A litany of recent events link supporters of presidential hopeful Donald Trump to racist, sometimes violent, behavior at political rallies.
Is it possible to teach in a way that people will not be violent toward one another? How do we begin to undo racism and future oppression through the classroom experience?
One answer is critical teachers of color — a step beyond mere cultural competency. As teachers of color who have taught in school settings with a student population that is majority of color, we know the power of working with racially and ethnically diverse students in urban areas. It is important students see themselves in their teachers.
One lesson we’ve learned as teachers in mostly white school spaces at the K-12 and research university levels: All students, especially white students, need critically minded teachers of color.
White students need this because seeing racially diverse people in positions of authority and as possessors of knowledge is key to demystifying stereotypes.
A mental wall is torn down when white students have access to teachers of color who are confident and experts in their fields. We may be the only, or one of a few teachers of color they’ll experience in their entire education. Considering existing stereotypes of Latinos and African-Americans, for example, in media and film, perceptions of us are limited. Teaching is not a profession commonly associated with PoC.
Our sensitivities and cultural competency often offer new ways of seeing for white students. Often teachers of color hold cultural knowledge white students do not. This knowledge comes as a result of the experiences we have gained over time. As a result, the content we choose and the lens through which we analyze topics often present new ways of seeing the world for white students. By seeing, we mean a new way to understand society and to read the world around them.
For example, this year, my co-author Lorena German’s high school English class worked on important aspects of American society and history while working through traditional units of study.
This included Gene Yuen Lang’s “American Born Chinese” to explore the model minority myth and the physical impacts of racism. She also read Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” through a feminist lens and made connections to social media and reality television. When discussing Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” students spent time focusing only on the African-American characters and had research-based conversations about a lack of diverse characters in literature.
In a Language and Literature course, as part of reading and analyzing Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Blood Wedding,” students also analyzed hip-hop and popular culture while focusing on language, rhetorical devices and poetry.
In my case, as a university professor, my courses show how social and cultural factors, like race, gender and social class exist in the everyday world of schooling. Students get exposed to readings that expose the inequities that exist in schools. They are also asked to critically reflect on their own schooling experiences. This means taking a hard look at how racism, classism and sexism offers to some unearned privilege, while others—along with the knowledge and experiences they have—are undervalued, ignored or just misunderstood.
We recognize teachers of color are not the only ones who can achieve this type of content analysis. We both have colleagues in our respective fields who hold their ground as social justice educators. We also recognize the presence of critical teachers of color is not a panacea to ending societal oppression. Nor does simply having their presence in predominantly white institutions automatically disrupt the comfort of whiteness. But what they potentially offer to white students is the opportunity to enlarge their domain of personal experience and knowledge.
These students get exposed to counter-narratives that trouble entrenched societal perspectives that dehumanize and marginalize people of color. These counter-narratives offer an alternative view that disrupts decontextualized soundbites, draped in oppressive ideology that politicians, like Trump, exploit gain popularity.
It is hard not to believe much of the hate and bigotry expressed in the current political arena is exacerbated by oppressive ideology at least partially informed by limited knowledge and experience. This political strategy is as old as the ideology that supports it. The disproportionately low numbers of teachers of color is another important barrier to white students gaining authentic experiences with individuals who can serve not only as educators but also leaders and mentors. Would having critically minded teachers of color in schools help to transform the hate and bigotry too often encouraged in the political arena?
If voters had personal experiences with caring and critical role models, we imagine they might question racist and xenophobic rhetoric when they hear it. We would hope our students, in years to come, will think of what they learned from and experienced with their Latina teachers when exposed to anti-Latina and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
We would hope our students would think about twice about supporting political platforms that seek to further dehumanize African-Americans after having learned from their black teacher about the long legacy of black dehumanization in schools and society.
Indeed, we would hope our conversations about racism, classism, sexism, culture, love, language, the white gaze, and more would urge them to celebrate cultural pluralism and actively work to dismantle systems of oppression.
It is true: Students of color desperately need more critical teachers of color in schools but so do their white counterparts.
Keffrelyn Brown, a Public Voices Fellow at the OpEd Project, is an associate professor in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin.
Lorena German teaches high school English in Austin, Texas.
Andre Perry will return to “Degree of Interest” next week.