I’m a White Teacher, Teaching Black History
A man explains what it's like to be fair-skinned and tasked with his job.
The first day of any semester is always exciting. That’s when I get to begin telling the big stories of U.S. history to a new cadre of students. Not just any stories of U.S. history, either—I focus on African-American stories of U.S. history, especially the early parts, up to the end of Reconstruction.
And I’m white.
It’s Fair to Question White Teachers Teaching Students of Color
When I enter the room on that first day of class, I look out at the faces of my students, scanning them for looks of shock, surprise or dismay. I always assume my Black students will be skeptical of me, and I don’t blame them. We’re so accustomed to thinking of “ethnic studies” as the particular place of “those” people who are of “that” ethnicity that people’s surprise makes sense. My students whose lived experience has made them skeptical of a white man teaching African-American history aren’t wrong. I grapple with my place in telling stories that I find to be incredible, inspirational and definitional for our country. I am not Black, despite a smidgeon of African DNA, according to the National Geographic Genographic project, and I don’t live life as an African-American person. But does that mean I’m incapable of telling the stories of other people in a historically accurate and empathetic way? I know my students wonder that, at least sometimes.
Since I continue to teach African-American history semester after semester, I clearly believe the answer is yes, although I’m always cognizant of how careful I must be in my role, and how I honor the stories I tell. I know my white skin gives me certain advantages and disadvantages when telling Black stories.
A chance encounter with a former student gave me at least one validating answer to the question. And in that one answer, in that one conversation, I unpacked levels of something meaningful and beautiful, a sense that I can make a difference for my students of color by teaching how I teach, and also by consciously embracing who I am. This conversation also illuminated a sad reality for, potentially, many students of color.
Running Into a Former Student Is Always Nice, but This Time Was Different
It was the first day of the fall semester at the community college where I teach. I had had to find parking in the student lot because the faculty lot was full, and I ended up—of course—having to park at the back of the lot. I got out of my car, slung my bag on my back and began striding across the parking lot. I cultivate that rumpled professor look, and by cultivate I mean that I wear linen pants, sandals in warm weather and comfortable t-shirts. Irons have not touched my clothes in years. I know that clothes can say a lot about a person, but I prefer to say it myself, to shout over my clothes.
As I strode across the lot, I caught sight of a former student of mine. For the sake of this story, let’s call her Rhonda. It had been about a year since she was in my class, but I remembered her well. She was a student-athlete, so I had had to fill out several progress reports over the course of the semester in which she was my student. She’d also been a good student, which any teacher will tell you makes one stand out. Rhonda caught sight of me and approached. We exchanged greetings, and I asked how she was doing. I asked the regular professor questions: What classes are you taking? How’s the team doing this year? How close are you to graduation? She answered them all, and had, obviously, continued to do well.
She asked me about the courses I was teaching that semester. Only two, I replied, because that’s all this school allows me to teach per semester (while packing 40 students into each course and underpaying me terribly, I might add). I let my students know about the low rate of pay because I want them to understand the reality of the situation of adjunct professors in academia. She expressed sympathy for my position, but I then explained that they have me stuck, because they know that I love teaching the courses I teach, so I’m going to keep doing it, as long as I can keep my bills paid well enough. There was a lull in conversation at that point. I assumed she was just contemplating the challenges of my adjunct life, but what was on her mind was more personal and more important.
Validation Is One of the Greatest Rewards of Teaching
Rhonda looked down for a second and then up at me and said, “Thank you. I really loved your class. As an African-American woman, I had never learned about myself. I never felt pride in who I am, but I learned so many things in your class that make me feel proud of who I am, proud to be Black.” I was stunned. Rhonda has always been an intelligent and thoughtful woman, but her words hit me with force. I felt proud, of course, but also sad. I couldn’t respond right away, but when I finally processed all that she had said, I answered.
“This is why I do it,” I replied. “It really sucks that you have to wait until you come into my class to learn so much about your history and who you are, but better late than never. I love being able to teach people things they don’t know, and if those things let them see the reality of our country, then I’m doing my job. If I’m able to fill in a place that stood empty before, then I’m glad to do so. I just wish you had learned these things earlier. I wish that our school system taught us more, and helped more of us to see ourselves in our history.” I had to run to class, so I told her that she made my day, thanked her and reminded her that if she ever needed a recommendation, she could contact me. My students know that I will work as hard for them as they work for me. And that's why I do it.