Michelle Gordon is an assistant principal at Wakefield High School in Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina.
One of the ways to dismantle systemic racism in schools is to require racial literacy programs for white teachers — to catch our own presuppositions in midair and hold them out. I have been trained to believe as a white woman that I have a biological deficit to speak with credibility about race.
Due to how whiteness has been rendered as invisible in our society, much of our training as white people has taught us to see racism as what a person of color can discuss. The current times are showing us more of a multiracial, anti-racist landscape, but I am not confident this momentum will stay unless whites can build our racial literacy. For the purpose of this piece, at times I say them, us, whites and we.
The deficit-thinking model translates into schools when students and teachers of color are labored with the work of keeping whites “woke.” In my experience, whites do not believe they can be experts on race, and that it can actually be racist to believe we can.
Make no mistake, I am 20 years in of intentionally sustaining my gaze on my own race. I will never be on autopilot to racialize myself; that is how the system of whiteness works. Its whole goal is to keep race off my daily calendar. In fact, our oppressor language pits whites against other whites who can identify their own race.
I have had white people tell me I’ve threatened them, shut them down, made them uncomfortable, and say I am just all together wrong for saying whiteness is a thing. I cannot promise racial literacy won’t be threatening — the narrative I hear the most when engaging whites about race. What is threatening to you and what is threatening to me is subjective.
This is where the work often gets held up for white folks. What shuts another person down may inspire reflection for me. What makes another uncomfortable might make me excited to finally understand a specific belief I’ve held and can now examine. Due to a desire to make race comfortable for whites, it has been on a volunteer basis to address whiteness for white teachers.
There is a danger in the current opt-in, flexible mentality to racial literacy. I believe it creates a single-story narrative.
There is a single story of active, anti-racist work. It includes narratives such as that only people of color can talk about race. If and when a white person does speak of whiteness, it is racist, ill credible, and not true by default of their whiteness.
Whites want to be perfect when they talk about race. If they’re wrong or say the wrong word, they’re forever wrong. Never is there an opportunity to course correct.
There is not one way for whites to become a white ally and active anti-racist. There is not a tweet, book, article or quote that is going to swiftly and perfectly catapult whites into consciousness. However, there is no way to dismantle systemic racism that does not include the racial literacy of whites, imperfect as it will be.
Teaching students, not English
I was successful as a beginning teacher due to my racial literacy of the social constructions of identity in the classroom. I had not had one education class before I walked in as a certified teacher in the classroom. A bachelor’s in English and a master’s in rhetoric allows a provisional license. One teaches while they take real education courses — very popular in secondary.
My education focused on the social construction of whiteness in society through the classroom lens. This was my beginning teacher training, one could say. On the first day of class as a senior English teacher, I had no idea what “Macbeth” was about and had never read “Beowulf.” If I had, I had forgotten.
However, I did have a strong understanding of how my white-female-heterosexual-able-bodied-self translated in the classroom. I understood my body as a text is read as privileged. I was not lord of knowledge and here to pour my greatness into students. I had no agenda to make students love English. I loved students. I taught students, not English.
An important conversation was one with a cook at the restaurant I worked at on weekends. He asked, “What do you mean you don’t know Shakespeare? Isn’t that what you’re teaching?” I said, “Shhhh, don’t tell anyone, but they give us the teacher’s edition.” He laughed, I laughed.
We did go on and have a deeper conversation about himself as a Black male seeing the majority of his teachers as all-knowing white females, but who knew nothing about him. He didn’t think they had to, and that it was up to him to learn “her” classroom.
The next class, I took the old posters down from the walls that I had just left up because I thought I had to. I asked the students to bring in what they wished to decorate their classroom with. I had a journal for each student in which we wrote back and forth to one another, once a week. Grammar was not checked, a grade was optional. I made sure they knew it was my job to learn them.
The day before Christmas break, my principal came in to observe me. The objective I was teaching was comparing and contrasting the skills of persuasive writing. My assistant principal sat down, thrilled there was not a holiday party going on. We were comparing gangs, specifically the Bloods and the Crips, to white supremacy groups and how each structure functioned as a business.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map has the tax IDs of neo-Nazi businesses mapped out over the country by name and location. I know — heavy — but my school had gangs. And earlier that quarter, students showed me Blood and Crip dances, t-shirts and songs. They were very interested in talking about it. My students were loving the analysis of what a business was in the context of race and poverty. They still ate their holiday candy at their desks as they debated the capitalism of gangs and white supremacy groups.
I did not have one class in education. All of my training was on the social construction of identity. I believe my success, and my continued student engagement was due in part to my own racial literacy, discussions I had in and out — mostly out — of my school building. I could not depend on models in my environment.
My students knew I cared about them, but they also knew I had high expectations of them, and their engagement in critical thinking was essential to their college and career readiness. My principal knew she could come into my classroom any time with no warning because I operated from a space of instruction, not propriety of the classroom.
Education leadership has to be reimagined. Racial literacy is not an option; it is and always has been life or death.