world, and I will do whatever I can to help them.
I want them to make it in life with the same fervor that I want my own children to make it. In fact, I care about them like they are my own kids–unconditionally.
And even though it took a while, they feel it. The boys in my class know how much I care, and they reciprocate. One calls me his OG. Another calls me his “white momma.”
I am both honored and a little worried by their nicknames for me. The first time I was called someone’s “OG,” I said, “I am not an OG! I am a middle-aged white woman!”
I am so touched that they think of me as one of their own, but I would never ever presume to be something other than what I am: a white teacher with a black family who sees reality. I care deeply about my students, and I care about trying to right the wrongs of racism.
I am honored that they give me respect and count me as part of their community. At the same time I am totally embarrassed by my privilege.
I didn’t ask to be the one person in the room who has more access to tools of success just because I am white.
I didn’t ask to be the one person in the room who doesn’t get followed around in stores to make sure I’m not shoplifting just because I’m white.
I didn’t ask to be the one person in the room who can drive home every night for years and years without being stopped by a police officer.
I didn’t earn those privileges–yet I have them. That’s embarrassing. Shameful even.
I truly wish I could share more than words and practice sessions with my students. I’d love to share white privilege. Wouldn’t it be something if all white people shared their privilege?
I mean is there a finite amount of the stuff? Will the world run out of privilege if it’s handed out to everyone?
Try to imagine what it would be like if we extended privilege to all. When I do, I see a world based on mutual respect….where I’d need to find some new material to teach in my class…and that would be a very, very good thing.
Jen Marshall Duncan lives in Iowa and blogs at empatheia, where she writes about her experiences in a mixed race marriage, raising 3 biracial children, and her experiences as a teacher of kids who don’t fit into traditional high school settings.