Surprised by Charlottesville? You Haven’t Been Paying Attention

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America is a funny place.

 

On the one hand, we’re one of the first modern Democracies, a product of Enlightenment thinking and unabashed pluralism and cultural diversity.

 

On the other, we’ve built our entire society on a cast system that is the basis of our economics, politics and cultural mores.

 

We’re the land of Benjamin Franklin, the Wright brothers, Duke Ellington, Toni Morrison, and Sandra Day O’Connor.

 

But we’re also the land of Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Charles Lindberg, Bull Connor, and David Duke.

 

Tolerance and love are as American as apple pie. But so are racism, sexism, prejudice and anti-Semitism.

 

“It is not as though the United States is the land of opportunity, or a hypocritical racist state,” says sociologist John Skrentny. “It is one or both, depending on context.”

 

 

So this week when people saw Nazis marching openly in Charlottesville, Virginia, the only thing that was really so surprising about it was how surprised so many people seem to be.

 

“That’s not my America!” they seem to be saying.

 

To which I reply, “Hell, yes, it is! Where have you been the last 241 years!?”

 

We base our salary scales on genitalia! You think we’re really so freaking advanced!?

 

The shade of your epidermis determines the likelihood of police arresting you, charging you, even killing you regardless of your having a weapon, whether you resist arrest or simply lay on the ground with your hands in the air.

 

Regardless of the evidence, if you’re convicted, the length and severity of the sentence are all partially determined by the amount of melanin in your skin. The cultural derivation of the name on your resume determines the likelihood of employers calling you back for an interview. In many places, your rights are legislated based on whom you love.

 

Our schools are segregated. Our taxes are levied most heavily on those with the least means to pay. Our prisons house more black people today than did slave plantations in the 1860s.

 

Yet a bunch of white dudes carrying Tiki torches shouting hate filled puns (“Jew will not replace us”? Seriously?) somehow doesn’t compute?

 

Come on.

 

This is America.

 

Racism and prejudice are not threats smuggled in past border security. They’ve always been here. At least since Europeans came offering trade and peace with one hand and guns and smallpox with the other.

 

The land of the free was stolen from the Native Americans. Our national wealth was built on the backs of slaves. Our laws and electoral system were built to empower one group at the expense of others.

 

Yet reformations in this process are rarely met with celebration. Instead of memorializing the end of slavery, we embrace the institution with fond remembrance.

 

Nor did prejudice and bigotry end when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, after Brown vs. Board, the Voting Rights Act, Freedom Rides, sit-ins or civil rights protests.

 

America has always been a place hostile to the under privileged, the second sex, religious dissenters, the brown skinned.

 

At most, we had become less confrontational in recent years, but we never really changed our core values, our social structures, who has power and who does not.

 

During my lifetime, people started to equate having a black President with the end of racism. Somehow they ignored the everyday reality for most black people.

 

They ignored the constant prejudice against the poor, the continued bigotry against LGBTs, the Islamophobia, the increase in hate crimes.

 

If there has been any change during the past eight months, it hasn’t been with the degree to which Americans are prejudiced. It’s the degree with which we’re willing to hide it.

 

Whereas before racists would claim to be colorblind, that their actions were completely devoid of racial bias, today they sigh and repeat the dusty slogans of Jim Crow Alabama or 1930s Berlin.

 

And somehow people are actually surprised about this.

 

It’s because too many of us have swallowed the lies about living in a post-racial society.

 

You thought we were beyond all that. It was a brave new world, morning in America, and we were finally treating everyone equally – unless you looked at what we were actually doing.

 

Mainly this is the reaction you get from white people. They rub their eyes and just can’t believe it.

 

You don’t see this too often from people of color, Muslims, LGBTs and some Jews. Why? Because they never had the luxury to ignore it.

 

That’s what we white folks have been doing since the beginning.

 

Whenever these issues come up, we have a knee jerk reaction to minimize it.

 

Things aren’t that bad. You’re just blowing it out of proportion.

 

But, no. I’m not.

 

That’s why you’re so damn shocked, son.

 

You haven’t been looking reality square in the face.

 

So when we’ve got undeniable video footage of angry white males (mostly) marching through Southern streets brandishing swastikas and assault rifles, it catches many white folks off guard.

 

They’re not prepared for it – because they haven’t been doing their homework.

