Being a Black Educator in the White Spaces in America’s Schools

According to the School District of Philadelphia, over 70% of its students are children of color while only 13% of students are white.

But, I am still trying to figure out how schools, full of thousands of Black and Brown students, feel so White; how schools with so few men feel so male-dominated, overflowing with the stench of patriarchy. And as a woke woman of color, I’ve studied, lectured, ran professional development sessions and joined other opportunities around cultural context and race, identity and gender, and STILL the Whiteness in schools is so pervasive it’s unbearable.

It is both omnipresent and elusive.

Now, I’m not talking about the White people.

I’m talking about Whiteness.

I’m talking about the norms, values and unspoken rules that are set by White men in charge and upheld by everyone (including people of color and women) in order to not disrupt “normality.” I’ve been in many schools and classrooms across the east coast, and one thing is for sure: the schools where Brown and Black kids are learning the most AND building a positive racial identity are the schools where teachers, administrators and staff are dedicated, relentless and creative – in schools were we don’t feel suffocated by Whiteness or the burden of being stepped on by the many feet of oppression.

For example, in these schools teachers are encouraged to read literary texts that explore all the “isms”. In these schools, teachers are urged to plan engaging lessons that are couched in the context and prior knowledge students need in order to interpret any literary work.

In these schools, students’ multiple-intelligences are assessed and fostered. In these schools, students have days like “Melanin Mondays” and “Black Pride Wednesdays” in order to build a positive racial identity. In these schools, teachers of different cultures and backgrounds consistently engage in “the work” by hosting mandatory PD’s and workshops that explore race, identity, gender and culture in order to build their own critical consciousness and integrate that knowledge and practice into instruction. In these schools, leaders coach for equity, and teachers teach for equity. In these schools, teachers and students are not silenced by Whiteness. In these schools, leaders are actively working to de-center whiteness.

However, if you are a person of color caught in a school that reeks Whiteness, if you are in a school that doesn’t value ideas, skill-set and/or the knowledge of women, if you are in an institution that cannot even being to see the policies, structures, programming, and norms that threaten the most salient parts of your students’ (or your own) identity… GET OUT, and if you can’t GET OUT… here are some things you can do:

Practice Meditation & Mindfulness

Meditate. Before you jump in the shower, or after it’s helpful to spend quiet time with your damn self. Being an educator, especially as a teacher, you are “on” ALL day. In order to be prepared for all that will unfold, including the many micro-aggressions that you may encounter, it’s so important that you find opportunities to quiet your mind. Finding alignment, setting intention for the day, daily devotionals, listening to your favorite songs, yoga, etc… all help you start your day on a good foot, making it easier for you to positively react to the racial stressors that White spaces bring. Solange’s album got me through the first few months of the school year, (hallelujah black emoji hands). Teaching is a thankless job – take a moment to thank the universe (or your Higher power) and show gratitude for where you are and all that you have. Happy teacher = happy classroom.

Get A Crew

I don’t know what I’d do without my Crew. My crew holds me down at work and allows me to feel semblances of safety throughout the day during work. Whether you coffee break it with your crew, have a crew group chat, eat lunch with your crew, get your life during happy hour with your crew – these are the people who are the best listeners and act as a support network as you all navigate the white spaces. So many times as a newer teacher, I’ve felt bouts of isolation either by circumstance or choice (sadly), and I can’t stress how important it is to have a team or network of people who can help you navigate racial stress and white spaces in a healthy way.


So, I’ve spent the last 6 months going to a series of trainings on racial literacy and how to disrupt racial injustice. I’m still attending but learning so much! I have actually gone out and found opportunities to give myself the skills and strategies I need in order to maintain my spiritual health (and sanity) in white spaces. I’ve literally practiced (and I’m still practicing) how to deal with micro-aggressions by speaking my truth in a healthy way.

Role-playing and acting out scenarios when I’ve encountered racial stress has given me the tools I need to protect myself during situations and face-to-face moments that would’ve sent me to the sunken place just a couple of months ago. There are tons of resources out there! TedTalks, YouTube Presentations, online resources, and actually organizations and groups that are dedicated to helping all people deal with their racial stress and maneuver in white spaces at work – especially schools.

The National Equity Project, The Racial Empowerment Collaborative (out of University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education), TrentJohnson Advisors, The National SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity), Teach For America are a few organizations that are all about this work and can be helpful places to start investigating as well. Deliberately practicing for moments when I’d speak my truth and using my voice has spared me many trips to the “sunken place!”

These 3 things won’t end Whiteness all together — that’s not the point. But they provide you comfort and protection in these spaces. It’s imperative that we have strategies to prevent people of color from feeling like the “problem” in a space not designed for us to flourish.

We’re not the problem. Whiteness is.

Barrett Rosser is a teacher leader and coach at Mastery Charter Schools.


  1. My oh my Sharif, this is my story this year. I am in a school that is 95% Black and Latino students and it “reeks of whiteness.” I am constantly questioning, pushing back, and distupting normality. The other 5 teachers of color NEVER speak up for reasons I don’t understand.

    This is my 10th year teaching in NYC. I am told by family and friends to leave and find a school that better suits me. My response is always, what about the students? I can’t abandon them but some days fighting alone is extremely hard.

    As you say in the article, I’m not talking about White people but the “whiteness” of the school. The school has typical inner city school stats-under-performing, no real AP courses offered, and 3 out of 55 teachers are men of color (1 of the 3 is Chinese).

    I ask myself daily, what else can I do? How can I continue to make a difference? What are other people doing?

    Thank you for an uplifting article.

    In service,
    C. Johnson

    • Thank you for your response and for sharing your experiences. We are working on the very issue of diversity with The Fellowship-Black Male Educators for Social Justice. 1000× You raise a lot of great points. 3/55 is a consistent stat. We have to push districts to do better with recruitment and retention! Thank you for your work.


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