The Implicit Racial Bias of White Teachers Is Affecting the Educational Attainment of African American Boys

Of my twenty-five plus years working with and on behalf of children, about eight of those years were spent in schools where 99.9 percent of the students were children of color, and 85-90 percent of the teachers were white.

Having had experience working in three school districts, what I find most frustrating about teaching has very little to do with students, but moreover, with my fellow white colleagues and their sometimes egregious teaching methods and disciplinary practices, particularly towards African-American boys.

As I think back on my time of learning at Saint Joseph’s University (SJU) School of Education, where the course work was quite rigorous, the usual discourse centered on the challenges of emergent and struggling readers, and ways to effectively implement strategies and techniques during guided reading sessions.

During a guided reading session, one student-teacher asked her set of readers to identify the picture of a rake. When they couldn’t identify the rake, she ranted about how they were disadvantaged and the gap in their readiness for learning. I was taken aback with her lack of understanding as to why her students didn’t know what a rake was or its purpose.   

I began to think, apparently, this teacher is oblivious to the fact that her students live in the city—the concrete jungle. Other than the purpose of reading in context, her readers really didn’t need to know the purpose of a rake.     

Her comments felt benighted, if for no other reason than the obvious teachable moment. I continued thinking…Teaching what students already know is simply reviewing, but, to teach what is yet understood promotes intellectual growth, and therefore, is sound teaching.

Columbia University Professor Christopher Emdin says it best in his book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too, “there is a need for teachers to develop the knowledge, skills and predispositions to teach children from diverse, racial, ethnic, language, and social class backgrounds”…until they do, I say, the struggle remains real.

When teachers try to understand the realities of their students’ experiences and using them as a point of instruction, that is teaching. Too many teachers are committed to an approach to pedagogy that is Eurocentric in its form and function that the color of their skin doesn’t matter. In other words, we teach the standard Eurocentric curriculum and pedagogy which results in many students being unable to see themselves, thus decreasing their desire to learn.

Recently, I substituted a first-grade class. In the class there was an African-American male, who  was reportedly so incorrigible that he had to be accompanied by a behavioral health care specialist and is only allowed half days in school. I was told that he was disruptive, challenging, couldn’t focus, argumentative, destructive, and physically abusive towards the teacher and students—none of which he had exhibited while I was there.

During my time as a substitute, I had decided that I wouldn’t come across as the strict force of authority, but instead, to empower him, starting by including him in all activities. As I gently engaged him, I ignored what might be considered bad behavior, and acknowledged moments  where he was “caught being good.” Reinforcement came in the form of compliments, coaxing, and using the system-wide school rewards.

Working with children of color, especially those suffering from trauma, is not for the faint at heart. Learning is not just cerebral but, it is also cultural, and the prerequisite for teaching is to have teacher friendly interactions, coupled with empathy.

My argument isn’t that white teachers shouldn’t teach children of color; for all children need all teachers, and as Christopher Emdin might add, “it is possible for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to take on approaches to teaching that hurt youth of color,” and because of this, I merely suggest that teachers check their microaggressions and update their cards on cultural competencies.

What do you think?

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Robin Muldor

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5 Comments

  • Bakeer , your comments are appreciated. We definitely need more educators of color because the classroom has to start reflecting the real world- a world of enriched diversity.

  • Absolutely. I once observed a classroom that was about 30% white, 70% black, and the teacher was a white woman. This was a 4th or 5th grade class.

    First of all, I noticed that the teacher ignored behavior in white students that she characterized in black students as bad, which was literally just talking to each other. When the black students talked among themselves to help each other in the project she would shout “no helping! no talking!” as if helping each other is some sort of terrible thing.

    There was a game in the back of the classroom, like one of those Osmos, and two by two, the white students who had “good behavior” got a chance to play the game with each other and so were talking…but she never told them to stop talking.

    Then a black girl in the back would often stand up during class. She didn’t move from her desk, she didn’t talk to others, she paid attention to the teacher. She was stretching her legs. But apparently standing up is again some sort of terrible mark of disrespect so after “three strikes” she had to go sit in a corner by herself and write an apology letter. While she was sitting there, her shoulders were just totally hunched in on themselves.

    Towards the end of the class, the kids were standing in line to go to their next class and two boys dropped their laptops. One of the white boys slipped and managed to grab his laptop before it hit the floor. A few seconds later, one of the black boys had his laptop slip and fall to the ground. The teacher was on him in a second, scolding that he *threw* the laptop to the ground and that he didn’t deserve such expensive equipment – I think she even sent him to the principle’s office. And then in front of the entire class, she told the next teacher (also white, also female) who was there to pick them up “This class is so poorly behaved today! How do you stand it Mrs. Y?” to shame the entire class in front of this other teacher.

    It was so emotionally abusive and honestly horrible to listen to, even for me as an adult – so how much worse for the kids? I wish I had said something then, but I was so stunned, I couldn’t even put my thoughts in order.

    Anyway, the older I get, the more I realize that teachers (and upon reflection, I’ve only had white teachers until college) are on this weird power trip all the time, and that any amount of “talking” is disrespect and somehow reflects directly on them. I really wish the pedagogy would evolve to stop being so defensive of authority all the time. Like how is any little action “disrespect”?? These teachers are super overreacting to any little thing and the kids take it into themselves; it is so abusive.

    Anyway, also just want to second Emdin’s book, too. I read it when I thought I wanted to be a teacher, and it works just as well for public libraries, where I do work. I frequently suggest it to my fellow (usually white) librarians.

  • Robin, you stated that you taught in schools of 99% children of color for eight years. I’ve taught in this school environment for twenty one of twenty three years. I am white. I choose to teach in the predominantly schools of poverty and color. I do so because these children need advocates and strong role models. They bless me and teach me daily.
    I am more than a little bothered by your article for one reason. That is it has a dominant feeling of blame and assumption of the worse accusations toward white teachers. All of us white teachers are not ignorant of the cultural differences of African American children. Some of us, myself for one, choose to teach these children. We learn about their culture and adapt our teaching to help them succeed. It’s no different than poor white students who do not have life experiences. Whether these students have white or back teachers, they deserve understanding and a teacher who will teach to the child and promote success.
    Your effort to call out white teachers and send clear assumptions that we are all non understanding and unwilling to teach the whole child because of differences, is very well racist. It’s sad that an educator has played into and contributed to the constant struggle of equality.

    • Christie, thank you for your comments. The mere fact that you are referring to children of color as “these children” has an undertone of indifference. Furthermore, your “savior” mentally is a little off putting, as well. I am not saying that “all” White teachers are racist. What I am saying is that the White system where the majority of the teachers are White, when it comes to children of color, are culturally incompetent, period. Blame can only be placed where there is a problem. On behalf of the children, thank you for your service.

  • Donna, your comments are appreciated. Yes, let’s deepen the discussion. Too many futures have been long lost because of the incompetencies of others, yet, there are so many more children whose futures we can save. Thank you for the work you do for the youth people,they are fortunate to have you! … I speak from experience as a mentee. Thank you!

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