 

We’ve been living in a bubble. Especially those living in major metropolitan areas.

 

That kind of thing never happens around here, right?

 

Of course it does!

 

Just because you live above the Mason Dixon Line doesn’t mean you’re safe.

 

You have a black friend, you like authentic Mexican food and you laugh while watching “Modern Family.”

 

But you haven’t opened your eyes to the reality outside your door.

 

You send your kids to private school or live in a mostly upper class white district. You have an exclusive gym membership that keeps out the riff-raff. You work in an office where that one token person of color makes you feel sophisticated and open-minded.

 

You’ve got to wake up.

 

You’ve got to educate yourself about race and class in America.

 

Because those people you saw in Charlottesville aren’t an anomaly.

 

They are an authentic part of this country, and if you don’t like it, you have to do something about it.

 

You can’t hide behind denial.

 

You have to take a stand, pick a side, and be counted.

 

Because one day soon, the torches will be outside your door.

 

You have to decide now – do you want to brandish or extinguish them?

White Teacher: We Need More Teachers of Color in Public Schools

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Black students relate to black teachers.

White students relate to white teachers.

It’s just human nature. We identify most with people like us.

It doesn’t mean kids can only be taught by teachers of their own race. That’s silly.

But it’s just as ridiculous to pretend like this doesn’t matter at all.

Fact: Roughly 48% of our nation’s public school children are children of color.

Fact: Only 18% of our nation’s teachers are persons of color.

We’re missing a tremendous opportunity!

I am a white teacher with classes made up mostly of African Americans. The suburban Western Pennsylvania district where I teach has a smattering of Hispanics, Asians and other nationalities, but most of the students are white, black or multiracial.

I love all of my kids and try to relate to them. But I’d be fooling myself if I thought my culture and complexion didn’t sometimes stand between us.

When I walk down the halls of my school, I see the African American principal fist bumping kids and talking to them in ways I never could.

It doesn’t mean he’s a better educator then I am. It just means he’s different.

When I give a fist bump, it’s funny. We he does, it’s authentic. It’s not that I haven’t tried to bridge the divide. Kids understand and appreciate the effort. But there is a divide.

For example, I saw him collar a black student the other day and ask about the child’s misbehavior in class.

“What’s up with Mrs. Johnson’s class?” he asked.

And the student looked down at the ground embarrassed that he had let the principal down. He’d let down a strong black man in a bow tie and ascot cap, someone from his own community, someone who might look like his dad, grandpap or uncle.

They have a relationship, a connection that – as a white teacher – I’ll never have. Sometimes black kids want to impress me, too, but as you’d impress an outsider, as you’d make inroads into a world outside your comfort zone.

That doesn’t threaten me.

In fact, it makes me feel good. They have the option to seek role models both within and without their usual frame of reference.

Black children in our district have a role model in our principal. These kids see him as a possibility. Yes, black people can be authority figures. Yes, our school is the kind of place that includes African Americans in the way it functions. And, yes, blackness is a part of the school community and not something apart from it.

Moreover, I can serve as a positive example of a white authority figure. In the very act of trying to understand my students and attempting to be a fair educator, I’m demonstrating one way in which different people can relate with each other. And I offer them a safe opportunity to relate to someone with a host of different experiences and backgrounds.

That’s the benefit of having racially diverse teachers in any school. It isn’t just good for the black kids. It’s good for all of them – even the white children.

One of the biggest obstacles to racial harmony is segregation. So often we don’t know each other personally. All we know is second hand. Many white people get their knowledge about black folks from the police blotter, rap lyrics, and racially tinged anecdotes.

If that’s all white folks know about black people, it’s no wonder our conceptions of them can be skewed. Even the brief personal interactions we have can become somehow emblematic of our prejudicesTHAT black person was loudly singing on the subway so all black people must be annoying. THAT black person hit me with her shopping cart, therefore all black people are absentminded or mean.

But if we get to know all kinds of different people as children in school, we become less prone to this kind of prejudice. We get to see people for who they really are instead of as mere representatives of their entire race. So for students – of any race – to experience black teachers and administrators has tremendous benefits for everyone.

I’d be lying if I said it was easy.

There are roadblocks at every step of the way.

