Magazine Feature

Ivory Tower: Lessons for a Teacher

Veteran teacher Dottie Blais writes openly about a question that too often is left unspoken and unanswered: How does a teacher's whiteness get in the way of successful multicultural education?
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Illustration by Stuart Briers

Only one student ever told me to my face that she hated me and meant it. It happened more than 20 years ago, and I'll never forget the moment.

Shonda and I were seated across from each other in the shabby chairs of the teachers' lounge at the public high school of a small town in the Deep South. It was the only place I'd been able to find for our impromptu conference, and the matter at hand was urgent. Shonda wanted to drop out of the gifted program; in fact, she had already stopped coming to class. She had been vague with the counselor about her reasons, and she had not discussed the decision with me.

In our conference, I bombarded her with well-intentioned questions: What's going on? Is anything wrong at home? Why didn't you tell me you were having problems?

Her quiet answer shocked me: "I hate you."

"What?" I asked, even though I had heard quite clearly what she said.

"I hate you," she repeated without embellishment.

"Wh . . . Why?" I asked. But the conference was over because Shonda ran out of the room. Stunned, I couldn't even get out of my chair to go after her.

So Shonda dropped out of the program. Her parents didn't argue with her about her decision because they knew how strong-willed she was, and they wanted her to be happy. She simply stopped talking to me. For nearly a year I was left with unanswered questions. What had I done to elicit such hatred from her? How could I have failed her so miserably?


'I'm all right now'

One day, near the end of her senior year, Shonda appeared in the doorway of my classroom. For a moment, we just stood there, staring. Then she strode boldly to the desk and offered her hand to me. I shook it. Still we said nothing. I waited. I had become a better listener in the year since she and I last "talked." After a long moment, she smiled.

"I just wanted to say thank you for all you did. I think I know now what was going on."

My heart leapt. I was finally going to learn "why."

"I'm so glad you came to see me, Shonda," I gushed. I wanted to hear more, to find out everything. Most of all, I wanted her to tell me the things about myself that I hadn't been able to figure out.

But she didn't.

"I'm all right now," she assured me with a smile and left as suddenly as she had appeared.

I wish I could say that Shonda and I talked more intimately in a subsequent conversation, that we finally built a bridge of understanding that made us lifelong friends, but that is not the case. She graduated, went away to school, and her future and mine never intersected.


A divided landscape

Teaching Tolerance illustration of eyes watching a hand opening a box and releasing butterflies

Until I moved into Shonda's town, I had no idea how poisonous the effects of racism could be. I had much to learn. The community had traditionally divided itself by color. When integration was mandated, most of the white population abandoned the public schools for private academies. The result? The public high school was 70 percent black.

Of course, although I was a Southerner, I was certain -- confidently certain -- I was not a racist. Hadn't I been grounded as a teenager for taking the Blacks' side against my relatives during Sunday afternoon porch political debates? Hadn't I broken off my engagement with a young man because he ordered me, a first year nursing student, not to give hospital sponge baths to Blacks? As a teacher, hadn't I shown a personal interest in my black students, visited them in their homes, attended their community functions, and tried to learn more about their culture and their lives? How could I be a racist?

It has taken me years to recognize and to admit that I was and am a racist. Compassion and good intentions matter, but they do not erase racism. No matter how much I wish to be color-blind, it is impossible in a society where I am constantly forced to acknowledge differences in color. Only later would I learn that unless we first see each other as different, we can never see each other as the same.

When Shonda first came into my classroom, she was very quiet — probably shy, I concluded. Now I realize she didn't trust me or the situation. Here she was, a brilliant black girl in a pilot gifted program taught by a white teacher new to the school. What did I know about what she needed? And why did I care? At the time, of course, I was oblivious to her misgivings about my intentions and our racial and cultural differences.

Unexamined whiteness is the enemy of good teaching in racially diverse schools.

Shonda told me she wanted to be a doctor. Based on my own biases, I suspected her choice was the common dream of other underprivileged youth I had known who saw becoming a doctor as the surest way to achieve status and economic success in American society. I soon learned that her desire was not fueled primarily by a desire for money or prestige; she was naturally gifted in science and had come to a measured, rational decision that the medical profession would offer her the best opportunity for making a difference in the world.

I was struck by her resolve, her sense of mission, her determination. Naturally, I wanted to help her. She was, after all, a disadvantaged Southern black girl bred in an anachronistic community suffering from deeply rooted racial tensions. She had so many challenges ahead of her. But I knew she would succeed because I was going to help her. I felt a sense of mission, too.

