I was well into my second decade of teaching before I realized my classroom contributed to white supremacy. And by white supremacy, I don’t mean the KKK robe-wearing hatred of non-whites. I mean whiteness centered as the norm around which all other races orbit.
This kind of whiteness harms all students because it leads to bias, color-blindness, internalized self-hate, and illiteracy about the reality of race being a dominant player in one’s lived experience.
I tell myself I should have known better because my husband and daughters are black. Now I understand my proximity to or loving someone who is black or brown does not shortcut the undoing I need to do to eradicate the white supremacy that seeped into and will continue to seep into me.
It is not pleasant to admit my failures since I thought I was a decent human being and a teacher who gave my whole heart to each student. I’m learning how important the word “and” is. I was a preschool teacher who did many things spectacularly. And I had blind spots when it came to race, which led to shortcomings in my classroom and teaching.
I have spent time in guilt, shame, and disappointment. These feelings, while valid, don’t help change happen. So today, I try to walk with grace, partnered with a commitment to anti-racism wherever I can. I hope to honor my former students by showing the importance of lifelong learning, acknowledging missteps, and doing better.
Here are some ways I upheld white supremacy in my classroom:
- I thought teaching and modeling kindness was enough. I’ve since come to know kind people can also be racist people. I am one of them.
- My library had more children’s books with animals than children of color. For decades I didn’t have any books with brown and black boys as the main character.
- I shared the false narrative of Thanksgiving. I had students cut and glue Pilgrim hats and feathered headdresses to accompany the lies I taught.
- I read Dr. Seuss’s books without grappling with the racism in some of his written books and images. I read the rhymes of cat, hat, box, sox without wondering whether his books should continue to have a place on the bookshelves in my class.
- During Black History month, I read a children’s book about Martin Luther King but skipped the “hard pages,” which included examples of racism because I didn’t want to upset students or anger parents.
- I had curriculum boxes on Asia, Africa, and South America, which I kept tucked away in storage until we “studied” them instead of having the books and images always accessible to illustrate the rich tapestry of the world.
- I had kimonos as dress-up costumes in our dramatic play area long before I heard the phrase cultural appropriation and wondered whether kimonos as costumes was something I wanted to continue to do.
- I had a puzzle titled “Children of the World,” portraying kids dressed in diverse clothing. It took me years to notice all the children’s faces were lightly tan. None were black or dark brown.
- I talked about fairness means everyone gets the same (equal) but didn’t explore the idea that sometimes it is fair that others get more (equity).
- I didn’t talk about noticing differences, how these might make our experiences different, and how some things might be harder or easier based on how we look. Worried this might lead to feelings of fear or guilt, I avoided these conversations altogether.
Time in my classroom was one piece of a patchwork quilt making up each student’s entire educational experience. I don’t believe I can ever really know the impact on my students. While I never implicitly said, “White is right,” the message was there, nonetheless.
I’ve come to learn by kindergarten; children already have a strong sense of their racial identity. They have spent years soaking in social stereotypes and ideas about race.
Wouldn’t it be beneficial for early childhood curriculums to be creative, educational, fun, and anti-racist? Wouldn’t including elements of understanding whiteness and equity be worthwhile? And to include consistent practice in celebrating diversity and inclusion?
I hope my former students went on to have wise and brave teachers who gave them the learning opportunities I did not. I hope they were surrounded by classrooms filled with images, words, and experiences so they could deeply understand the brilliance and humanity of all people.
Here are three things any parent or educator can do:
- Take all the books off your shelves and count them. How many books do you have where the main characters are white, African, Latinx, Native American, Asian, or animals? How many books were written by authors of color? What kinds of families and genders are represented? Do the same for anything in your home or classroom with a face—count, count, count.
- What are three questions you can use as conversation starters to encourage talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion with children? Some examples could include:
“I wonder how many toys you see in the store that look like you? How would someone feel if they rarely saw toys that look like them or their family?”
“I wonder if it is ever fair for someone to get more than another person?”
“I wonder how someone knows if they belong?”
- What are you doing to eliminate the blind spots and biases you have? Here are a few organizations, individuals, and books which have been beneficial to me:
Learning for Justice http://www.learningforjustice.org Embrace Race http://www.embracerace.org
@deonna smith http://www.instagram.com/deonnasmith
“So You Want To Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo http://www.ijeomaoluo.com
“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” by Isabel Wilkerson http://www.isabelwilkerson.com “What Does It Mean To Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy” by Robin DiAngelo http://www.robindiangelo.com
And if you have made it this far, THANK YOU! Here are some ways to see more of my learning journey.
- Sign up to receive email notifications about blogs posts by clicking here. https://teresareneebain.com/contact/
- Follow me on Instagram at @do_overteaching http://www.instagram.com/do_overteaching
- Follow me on Teachers Pay Teachers to see the curriculum I’m creating for young learners. http://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Do-over-Teaching
Heart balloon and string photos taken by my talented sister, Aondrea Maynard who puts love into the world through her art.
2 thoughts on “Mistakes Made”
Good job, Teresa! Thank you for adding the resources at the end, too.
Thanks Joe. I learn from resources others have shared, so I figured I’d pay it forward.