Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 12 2010

The Politics of Race

NOTE: This is an entry I began writing a few weeks ago, but just rediscovered/finished now…

Although I neglected to keep a written record of my experiences as a first-year teacher, certain memories stick in my mind that will remain there for the long haul. Among these is the time, about two months into last year, when I was accused by one of my students of using a racial slur. The process that ensued was ugly. Since I work in a school that overwhelmingly serves black students, the accusation was taken very seriously. I had to defend my honor to my principal, and thankfully I could provide student witnesses to debunk the accuser’s claims. Despite this, the experience left me rattled. How could a student so willingly try to throw me under the bus? This is an answer I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to fully explain. I’m a middle-class white male who was brought up in the Catholic School system.  I have not experienced a history of systematic racial oppression. This lack of shared experience is perhaps my greatest barrier to forming a genuine connection with my students.

The reason I write about this now is due to the fact that yesterday (Friday) one of my colleagues had the same accusation leveled against her by students in my homeroom. The ordeal happened toward the end of the day, and I only had a minimal amount of time to investigate. I was able to individually question two of my students who I had overheard telling others, but neither admitted to actually hearing racially-charged words being uttered from the teacher’s mouth. Instead, twice I got “but I heard from…”  statements with no verifiable beginning or end. Rumors are nasty little creatures. I vowed to continue my investigation on Monday, but quickly learned that this particular teacher was gone. Whether she quit or was fired is anyone’s guess. Since my school already has a huge problem with long-term subs and the fact that she had a very rough first few weeks, I have a suspicion that she quit.

As a white male teaching in a school such as mine, it is no surprise that discussing race in the classroom makes me uncomfortable.  I want my students to understand that using race as an attention-getting ploy is as serious and toxic as actual racist remarks. I want them to know why crying wolf in certain circumstances only dilutes their credibility should a real situation arise. Yet when I tried to discuss these issues with my homeroom, I stuttered, unsure of my ability to moderate such a conversation, and clueless in regards to how to move it in a constructive direction. Maybe this is an issue that I’ll revisit once the bond I have with my homeroom grows stronger as the year progresses. But as I ponder the decision of whether or not to teach a third year, my own inadequacies in the classroom weigh heavily on my mind, and the issues of race and authenticity are in the forefront.

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