In my district, even with our new black principal, people of color make up less than 10% of the staff. There are no other black teachers in the middle school, two black teachers in the high school and maybe as many in our two elementary schools. Yet about half of our students are African American.

People of color often don’t go into teaching. In fact, there is a nationwide teacher shortage irrespective of race. Constant attacks by lawmakers and media pundits and reductions in benefits and pay have made the profession increasingly unattractive to college students looking for a career.

This is even more so for people of color. Why would individuals from a group that is already marginalized and scapegoated want a job where they can be doubly marginalized and scapegoated?

Even when racially diverse people become teachers, they face more obstacles than the rest of us. The same expectations and prejudices outside the school walls are present in the faculty room, conference center, office and classrooms.

I’ve seen it, myself, multiple times: black teachers getting the worst schedules with the most difficult children and the least time to prepare; black teachers being questioned more frequently about their use of technology, pedagogy and rationale; black teachers snickered about behind closed doors because they aren’t perfect and white staff unwilling to give them the benefit of the doubt.

I don’t think the white folks I’ve observed doing these things are purposefully trying to be racist. But the results are the same. Schools can be as unwelcoming a place for black staff as they can be for black students.

That’s why it’s imperative that we take steps to change.

If we want to improve public schools for all our students – including our students of color – we need to encourage more adults of color to take charge. We need to have incentives at the college level to increase the number of black and brown education majors. (And white ones, too, for that matter.) When positions open up, school directors and administrators need to prioritize filling them with people of color whenever possible. Administrators need to be more cognizant of treating black educators fairly, not assuming they’re only suited to the lowest academic tracks, etc. And white staff needs to be more understanding, less hyper critical of everything black teachers do.

There are a lot of white educators out there who really care about their minority students and colleagues. I’m one of them. But I know there’s more we can do.

We can demand more cultural competence training. If I were asked to teach a class full of Syrian refugees, I’d want extra training. If one of my co-workers only spoke sign language, I’d want help to communicate with her. White teachers need to admit that we could use that, too, when teaching children of color.

That’s one of the drawbacks of having so few black colleagues. Where do we turn for help in understanding our African American students? Who is there to point out potential hazards and help us better meet our minority students’ needs?

But the biggest challenge will be the first one – admitting that we have a problem in the first place.

Admitting that when we look around at all the white faces at the staff meeting and the faculty room, there is something missing.

Admitting that our black and brown students deserve to have teachers who look like them whom they can turn to from time-to-time.

Admitting the absence of our black brothers and sisters – and welcoming them to join us.

White People Need to Stop Snickering at Black Names

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As a public school teacher, few things give me as much anxiety as getting my student rosters for the first time.

I look over the list of names for my incoming children and cringe.

How do I pronounce that?

Every year it never fails – there’s always at least four or five names I’ve never seen before – or at least never spelled quite like THAT!

As a white teacher in a district with a majority of black students but very few black teachers, there’s not really many people to turn to for guidance.

And if I don’t figure it out soon, I’ll be making a pretty terrible first impression. No one likes to have their name butchered, especially children, especially if an adult is doing it, especially if that adult is white.

The only solution I’ve found is to soldier on with the first day’s attendance and just try my best:

Me: Shah-NEE-Qwa?

Child: Shah-NAY-Qwa.

Me: JAY-Marcus?

Child: JAH-Marcus.

It’s uncomfortable, but I get through it and eventually learn.

However, one thing I’ve stopped doing is going to other white people for help. That’s a recipe for disaster.

It almost always turns into an exercise in subtle racism and white supremacy. No matter who the person is, no matter how kind, caring or empathetic, the reaction to unique black names is most often derision.

White people snicker and use the situation as the impetus for telling stories about other black names that they thought were even more outrageous.

It’s not that we’re trying to be hateful. I don’t think we even recognize it as racist, but it is.

We use the situation as an opportunity for bonding. THOSE people who are not like you and me – THEY name their children things like THIS! Not like you and me who name our children more respectably.

Make no mistake. This is racist behavior. We are emphasizing the otherness of an entire group of people to put ourselves over and above them.

It’s bigoted, discriminatory, prejudicial and just plain dumb.

What’s wrong with black names anyway? What about them is so unacceptable?

We act as if only European and Anglicized names are reasonable. But I don’t have to go far down my rosters to find white kids with names like Braelyn, Declyn, Jaydon, Jaxon, Gunner or Hunter. I’ve never heard white folks yucking it up over those names.