I tried to encourage her in every possible way. I shared with her everything I knew about getting financial aid for college. I became her liaison to the local medical community, arranging for her to work in various hospital settings as part of the mentoring program I had developed for my students. Since transportation was often a problem for Shonda, I even offered to drive her to interviews with medical professionals.

Getting Real About Race

After an opening-day-of-school keynote speech I delivered for a K-12 urban faculty in New York state, a white male high school teacher came up to me and said, "I don't have any black students in my classes." Knowing that the student population in his school was 70 percent black, I was baffled by this comment. I had just spent 90 minutes talking about issues of cultural competence, race and social justice in urban classrooms, and I wondered what message he was trying to deliver to me. I probed a bit by asking what kinds of classes he could be teaching that would not include any black students. Then he delivered his intended meaning: "I don't see the race of my students. They are all just students, and I don't see any of them as being black." Wishing to engage the conversation further, I suggested, "You may not want to see race in your classroom, but I can guarantee you that all of your black students know you are white." He seemed not to receive this as an invitation to continue our dialogue and walked away in anger.

In sharp contrast to this teacher's obvious denial of the realities of race in his classroom, Dottie Blais' "Lessons for a Teacher" exemplifies the kind of honest and courageous self-reflection required of white teachers if we are to be effective practitioners in racially diverse schools. Race isn't the whole story or the only factor influencing our effectiveness with students of color, but it is a key factor. Whether or not our students have read Cornel West, they know that "race matters." And because race matters, our whiteness also matters.

The pretentious color-blind attitude of the teacher in New York is one expression of white privilege; it renders "the other" invisible and thus inferior. The refusal to see race is a refusal to know about the dynamics of race. The refusal to know is a refusal to care, and if we do not care about race, we are not worthy to teach in the presence of our students of color. Unexamined whiteness is the enemy of good teaching in racially diverse schools; it is a danger to all of our students, and it is one of the prime factors contributing to the perpetuation of both the institutional inequities and the personal pain that too often impact the lives of students of color.

In a powerful and humble way, Dottie Blais confronts these connections between seeing, knowing, caring and teaching in her deep self-examination of a relationship with one African American student. Her experience brings to life one of the things I have often said in my own speaking and writing: "It's not whether we are white, it's how we are white that really matters." Her story also bears witness to the fact that whiteness does not have to be in the way of good teaching, but when denied or ignored, it is always in the way.

When 'helping' isn't helpful

I should have noticed sooner all was not well between us, that my "help" wasn't actually helping. One day I had arranged for her to meet with the head lab technician at the hospital. Shonda had been unusually quiet during the drive, but, as I have mentioned, she had never been a chatterbox, so I wasn't too concerned about her silence. I decided she was probably just nervous about the interview. I, on the other hand, felt especially talkative because I was so pleased and excited about how well "our" plans were working out.

The lab technician, a friendly, middle-aged white woman, seemed eager to help us arrange a work experience. Shonda, however, was strangely unenthusiastic and non-responsive. I began to feel a little panicky. What would the woman think of her? This was not a time for shyness; I wanted to show off my star student, but Shonda was not cooperating.

So what did I do? What any clueless person would do. I tried to control the situation. At first I talked to keep the three-way conversation lively, then I began to fill in the gaps that Shonda left in the conversation, and finally I began to speak for Shonda.

Predictably, my attempt to rescue the situation was a disaster. For most of the interview, Shonda sat like a stone while I blathered on. I remember vividly the frustration I felt as we drove back to the school in silence. I figured she didn't want to talk about her poor performance at the interview. Talk about clueless.

So what was going on? Here's what I've figured out. Over a period of time, Shonda built up resentment toward me. But I was too busy paving the way for her academically to notice. The more I tried to "help" her, the more damage I did to our relationship. At that time I had not learned a basic tenet of relationship psychology: The "rescued" person usually hates the "rescuer." An act of rescue necessitates both the assertion of power and the relinquishment of power. One person becomes dominant; the other becomes dominated. Few relationships can weather a rescue unless it is done quickly and the balance of power is immediately restored. Too often, it is not.

My motivation for rescuing Shonda was likely rooted in my own disadvantaged past. I had grown up the eldest of six children in a low-income household. A high school counselor told me I was not college material. Like Shonda, I knew what it felt like to be a long shot. The situation provided an opportunity for her, and for me, to prove the naysayers wrong once again.

It was also an opportunity to challenge the dominant white culture's unwritten rule that Blacks were not to be "encouraged" and, at the same time, to prove wrong the assumption that I, a young white female educator, did not have the power to threaten the status quo in that community. Subconsciously, I knew that Shonda's success would assure my own, both personally and professionally, so it is not surprising that I soon unwittingly assumed the role of rescuer.

