Letters: Why I Don’t Just Color In One Crayon

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose, Race9 Comments

Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde

Dear Random Commenters and Viewers of My Blog,

In my last post, I contended, from personal experience and other sources, that Black and Latino males were definitely needed as participants in schools across the nation, especially in the role of teacher, head figure of most people’s experience with school and the man or woman in the front lines of this proverbial war. While it may be true that the teaching field needs more teachers, a point I alluded to somewhere in my last scribe, I find the particular dearth of males of color within the school systems with a high percentage of people of color a bit troubling. Many of you corroborated this theorem, from Henry Thiele who provided this wonderful article along the same lines to Sharon Elin who provided this great comment about how the lack of balance and experiences in the urban school setting in terms of sex, gender, and race often leads to an instability amongst the students. In the writing, I hoped to achieve a semblance of objectivity and pragmatism in my line of thinking.

Naturally, some of those who read were quick to say “Why you gotta make it racial for?”

Even without saying it directly, the way some of you reacted shows some troubling trends and why this issue is an unspoken passion for the tons of people who retweeted, posted, and e-mailed my post all over the web. And in no way am I angry, mad, pissed, or even disappointed. I’ve become matured in this dialogue to take offense to this sort of thing. Plus, some of this comes from people who I actually respect for their work. Thus, I write this as a piece for thought. Here’s a list of burning and non-rhetorical questions to consider:

1) How much does my own skin color affect my decision to write this post? I sort of mean that question tongue-in-cheek: there’s a direct correlation between my personal expertise in the topic and the reason I wrote it. But I’m puzzled by a caveat in this matter: I was mentioned as an African-American writer when the original blog was linked. While well-intentioned, I feel that those who aren’t comfortable with race issues use very PC terms to not offend me but end up making a gross generalization anyways. If the person said Black, I wouldn’t be offended. Not that I’m offended by being called African-American either, but if he had read the whole post, he’d see in the first line nearing the end of the post, I clearly give an identifier to my background. This matter is a whole ‘nother post in and of itself.

2) Why do some of us try to generalize an issue when there’s a discussion about a specific group of people? For instance, if we were discussing the disparate rates of pay between men and women in the same position, where women may get paid anywhere from 10%- 25% less on average for the same positions men hold in the United States, it would be implicitly chauvinist or even sexist of me to counter-argue  that everyone’s wages are either staying on level or decreasing as the US as a whole has become mired in debt and other monetary ailments, because it suggests a fatalism about the disparity, as if there was MORE equality when the economy was in better shape. In the same way, I think after bringing up the need for more Black and Latino males in this country, bringing up that we need more teachers in general sounds at least avoidant, as if tackling the issue at hand would be too much.

3) In turn, how can anyone of any color expect children to be interested in the teaching profession when they’re dissuaded from becoming teachers by their primary teachers? In a way, I understand: the school system has a way of making too many teachers scapegoats for the very deceitful policies that ostracizes too many of our talented and bright youth. No one wants to work in a place where all of the blame and none of the aut0nomy goes to the teacher. Conversely, I can’t understand how the solution to this problem is to boycott the profession. Unlike any other business of employ one boycotts, vacating education positions has and continues to have devastating effects on the lives and images of many underrepresented youth. Those in more affluent neighborhoods and better school systems see the value in education because a) they see people just like them and people who support them actually showing them how to become successful in very meaningful ways and b) they have the appropriate funds and structures in place to facilitate success within their edifice. I’d be dumb to say the same about some of the school systems in which we work.

But not once did I think to myself as a teacher, “My job is useless. Why even do this?” Never once did I back down when my mom, who probably thinks along the same lines some of you think, said, “Why even do this?” Even when people put me through hell, fire, and brimstone to see if I could stand the heat of an nontenured NYC Teaching Fellow, I never once told myself, “I think I’ll just quit tomorrow.” Maybe a couple of times, I felt like blaming myself for not being able to push all 90 students into the stratosphere where I think they belong. I just couldn’t see myself going up to someone with my aptitude and attitude about children of color and telling them, “Teaching? Just don’t.” Rather, I mentor as many as I humanly can, answer as many letters and e-mails as possible, comment on as many teacher blogs as possible, and maybe even do an interview or two, just to make sure people like me continue to pursue the classroom, even if it’s for a 5-6 year stint.

I’d never ask any of you, my readers, fellow teachers, and those interested in education, to color me in any crayon besides the one designated brown. As a Black Latino, I have my own set of experiences I share with no regret or remorse. I also just don’t see myself settling for anything more than true progress. Many of you continue to inspire me with your actual concern about the plight of urban students as I mentioned before. I encourage anyone who’s truly committed to helping children succeed to get into education to do so. Hopefully this letter clarifies the backbone from which I speak. As we expect our students to raise their hands and respond to our questions and speak from their own expertise and experiences with the material we present, we teachers have to do the same with what life deals us.

And even having said that, something still itches me about this issue …

Jose, who had an Audre Lorde moment a few hours ago …

Comments 9

  1. Jose, the race aspect makes people uncomfortable, and that discomfort comes from denial. To take race out of the conversation somehow balances the conversation for some. It somehow makes the conversation more palatable. The same thing is going on over at Tim Wise’s Facebook page with respect to the issue of the Black campers at The Valley Club in Philly. Some want to make it a class issue, when it is clearly a race issue.

