This One’s for the White Teachers by Naomi Sharlin


It’s hard for me to write about the antiracist work in my teaching. There are a couple of layers to this. First, I know that I mess up, probably daily. I don’t have it all figured out. And that’s a tough pill for me to swallow, especially publicly. This is, of course, connected to the next layer. Whiteness. I’m white. My voice should not be amplified when it comes to antiracism. On the other hand, an overwhelming majority of teachers in New York are white, 80% as of the 2018-2019 school year, a figure consistent with the nation as a whole. So if white teachers aren’t actively engaging in conversations around antiracist teaching, well, that’s a lot of complacent teachers perpetuating white supremacy. While the need for more Black teachers is pressing, in the meantime, we white teachers need to keep eschewing perfection and deliberately make ourselves vulnerable. Because lives are at stake. This is heavy work we do.

Because no matter how many books or social media posts you read about decolonizing your curriculum or how many seminars and conferences you attend about teaching through an abolitionist lens, we are guaranteed to miss the mark sometimes. There is so much racism buried not just in our curriculum, but in the very structures of schools themselves, not to mention in our own minds and bodies. Of course, to engage with the challenge is, nevertheless, obligatory. I do hope it’s helpful for other white teachers to read about times I’ve both hit the mark and missed it in my antiracism work.

I want to share two concrete examples of shifts I’ve made in language and the framing of questions in the service of antiracism. I teach mostly beginning English Language Learners. Having nuanced and sensitive conversations in English can be challenging. Beyond their shared status as ELLs, my students are incredibly diverse. They come from Honduras, Yemen, Bangladesh and Guinea. From the Dominican Republic, Senegal, Vietnam and El Salvador. And more. Their schema around race is different from young people raised in the United States, and different from my own. As new immigrants, many also believe the best about this country (they have all sacrificed to be here), and I don’t want to be the one to burst the bubble. On the other hand, facts are facts. So, I try to navigate these conversations with sensitivity. One sentence I find myself repeating as a reminder to myself and to them is that regular people have always resisted discrimination and injustice.

Upon further reflection, I’ve realized that the two examples I want to share occurred within units centered around problematic literature choices. The first was Nightjohn by Gary Paulsen. It’s a book about chattel slavery written in dialect by a white man, so I should’ve known better than to touch it. To say it is a text that centers Black trauma over Black joy is an understatement. Ostensibly, it is a story about Black resistance during chattel slavery in the United States, but it’s also obviously focused on oppression and it contains graphic descriptions of the violence inflicted on enslaved people by their enslavers. Not an empowering text! My planning partner and I realized our mistake too late, so we tried to be intentional and transparent with our word choice: slave vs. enslaved. Because our students are ELLs, we are always deliberate with word choice and sentence structure. And as long as we’re being careful with language, we might as well dive into nuanced conversations. One early pre-reading activity focused on the character, John (nicknamed Nightjohn), who escaped bondage, learned to read and voluntarily returned to slavery in order to teach other enslaved people to read. After brainstorming character traits to describe him, we introduced slave and enslaved as contrasting vocabulary words, side by side. We then asked students, “Which word do you think John would prefer and why?” Through class discussion, we teased out the primary difference: slave encompasses your identity, like student or immigrant, whereas enslaved denotes that this state was imposed on you, but doesn’t necessarily define who you are. Simply understanding the nuance between the words was the task for some beginning ELLs. Other students wrote about why John would prefer enslaved. This laid the groundwork for its use throughout the unit and helped frame the book in the most empowering way we could.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly initially felt like a much more empowering literature choice. But at its core, it is also about oppression, especially in the distilled manner that most of my students interacted with the text. We were careful, however, to avoid framing the strength and courage of the protagonists as playing to the stereotype of the “strong Black woman.” We found small shifts in language actually could accomplish this. So instead of asking, “How does Katherine demonstrate persistence?”, we asked “Why was it necessary for Katherine to be persistent?”. Instead of a bunch of responses about Katherine not giving up when her boss told her she couldn’t attend the meetings, students wrote that it was unfair that she was excluded and had to work harder to prove herself because of her race and gender. Such persistence should not have been required.

The thing about antiracism work is it never ends. You never “graduate”. We just have to keep pushing against white supremacy and bias where-ever it arises. For now, my most immediate antiracist teaching goal is to be more thoughtful with text choices. In our next unit, starting in mid-March, we plan to read 4-5 picture books. I’m already curating a list of books that might acknowledge Black struggle, but definitely center Black joy. In the spirit of continuing to get better through reflection and feedback, I’d like to know what you think about the examples I described above. Do you think my focus on word choice and framing to affirm that Black lives matter in my class is valid? Did anything I presented here resonate for you? In your lessons, how do you think about your word choices and framing, or the way changes in language shape your interactions with young people?

Black educators, thinkers and writers whose ideas have informed this post:

  1. Blair Imani

  2. Ericka Hart

  3. Sassy Latte

  4. Shishi Rose

  5. Sonya Renee Taylor

#abolitionistteaching #antiracistteaching #whiteteacher