Jack Johnson, Unforgivably Black

Yes, Yes, But I’m Also Black [On Blogging In The Ed-World]

Jose Vilson Jose 15 Comments

Jack Johnson, Unforgivably Black

Last week, I brought up my opinion that children of color shouldn’t be limited to certain occupations due to the perceived notions of observers. I especially pointed this out to [some] White so-called liberals, because it seems that too many of them believe that their pseudo-liberalism absolves from the critique of their racial bias. Even those of them doing the “right work” can reveal themselves in the coded language they use around others and their behaviors of people they say they’re “saving.” As usual, I acknowledge those who might misinterpret what I’m saying by conceding that not everyone’s going to college. I respect that, but, when certain parties try to narrow the options of another group to only one type of education, then I have to call that into question. My writing is every part nuance as it is critical argument.

All in all, I agreed with (almost) every commenter on this blog post, but only one person acknowledged that which troubles me, one of a handful of people of color writing about education consistently. And it’s a tall bearded White guy from Jersey:

There’s an interesting meta-conversation that goes on every time you write your nuanced stuff (which is pretty much every time you write)–the supratentorial conversation in white people’s heads, parsing words because, well, there’s a person of color in the room, and he talks in nuances. Makes for entertaining comment streams. (It’s here I’m supposed to mention I used to wield a shovel on the docks of Newark. I’m playing my role well, no?)

All the more entertaining because most of the paler folk think no one knows this is going on. But here, people do, which gets to meta-meta-conversations….but that’s not the point today.

The whole “it’s about socieconomics not race” card we hide behind is getting blown off the hinges as the economy for the lower 90% teeters towards the oblivion. Dollars to doughnuts the race/tribe/language issue is going to become all too popular again as more and more people scrabble to find work. […]

In the midst of breaking the rules set for bloggers, particularly in a niche where we’re severely underrepresented (education being high amongst them), I often find myself in a position where I have to talk about race, and not just for race’s sake. I talk about race so people most affected deleteriously from it have a voice in the conversation. It’s not my own swag or pomp that drives me to this work, but because if I don’t say it, then we’re relegated to a backchannel hashtag or a separate and unequal conference. If I don’t say it, then those reading reduce themselves to twirling their fingers and talking amongst themselves about what they’re having for lunch, or loosening their collars as we talk about the effects of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Right.

If someone asks, for instance, whether there is a causal relationship between the overrepresentation of white teachers (90% nationally!) and the underperformance of children of color, then I too have to ask why we haven’t asked that. The skeleton of the conversation usually goes like this:

  1. I posit that there might be a relationship, especially if many of these teachers don’t have the emotional intelligence and cultural empathy necessary to treat these children as human beings and not as those who need to be saved. I might also talk about the lack of teachers of color and how people of color have a harder time getting into alternative certification programs. I might bring up the effects of low wages for teachers, and how people of color can’t always ask their mothers and fathers to help supplement. I’ll ask people to think about that possibility just for a second, but, if they’re a white teacher, not to quit and rather, just understand their role when they’re in front of kids.
  2. A commenter might say (and probably has already said to the article aforementioned) that race doesn’t matter, and it’s only going to prevent any teachers from going to the classroom, especially those that are harder to staff. Furthermore, there is little research about this, so why would I bring this up?
  3. I’ll probably think through a comment where I hear what they’re saying, but I have to wonder where they’re getting their news from. I’ll wonder internally whether their acts to deflect the race conversation means that they still have unresolved racial issues, and possibly look to me to assuage the tension between the topic.
  4. A bunch of commenters usually agree and help lay credence to my position, and they’re usually of diverse backgrounds.
  5. A commenter here might try to bring up non-racial issues here, ostensibly to add dimension but sometimes to deflect the race issue again.
  6. Someone here, not having read any comment past #2, might say that these alternative teaching programs bring individuals from the top two-five-10-20 percent of their graduating class into a profession lacking the status and prestige necessary to elevate the profession. And they just happen to be white. So why would I hate on that if it just happens that these relationships matter if it’s going to help elevate a profession I’m already benefiting from?
  7. A few people might lend some really intelligent comments here, or just tell me via the social networks their thoughts.
  8. I’ll grin and thank goodness I’m still avoiding writing a review about the latest iPad app or the crazy doohickey that might help my student do better if we had solid access to technology.

