Last week, a black, female student brought in a pizza to class. When she walked in, I greeted her and said “Hi! It’s good to see you. Pizza? I hope you saved a slice for me. But you know, it’s probably going to be distracting to have a whole pizza in here- could you finish eating it in the hallway? Or else promise that there are no pizza traces left when you leave? “
She said “Of course- I understand. Thanks for being so cool about me finishing my lunch. I can’t wait to find out what we’re going to learn today.”
This is what really happened:
Last week, a black, female student brought a pizza to class. When she walked in, I snapped, “You can’t have that in here!” She sat down quietly next to another black female student who pointed to two white male students eating Subway sandwiches and said, “Um, Ms. Noble, yes she can.”
Immediately, I felt the weight of my bias rising in my throat. My nerves get uneasy when I feel I have made a mistake because I have always, always been the harshest critic on myself. This was a huge mistake on my part. Double standards? Racism? Prejudice? Those are things I thought I was actively interrupting on a daily basis. After class, I tried to talk with her to apologize and tell her how right she was and how wrong I was. She told me “It’s okay, it’s okay.” But I knew it wasn’t okay.
Here’s what she told me a few days later: “I felt so sad, Ms. Noble, because I thought you were different. You taught us all that stuff about prejudice and race and systems. But then you didn’t even do it. It just sucks to find out that you are just another white woman.”
Last week, I was racist in my classroom, and she had to bear the brunt of it. I told her how sorry I was that she was on the receiving end of my racism. She amazed me with her grace. She told me that she was glad it was her that it happened to because she could tell that I was reflecting on what had happened and was going to learn from it. She told me that she wanted me to use this example in future classes. What kind of teenager is that mature?
Being a white, female educator is not that surprising. All but two of my teachers kindergarten through my Master’s degree were white. I took the time to count them up.
38 white women
+ 21 white men
+ 1 black woman (7th grade Language Arts teacher)
+ 1 black man (sophomore year of college Education professor)
61 teachers total from kindergarten through my Master’s degree
I was 13 years old before I had a teacher of color and 20 years old before I had another one. I also attended majority white schools (like more than 80% of the student body identified as white).
Part of white privilege is knowing that I have the ability to check out when it gets tiring, hard, annoying, or too much. I have been tempted to do that so much with this incident of my subtle racism. My students of color don’t have this option. Racism is not just disliking people of other skin colors. It’s about power and subjecting one racial group through individual actions or institutional policies.
The fact that I guided my classroom to a place where I was publicly willing to enforce some rules for a group of my students and look the other way for some of my white students is a huge problem. And it is proof of how sneaky and lethal whiteness can be. My whiteness has decades of experience being comfortable in a superior role, and as hard as I think I try to interrupt that, sometimes it creeps up and I am reminded that I am “just another white woman.”
I cannot change the color of my skin, but I can change the way I run my classroom. I brought this incident up to my entire class, apologizing for running the class the way I did in order to even get to a point where I would allow white males the benefit of the doubt while policing my black students’ behaviors.
Being reflective, leaning in even when it would be easier to tune out, asking for help, admitting when I’m wrong- this is what will help me break free from “just another white woman” status. And ultimately it will help me consistently interrupt racist systems in my classroom, school building, neighborhood, city, country, and the world.