I can’t imagine why white people even expect people of color to have the same sorts of names as we do. When you pick the label by which your child will be known, you often resort to a shared cultural history. My great-great-grandfather was David, so I’ll honor his memory by calling my firstborn son the same. Jennifer is a name that’s been in my family for generations so I’ll reconnect with that history by calling my daughter by the same name.

Few black people in America share this same culture with white people. If a black man’s great-great-grandfather’s name was David, that might not be the name he was born with – it may have been chosen for him – forced upon him – by his slave master. It should be obvious why African Americans may be uncomfortable reconnecting with that history.

Many modern black names are, in fact, an attempt to reconnect with the history that was stolen from them. Names like Ashanti, Imani and Kenya have African origins. Others are religious. Names like Aaliyah, Tanisha and Aisha are traditionally Muslim. Some come from other languages such as Monique, Chantal, and Andre come from French. I can’t understand why any of that is seen as worthy of ridicule.

Still other names don’t attempt to reconnect with a lost past – they try to forge ahead and create a new future. The creativity and invention of black names is seldom recognized by White America. We pretend that creating names anew shows a lack of imagination when in reality, it shows just the opposite!

Creating something new can be as simple as taking an Anglicized name and spelling it in inventive ways. Punctuation marks also can be utilized in unusual positions to add even more distinctiveness such as in the names Mo’nique and D’Andre.

At other times, they follow a cultural pattern to signify as uniquely African American using prefixes such as La/Le, Da/De, Ra/Re, or Ja/Je and suffixes such as -ique/iqua, -isha, and -aun/-awn.

And for the ultimate in creativity, try mixing and matching various influences and techniques. For instance, LaKeisha has elements from both French and African roots. Other names like LaTanisha, DeShawn, JaMarcus, DeAndre, and Shaniqua were created in the same way.

This is something all cultures do. They evolve to meet the needs of people in a given time and place. Yet when it comes to people of color, we, white folks, whoop and guffaw at it. Heck! When we can’t find black names far enough out of our mainstream, we even make them up!

Don’t believe me? Have you heard of La-a? The story goes that a black girl was given that name and a white person asked how it was pronounced. The black woman said her name was La-DASH-ah. This is often followed by a punchline of black vernacular.

Har! Har! Har!

But it’s not even true! According to Snopes, this is a made up story. It’s the American version of a Polish joke and demonstrates how far white people will go to laugh at black culture.

The great comedy duo Key and Peele tried to call attention to this in their outstanding substitute teacher sketches. In a series of short routines, an almost exclusively white classroom gets a black substitute teacher from the inner city schools. Mr. Garvey is expecting black names, so he pronounces the students’ middle class white names as if they were African American.

Almost everyone loves this sketch. It gets universal laughs, but wait until it’s over. Too many white folks try to continue the giggles by then talking about crazy black names they’ve encountered. But that’s not at all the point Key and Peel were trying to make! They were trying to show how cultural context shapes our expectations of proper names. Mr. Garvey is worthy of our laughter because his expectations are out-of-sync with his surroundings. When we expect all African Americans to have European or Anglicized names, we’re just as out of touch as Mr. Garvey. But like Dave Chapelle’s comedy, sometimes the person laughing the loudest is getting something the comedian didn’t intend at all.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if black names just generated snickers. However, white culture actually selects against people with black sounding names.

Countless studies have shown how much more difficult it is for someone with a black sounding name to get a job, a loan or an apartment than it is for someone with a white sounding name. It’s one of the most obvious features of white supremacy. You may not like black names, personally, but do these people deserve to suffer for embracing their own culture?

Moreover, having a European or Anglicized name is no guarantee of fair treatment. It certainly didn’t help Michael Brown or Freddie Gray.

If we’re really going to treat people equitably, an easy place to begin is with black names. White people, stop the laughter and giggles. I used to do it, myself, until I thought about it. Yes, I’m guilty of the same thing. But I stopped. You can, too.

It’s not the biggest thing in the world. It’s not even the most pressing thing. It’s not a matter of guilt. It’s a matter of fairness.

Because when the final role is taken of all America’s racists and bigots, do you really want your name to be on it?


NOTE: This article also was published on Everyday Feminism and the Badass Teachers Association blog.