At the end of the day, I’ll just smile because I wasn’t supposed to write what I did. It just reminds me that my niches need honest conversation about these issues on a consistent basis. It’s obvious that race, even in some of my circles, comes up as a means of covering bases, not in-depth analysis. A couple of my readers have even confided in me that some of these “experts” in the field persist in an insidious form of paternal racism.

To that end, I laugh. If one stands at a distance, you catch glimpses of what’s happening around you. But when I first started writing, I wasn’t given many options for the perspective from which I’d write. Thus, I either write from that perspective, or I write about nothing.

I’m refusing nothing.

Jose, who doesn’t want you taking this as a means to negate your experience. If anything, I’d like you to see where we both meet …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 15

  1. joycemocha

    Hey, I think what you write is valuable. I went away from your last column and thought hard about it.

    Quite frankly, I think we desperately need a greater racial balance in education. We need Black and Latino role models for kids, those from within the culture who can model that you can be successful without compromising who you are.

    Yeah, at Barack Obama’s inauguration I looked at all my kids and said “A black man is president. That means any of you (looking hard at my female and Latino students) could be president someday.” Now I’m an old white lady saying this. How much more impact would those words have had coming from a Latina?

    The white kids need to see teachers who aren’t lily white and who come from different cultures as well. We call it “education”–well, one way to learn is to learn from an adult from different cultures and who looks different from the majority (which is on its way to becoming a minority), and white kids need to see this too. Better all around.

  2. Estarianne

    The sad part is we HAVE looked at it. There are innumerable studies regarding the underrepresentation of people of color in teaching and administration. Even sadder, there is significant evidence that children of color are treated differently, in a deleterious way, by teachers of all races. This was the issue described as the soft racism of reduced expectations.

    Ask this question : who is doing the most complaining about NCLB, educational reform etc? Have those begging for unbridled teacher empowerment ever seen a High School, with 90% Black and Latino students, try to deal with a freshman class that didn’t know how to read? In a society that still cubbyholes Black students (for all that Oprah and President Obama seem to prove for most only that Black people face no challenges and must be responsible for their own fates)

  3. Estarianne

    Sorry- unfinished thought. In this society, where children of color are still expected to underachieve, people are still looking for the painless fix. And when things continue with only modest gains in the achievement gap, the blame is placed back on the victim- the parents who can’t help with homework, the kids who have not learned how to learn, etc. And to soothe their concence, if they have one, they can chalk it up to socioeconomic differences and wash their hands of responsibility to teach them.

  4. Tracy Rosen

    Keep talking, Josee, and I will keep listening. Just because I don’t comment as often as I could doesn’t mean I am not reading you. I like where our stories meet. Black Latino Male White Jewish Female teachers teaching different subjects in different countries and we both have enough love for our kids and hope for the future to insist on telling our stories as they are.
    Thanks.
    Tracy

  5. Schoolgal

    Your points are justified. Like I said, I don’t teach in your school nor have I taught in high school. When I went to high school, the students were predominately White with most Italian-Americans choosing the trade school or “General Diploma” route. Or like myself, the “Commercial” route. I started out as a secretary before making the decision to apply to my local community college at night. My senior year in high school, I joined the “Co-op Program” where I would take my classes in the morning and got a job in the afternoon. I would travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan after my classes were over. The school worked with many corporations and businesses who gave them job listings. I do not regret this choice. It gave me an opportunity to see beyond my own neighborhood and helped me define my future goals.

    Your call for more teachers of color is unfortunately coming at a time when the teaching profession is under attack. And as reformers get more power, new teachers will be coming from the TFA pool–these are people who will only devote 2 years of their life to teaching and, as many articles have pointed out, have no idea about poverty or any other culture outside their own privilege. Their workshops use TV shows like The Wire and movies to “bring them to tears” (all this is a few weeks of training). And now our Congress is trying to rewrite laws that determine what makes an ineffective teacher. A law that will make all newcomers from TFA “highly qualified” over those of us who chose teaching as a career choice.

    As long as Bloomberg is in charge here, things will remain the same. He has done nothing to improve the quality of education on the elementary level. Schools with the largest minority population are subjected to “direct (scripted) instruction” and they are also the schools that get teachers from either TFA or the Teaching Fellows program.

    So now we have the charters, which do employ teachers of color. But, the majority of teachers are either leaving these schools are calling for unionization. So who do you call out to? Walcott? Obama?? The charters? Maybe the charters will be the answer because it has to start somewhere and if they are indeed empowering their students, then I would have to support their efforts.