  2. I was a student, and now a teacher, in two homogenously White communities. Unsurprisingly, I NEVER had a non-White teacher until I went to college, where I had classes from Asian and Middle Eastern professors, but still no Latino or Black professors. As a teacher, I’ve had no non-White colleagues. Curiously, the area in which I attended high school and college does have a significant Latino population, yet even the Spanish teachers aren’t Latino.

    It is a racial issue, in that it is a STUDENT issue, and that our students are human beings with different cultural and racial backgrounds. A child in my city could go all the way through public school under the mistaken impression that being a White female is a prerequisite for a teaching certificate. (I’m no exception to that de facto rule – and not surprisingly, it is harder for me to inspire and connect with my Latino male students, because they tend to see me as an outsider to their world.)

    Our students would be so much better off if they had male and female teachers, White and Black and Latino and Asian and Middle Eastern and American Indian teachers. But if they don’t grow up with role models in those positions, is it any wonder that they don’t think of being a teacher as a career possibility? It’s a Catch-22. I’m hoping that teacher diversity is better outside of my cultural bubble – it’s definitely in our students’ and schools’ best interest.

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  4. I admire anyone that gets into the teaching profession and I have shared this with you before, but the reason many of us never considered it as a profession is because…

    1. like nursing, teaching is seen as a female profession
    2. many teachers told tell me that if they had to do it over, they too would not be teachers (maybe professors or administrators)
    3. private sector pays a lot more than teaching
    4. the bullshit with being underfunded (how can you underpay someone and yet expect them to dig into their funds to pay for supplies)
    5. the reality that teachers are middle classe and no matter how hard they worked, their income was predetermined
    6. children in impoverished neighborhoods tend to have ‘issues’ that many people do not want to deal with/be a surrogate parent
    7. teachers working multiple jobs to make ends meet
    8. my undergrad = actuary from purdue
    my masters = mba from chapel hill
    my loans = astronomical
    i can not afford to teach

  5. We need more AA teachers especially males. Period. No explanation is needed. As more and more AA males drop out of school, having an EFFECTIVE AA teacher can do wonders for the self esteem of young boys who never come into contact with males (Not even at home!). I can’t believe that people would challenge you about your article. I thought it was wonderful. Yes great teachers come in all colors and from all ethnic groups but right now we don’t have enough EFFECTIVE AA male teachers for anyone to make this an issue.
    Stay Strong!

  6. I am a white, female teacher who not only agrees with everything you wrote but has been talking about the same issues for years. My department has zero Black or Latino male teachers. We only have one female Black teacher and no Latinos. There is an over abundance of a different race (not Caucasian) which can also send the wrong messages Thinking back on my education, I had one Black teacher–for African American studies and one Latine–for Puerto Rican studies.

    Another problem is representation of these ethnic groups in higher level classes. In my school, there was one African American female taking AP calculus, none in AP physics and only a handful (if that many) in many of the other AP classes.

    I hate to say this but discrimination is alive and well in 21st century NYC.

  7. I am a white, middle aged male who grew up in NYC and decided at the age of 48 to become a teacher. I teach in a middle school in a racially mixed neighborhood in the Bronx that in many ways is similar to the racially mixed neighborhood I grew up in in Manhattan and the racially mixed village I chose to live in a northern suburb.

    I am very conscious of the differences between my students and I, but I am also equally conscious of the similarities. We are all in a patronizing system that devalues us and our potential contributions; a system that even if it is not set up to maintain and deepen class divisions, sure seems like it is.

    When I teach my Latino, Afro-American, Indian, African and central European students I see each as a potential President, doctor, teacher and auto mechanic for each student holds many possibilities. My job is not to decide what they will be but to give them every tool possible to be whatever it is they want to be.

    I am fortunate to have colleagues, and my students fortunate to have male and female teachers, who are African-American, Latino, Indian, and Caucasian.

    Yes, we have differences that could divide us if we allow them to, but we have far more similarities than differences. I am not denying that racism and discrimination exist, I am just not willing to let someone else define me or tell me what I’m supposed to think or how I’m supposed to act. Fortunatelty, the people I work with feel the same way, and our students — all of them — are the beneficiaries.

  8. Yup, this particular issue IS a race issue. It’s as simple and complex as all that. The fact that North American schools need more black, latino, and I’m going to add native teachers is a given – that’s the simple part. The complex part has to do with shaking down and rebuilding our present educational system.

    For people to think that being a teacher is somehow a sucky job, our system is sick.

    For teachers to track non-white kids into remedial programs as the default, our system is sick.

    For students to get through school without having one black/latino/native role model, our system is sick.

    Jose, is the part that is itching you about this issue that there are a whole lot of good teachers who know this yet we aren’t collectively doing something about it besides writing about it?

    I think that many of us do our best by being good people, by showing our students literature and learning beyond what ‘dead white men’ (I’m quoting Willingham here, from his book on why students don’t like school. Don’t read it.) have decided is important to learn, but we are doing it in our classrooms, with the doors closed. Even if we say the doors aren’t closed, high school is generally set up so that others don’t walk through our open doors.

    Maybe our present system is so sick we need to go beyond working from within it. Could this be a question of making new schools?

    Tracy, who apologizes for writing this mega comment but I sure have a lot to say on this.

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