Magazine Feature

"I've never experienced white guilt."

A black teacher reflects on helping her white students explore their racial identities.
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Illustrated by Loveis Wise

“Is that, like, white guilt?” asks a student in my sophomore writing class. The small class is composed of only white students. I, a dark-skinned black woman, look around the circle, throw my hands up and say, “I don’t know. I’ve never experienced white guilt.” My students and I get a good laugh from this and continue with our discussion.

I return to that moment now as an example of the question I had asked myself since the day I began planning the class: How does someone like me teach a class of white students about racism and racial privilege?

In discussions about this topic, I most often hear such questions posed by or for white teachers. The assumption might be that, as racial minorities, teachers of color are naturally better prepared to talk to students about racial issues. It’s not often enough that we examine the difficulties educators of color might face in teaching about race, ethnicity and privilege, particularly in predominantly white settings. While I don’t speak for all teachers of color, there is a set of unique challenges we often face. These are the challenges as I see them—and my general approach to clearing those hurdles last school year.


Anticipating Bias

All teachers must learn to effectively position themselves within the learning environment, but our white and/or male colleagues do not have the added burden of combating certain negative cultural stereotypes that discredit their intelligence and overall professional competence. As women of color, we have to climb the additional hurdles of racial and gender stereotypes in order to reach and connect with students in meaningful ways.

Gloria T. Hull and Barbara Smith write in their introduction to All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave that “our oppression as Black women can take on forms specifically aimed at discrediting our intellectual power.” Other writers, such as Jacqueline Jones Royster and Karla FC Holloway, have written about the common skepticism and disbelief of black women’s testimonies, arguments and general credibility.

These biases are likely to exist regardless of the race or ethnicity of the students and regardless of the subject matter of the course. However, these challenges become more complicated when racism and privilege are the subjects, as was often the case in my class. The bias itself is one thing, but the mere anticipation of bias, for some teachers who are women of color, is a challenge in and of itself. Why do I anticipate this bias in the first place? Where do my doubts stem from?

My anxieties as a teacher come from my experiences as a student, particularly in college and graduate school.

I recall overhearing white male classmates at a public Mississippi university openly discussing their disapproval of an architecture professor who taught about global systems of oppression—as if she couldn’t possibly know and understand the facts of history. I recall seeing some of my black women professors at public universities in Louisiana and private colleges in California under threat of losing their jobs due to the dissatisfaction of their white students. I recall two cisgender white men in my Shakespeare class, after a semester of their building resentment for the queer woman professor, erupt in a loud and abusive temper tantrum. Painfully, I recall feeling unheard, patronized and dismissed by my peers, most often white men, in spaces ranging from academic seminars to my own Facebook page. And I subconsciously carry all of these memories with me when I step into the classroom.

My coping strategy was to embrace my anticipation of bias as a planning tool. In planning for the day-to-day activities of the class, I strategized against bias the same way we teachers strategize against boredom or a lack of prior knowledge. That way, I could prepare for class feeling empowered instead of anxious (although the butterflies never really go away).


Letting White People Talk About Race

While white teachers sometimes say they struggle to relate to racial oppression and certain lived experiences of their students of color, as a black teacher, I can’t relate to white privilege—or “white guilt,” as my student’s question revealed last year. My own experiences may limit, though not entirely inhibit, the support I’m able to offer white students in their processes of understanding racism and racial privilege.

My approach was to bring in white people, in person or via their writing, who have done useful work on race and racism. Some might find this counterintuitive, and there are certainly people who would disagree with this tactic. But I think it works, particularly when you are trying to address an aspect of the racial reality that white people live in­—a reality that certainly includes white privilege and may include white guilt as well.


No Hidden Agendas

In addition to general racial stereotypes, when black teachers talk about racial issues, others might assume a high level of racial bias on the part of the teacher. White students who have not engaged in critical discussions about race and racism might assume that black teachers are being “too sensitive” or that we cannot be objective about the issue. While no racial or ethnic group is “neutral” in discussions about race, people of color are typically the ones suspiciously viewed as having personal agendas.

In response to this challenge, I prioritized transparency. No hidden agendas. I openly and directly positioned myself in the classroom. I spoke about the various dynamics of being the instructor, a Ph.D. student, a black woman, able-bodied and so forth, explaining the various aspects of my identity that have historical significance and social meaning. I did this partly to model how one might examine their own position in social settings and in society as a whole, and to dispel the myth that any position is the neutral, objective position. It was also a way to very clearly establish the fact that, in this classroom, we do see color and all other various parts of people’s identities—not to reinforce hierarchies, but to correct for them.

Since my class was a social justice focused class, it was also quite fitting that we dispel the myth that anyone or any entity is agenda-free. In fact, we learned to embrace agendas, as long as we were ethical and transparent about them.


A Freire Lesson

Finally, the notion that teachers of color are naturally better prepared to teach lessons about race and privilege is a myth. As author Paulo Freire illustrates in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, those oppressed within a society do not automatically have the perspective, tools and skills to critique the oppressive nature of that society. Such perspective and skills must be learned regardless of one’s identity, role or social status.

As a result of this challenge, I found myself expanding my own understanding of race, racism and related issues. In my efforts to provide students with diverse content, I had to dig deeper into the histories and contemporary realities of other races and ethnicities.

The knowledge I thought I already had no longer seemed sufficient when preparing to teach my students. I needed to learn more, so I did.


It’s Not About Me

Ultimately, what allowed me to overcome the obstacles was a commitment to student-centered pedagogy, reminding myself that my primary objective is not my own comfort but my students’ growth. I worked hard to dethrone myself as “the professor.”

This was a writing class, so I gave a couple of lectures about writing skills, but I never lectured on social justice, race, privilege, etc. I always approached these topics as discussions, which I prompted and guided with questions and passages from class readings. I consciously phrased everything as a question, even when offering “corrective” feedback: “Is there sufficient evidence to support that opinion?” “What is the counterevidence?” These general questions meant to challenge ideas about race connect directly to the general research and analytical skills we hope all students learn.

Before class conversations, I usually provided prompts or questions to which students had time to respond. In fact, I devoted significant time to students’ individual and personal reflections on the topics and readings. Students completed reflections after discussions, assignments and activities to help them integrate and synthesize new information or to explore lingering questions. I believe I kept my students so busy in self-reflection that they hardly had time to think about me.


What the Students Said

Based on my students’ reflections, I am confident we had a successful class despite the challenges I’ve described here. Students expressed gratitude for an eye-opening and transformative class. However, they still had some big questions and concerns about racism that had not been fully worked out, namely: Although racial discrimination is still happening, is it still possible that some people are too sensitive or finding new ways to be offended? and What can we do about all of these issues?

The variables can seem infinite, so there’s no guarantee that using the same approaches with another class will produce a similar result. However, this experience showed me that, with intention and diligence, educators can make significant strides in teaching racial justice—even if our racial identities and experiences do not match those of our students.

Webb is a Ph.D. candidate who focuses on literacy, colorism, race, gender and media.

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