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    Jose

    joyce: “Yeah, at Barack Obama’s inauguration I looked at all my kids and said “A black man is president. That means any of you (looking hard at my female and Latino students) could be president someday.” Now I’m an old white lady saying this. How much more impact would those words have had coming from a Latina?”

    Perfect. Not that your whiteness prevents you from saying it and making it powerful, but … how many people get to see their images represented fairly?

    Estarainne, very true. Progress is pain. No pain, no gain is appropriate here? Unfortunately, there’s lots of pain, but very little gain. Maybe we need a better workout regimen in this country? We seem a little fat on the top.

    Tracy, thank you kindly.

    Schoolgal, to connect it back to some of the thoughts here, I’ll say that it’s ironic that Bloomberg would want to help Black and Latino males graduate and find jobs now, after his continued policies against Black and Latino youth in the streets and in the schools. Hmm.

  7. Schoolgal

    Jose,
    Bloomberg is trying to revive his reputation and poll numbers, but people are savvy and not buying it. Just last week we found out he used his own money (and that of his friends) to pay for the January regents—which is something teachers begged to get back. But his reason had nothing to do with that.

    As for Obama, count me out of that fan base. He knew we were at his front door last week and ignored us. One of the best articles I read about the rally Damon telling a reporter that the best minds in Education were out on his lawn, but not invited to be part of the conversation on education policy. As more reformers buy our representatives and school boards, I doubt anyone would want to enter the teaching profession. The way things are going, they might not have a union, health care or pension to look forward too. Very disappointing times.

    But the real happy note in all this are teachers like you who look out for their students’ interests.

  8. Michael Doyle

    Dear Jose,

    The world sees me as white, which means I don’t much need think about it, a huge piece of the privilege pie. (Yes, of course you know this, but many of your Europals may not have recognized this yet.)

    When I do, I’m Black Irish, not “white”–which leads to its own claustrophobic clusterfuck of assumptions, especially when Irish/Not Really Irish/Only Sort of Irish/Plastic Paddy clans get together and do the ritual butt sniffing. We have rules, of course, and should a scuffle break out, it will be repaired with Guinness and laughter. Language of desire is indirect, because, well, because that’s how our folks addressed their needs, and their folks the same, maybe a result of The Great Hunger, maybe not, who knows, but it’s there.

    (If you’ve ever witnessed the Irish sniffing ritual, you may have heard “What county?”–as though my clan’s arrival from Mayo almost 100 years ago truly separates me from your clan from Donegal or Kerry. But because we believe it does, it does….)

    None of this matters (nor should it) to those outside of the claustrophobic box, because outside the box I’m seen as “white”–with its implications of security. So we got these circles of various cultures lumped as “white”, each with peculiar habits and customs, but each with the blessing (for the most part) of the dominant cultural institutions.

    So now we got these islands of cultures labeled “white”–and we assume the privileges of whiteness (both consciously and otherwise) along with its power, and lose our own stories along the way. I think (and it’s just a “think”) that one reason white culture(s) romanticize (wrong word, right one evades me) the warmth and solidarity of people of color is because we’ve stripped our clans of our own stories when we allow ourselves to be seduced by the culture of “white.”

    So, yeah, I’m “white”–but think of myself as Black Irish, because our families stories revolved around this, and because we’re too dark to be Irish Irish, and because, frankly, being “white” only speaks of power relationships. When you strip out everything else but power, leaves for a pretty bland, loveless life.

    And the sad thing is, some of us elect to do just that.

    (Not sure any of this makes a whole lot of sense–might take an evening or three over a few pints to even wiggle out the premises before we get to any real discussion. You’ve created a safe place here. Thank you.)

  9. Mary Ann Reilly

    I read this post and the previous one and thought how often discourse about race assumes the singularity of race to be the only reality–as if racial definition was not culturally derived. As a white Irish catholic woman who is the mother of a Korean child and married to a Jewish white guy from Brooklyn, i want to suggest that matters of race for me are more complicated than the idea of single definition and we surely need to talk and listen more. Last fall, Newark historian, Clem Price, recommended that I read How the Irish Became White. It’s a tough read, especially for one hailing from Dublin. It premises the belief that Irish new to US in 1800s were not considered white, but positioned themselves across time largely by undercutting Blacks. The oppressed ( the cruelty of the Penal Laws) became the oppressor and in doing so became recognized as white (socially bestowed).