What I was doing to Shonda was destructive. I was hammering at her self-respect during my prolonged rescue efforts. It seems incredible now that I didn't understand what was happening. Every time I suggested what she should do, I probably made her feel incompetent. Every time I spoke for her, I probably silenced her. Every time I insisted on helping her do something, I likely made her feel dependent. Every time I attempted to bolster what I perceived as her faltering self-confidence, I probably made her feel inadequate. She must have asked herself why I was doing those things. Was I helping her because I believed in her abilities? Or was it because I was a "benevolent" white teacher wanting to help a black student?

I did, in fact, care deeply about Shonda. Her race mattered to me only in the sense that I knew the fragmented culture of that town had not provided many opportunities for her, and I was determined to change that situation, at least in the realm of education. What I did not understand was that she refused to allow me, a member of the dominant culture, to define her, to write her script for success.

All of my relationships with black students did not end up like the one with Shonda. Overall, I was quite successful as teacher and mentor during my tenure at the high school. The gifted program grew, and my students flourished.

After Shonda, I became more sensitive to a student's need for self-determination. I listened with my eyes as well as my ears to the messages students were sending me about themselves, their families and their culture, about their fears and aspirations.

My independent study program became a more democratic environment, one in which students could develop decision-making power. There was more dialogue, more honesty and, eventually, more trust. I became a partner in my students' education; rather than suggesting their paths, speaking for them or trying to define their futures from my viewpoint, I gave them tools and support to do that work for themselves.


Admitting my whiteness

By the time I moved from this small Southern town, my failure with Shonda had been tempered with other, more successful outcomes. But I have never forgotten the hard lessons I learned.

With Shonda, I had tried to be color-blind, reasoning in my ignorance that blackness should not matter. But it does.

We did not talk about race; we should have. Shonda needed me to acknowledge her blackness and all its cultural implications; she also needed me to admit my whiteness and all its cultural assumptions. If I had encouraged her to talk to me about the challenges of being black in that repressive community, if I had admitted to her the difficulties of being a white teacher in a predominantly black school, if we had engaged in more honest dialogue about our racial differences, then perhaps we could have navigated the treacherous terrain of that time and place with more success.

I learned that people don't need to be rescued; they need to be respected. In Shonda's case, my protectionist attitude served only to alienate her from me. I thought I was helping her escape the bondage of a racist culture; she rightly sensed that I was, instead, impeding her path to freedom and self-determination. She knew instinctively that self-respect must be self-defined, and that, without it, she could never enjoy the respect of others.

Because of Shonda, I was forced to reexamine my motives for wanting to rescue the "oppressed." Because of Shonda, I had to struggle to find new ways of caring. In doing so, I learned about respect and courage and democracy and power. Because of her, I no longer oppress students with my egocentric visions of what their futures could become. I simply love them.

Being the 'Other'

I grew up never knowing what it felt like to be "other." I am white and have lived in predominantly white areas and have attended predominantly white schools, even through college. I played sports and was considered popular in high school. I'd worked at a special-needs summer camp and an inner-city activity center where I was the "different" one, but I have come to see that as a shallow, false sense of "otherness."

I graduated from college in May 2005. I am certified to teach middle school English and history. My girlfriend teaches French, and she convinced me to apply with her to teach English in France for a year. I applied and -- even though I knew almost zero French -- was accepted.

I now am living in France, working as an English assistant for schools. I teach the equivalent of 8th-graders to 12th-graders. Here, I think I have found my deepest understanding of being the "other."

I know what it feels like to be nervous every time I walk out the door because I don't know what I will encounter. If someone approaches me, I get anxious because I have no idea what he or she might ask me -- and, chances are, I will not understand. I know what it feels like to be in a roomful of people and not have any idea what is being said. I know what it feels like to live in a place that has different customs and holidays than my own.

I thought I had prepared myself for how difficult it might be, but just when I feel like I am making progress in understanding French, I go to the grocery store and someone asks me a question and I have no idea what was said.

But even this experience is different from the American immigrant experience. I made the choice to be here, as an adult. I am white, so while I may not be able to speak French, I do not visually stand out as being different. I have a French-speaking guide, in my girlfriend, who helps me navigate this foreign place. And I know I will go home after a one-year commitment to see the people I left behind. Immigrant students are not leaving "home" for only a limited amount of time; they may be leaving for the rest of their lives.

A professor of mine once said, "Kids don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." My experiences living here in France have taught me some of what it feels like to be "other," but it doesn't end there. My job is to use my experiences to help all of my future students feel cared for and comfortable even when they are in a place where everything seems so foreign.

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