How often do you see the question posed in the title? Ever? It seems that most everywhere I go, there’s no shortage of white men; it’s true in nearly every sphere of American life. White men are never invisible–it is the most privileged identity on the planet. Not coincidentally, I find that causes and perspectives represented publicly by women and people of color tend to be marginalized. I have no right or need to speak on issues of race and gender, though I feel compelled to do so on a near daily basis.
I’m often reminded by wise friends who are women and/or people of color that the role of an ally is to listen. I wholeheartedly accept this advice. I’m proudly striving to become a better ally to all who seek relief from oppression–whether on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, political or religious identity, poverty or disability. I’m reminded of a post from someone who shares much of my identity privilege; he recounts being asked by young people with privilege how they can become better allies, and his response is simple: listen.
Normally, I find this suggestion compelling. I used to find it excruciating to listen to stories from friends and acquaintances about oppression, because more often than not, the oppressor looked like me. One of my students recently apologized to me for telling a story like this, where the villain was a “crazy white dude.” I told her to take it back, because I’ve arrived at the point where I no longer feel guilty for the sins of other Caucasians. Yet, I’m the only white man in the lives of many of my students. For this reason, while I still remind myself to listen better daily, I’ve decided that passive listening is insufficient.
The more precise question that could form the title of this piece is, “where are the white men speaking out on educational justice and equity?” In my head, this sounded like a reasonable question, but looking at it on paper, I have to wonder whether it is somehow insensitive. I often follow the #edujustice chat on Twitter, and the movement is driven by passionate, energetic people from all walks of life. It isn’t that the cause needs more whiteness or maleness…quite the opposite, in fact.
Yet, unlike other issues where I worry about being a good ally to the extent that I remain silent, I am a participant in a system/society that oppresses and marginalizes poor and minority youth. So while I might follow the lead of Black friends and colleagues when it comes to the use of the n-word, educational justice is deeply personal. As a public school teacher and a citizen–not to mention a student at a public university–educational justice matters to me. But my identity can serve as a hindrance, because I want to hear others’ voices, I want teachers of color and women to have the stage more than they currently do, but I also want progress on the issues that I care about–desegregation, equal opportunity, the list goes on and on.
Jose Vilson has been an inspiration on these questions. He has written at some length about how teacher’s rights and are inextricably linked with women’s rights. To wit:
Most teachers are women, and most higher-level administrators are men. Thus, we can attribute the disconnect, at least partially, to the fact that, when men make laws, they do so often to exclude. Anytime we don’t make language easy to access for everyone, we can very deliberately find ways to exclude people who don’t have access to said language.
As such, even male teachers who want to speak up are often disregarded because teaching is seen as women’s work, a multilayered, intersectional understanding of the way power works in education.
P.L. Thomas also provides insight into the question, where are teachers in our debate on education reform? He draws a compelling parallel to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, with a narrator who is “invisible…simple because people refuse to see me…they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imaginations—indeed, everything and anything except me.” It is a harsh but accurate description of the treatment of all teachers in the public debates around education policy. Thomas offers a lengthy diatribe against the status quo, but his central point is that teachers have to be part of the conversation.
The current reform agenda fails to seek from teachers themselves either what the primary challenges are facing education or what credible solutions would best address those hurdles. As a result, teachers as invisible workers rebel as Ellison’s narrator does, by hibernating and embracing their autonomy and agency in ways that do not serve them, their students, or education well.
The factors contributing to the invisibility of teachers in the public debates about education are manifold, but race and gender absolutely play major roles. Teaching as a profession is viewed by many as less-than; women’s work. Vilson makes the argument that male teachers have a responsibility to talk about gender, and he does so effectively; I would argue that in a similar way, white teachers have a duty to talk about race. I’m proud to work at a school with a diverse teaching force, and frankly, I wish my colleagues would speak out more often and with more urgency about the problems in our profession. But it cant be the sole responsibility of women or POC to rectify injustice. The opposite is true, in fact. White men like me have an even greater duty to call out oppression and speak truth to power, because inevitably, that oppression comes from a power structure that is mostly white and male.
So here’s my New Year’s Resolution, even though I long ago resolved not to make commitments I’m bound to break…
In 2014, I will strive to follow Edwidge Danticat’s advice for aspiring writers: “Seek your truth, and tell it…It is a harder thing to sit in silence.” Here’s to more frequent writing and truth-telling from this teacher in the new year.