    This type of behavior, harming in order to be positioned favorably, gets played out in classrooms, schools, districts with unfortunate regularity as it shapes how we see and fail to see one another. Add to this the reality of white privilege which is often “unknown.acknowledged” by Whites and the idea of other gets cemented, leading to lots of assumptions about “potential” (the word alone already situates outcome) of ‘others’.

    Not being a lemming when confronted with racist dogma from colleagues is an important start. Standing up and saying aloud the injustice and advocating for the student(s) is our responsibility. Alongside this, ensuring that all educators are familiar with culturally relevant Pedagogies is critical and proactive and ensuring representation kthe texts read/enacted should be a priority.

    Bottom line: confronting our own racial biases is most important and not a single day’s work. Regardless of how we name ourselves and are named, we have come of age in a society that teaches
    racial division and human worth based on the lightness of skin and the roundness of eyes. We are manufactured and must acknowledge how tainted we are by the stink of our histories.

  10. Tracy Rosen

    Just have to acknowledge this line from Mary Ann Reilly and how I fully agree:

    “Standing up and saying aloud the injustice and advocating for the student(s) is our responsibility.”

    Yes. Part of being human is confronting our racial (and gender) biases and I believe that doing so out loud helps us to tell the stories we need and want to tell and believe. “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are” (Thomas King) and we are certainly responsible for the stories we choose to tell, the ones we choose to listen to, and especially for the ones we choose to believe as truth.

  11. Sarah Español

    Hi Jose,

    Thank you for this! I do think about this very, very often while I’m teaching my students. My students are about 95% people of color- mostly african-american and hispanic, with a few asian- and almost all male. I teach special education in a district 75 school. I’m white, late 30s, middle class. My students are almost all from families who struggle- due to poverty, mental illness, or dysfunction. My students are also almost always not the only person with special needs in their family.

    I hate that most of the teachers in my school are middle class and white. There, I said it. Myself included, of course. We do have some teachers who are african-american, some hispanic, and a few asian. Not enough, though, to really reflect the makeup of our school.

    I do not share the same experiences that my students have had because I am a white person who has lived a very middle class life. I’m not saying that I need to in order to be a teacher, but I need to understand their experiences- at least to think through what their experiences have been (based on previous teacher’s input, information from parents, and their own stories) as well as unpack my biases and blinders, before I can teach them effectively. I don’t want to make mistakes while I’m teaching because of this- my students do not have to be victims of my racism just because I’m ignorant of my own biases and the experiences of others. I try to work out all of these ideas on my own time and not theirs. I will be very honest: [Most] white people have lots of biases about people of color, and to think that it doesn’t get in the way of our teaching is to keep those blinders on. Sorry, slightly less well off and non-middle class white people: this includes you also. Though you might not feel privileged, the fact that you are perceived as “white” has allowed you social standing and a pass that your black and brown students have not. It’s true. If you have felt alienation and suffering due to being less than middle class, it’s just not the same as if your skin were not white.

    I think that we (all teachers, but white people especially) have to understand the history of how we got here, and to think about our ideas about race and class and how it might affect our teaching. I think that we should use the times in our lives in which we felt discriminated against because of our religion, or sex, or class, but understand that it is not the same thing as being discriminated against because of our race. And our students do have that experience.

    I’m not saying that being of person of color makes you automatically “understand” what it means to reach or teach kids of color, but it is important for our students to have people who do share some of those experiences. It is also important, I feel, to have a person of color as the person in a position of authority- to reflect the makeup of the school or classroom.

    It’s a shame that there aren’t more african-american or hispanic, or asian, in NYC schools. We need to look at what is stopping people of color from becoming teachers and work to make sure that they are welcomed in. What can we do to recruit and retain more teachers of color? This is important for our teachers and administration, and most of all for our students.

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  12. Mitch Mitchell

    I’m not a teacher but I like to consider myself kind of an educator overall, and someone that writes a lot of blogs. None of them are geared towards racial issues and yet every once in awhile I feel the need to break something out on the subject. Initially people would see it and if they commented they would try to say things like “it’s not about race” and “maybe you’re seeing this in the wrong way.”

    As you stated, it’s not an issue many people are comfortable with, yet it’s an issue that really does need to be discussed, especially as the country is headed more a “majority shift”. That and the reality that those in the majority don’t want to talk about minority issues unless they can suddenly, through green-colored eyes, start talking about themselves being oppressed when there’s no chance for them to be oppressed by anyone.

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