Equity & Access Teacher Inquiry

Reflections on Race in the Urban Classroom

Learning starts with failure; the first failure is the beginning of education.
—John Hersey

Failure has never been something that I have been willing to accept. Failure, for me, has always been associated with feelings of inadequacy and maybe even some shame. Recently, however, I have come to understand that one truly can learn from one’s failures, provided one possesses the courage to explore the reasons why the failure occurred.

I teach in a large urban high school composed mainly of African American and Latino students. In addition to the normal tumult of adolescence, many of these students also face a myriad of socioeconomic obstacles that they must overcome if they are to be successful. Many of them have developed a protective barrier that insulates them from the uncertainties of their world. Their failed attempts to reconcile the difference between where they are and where they want to be, how they see themselves and how others see them, have given way to a belief that their lives and the circumstances in which they live are unalterable. I have always believed that part of my job as an educator is to help my students overcome the feelings of marginalization and failure that often stifle their efforts to attain a better life. This is the reason why failure has never been an option for me. The stakes are simply too high.

It is also the reason why, when asked, I agreed to be part of Project Outreach, a National Writing Project initiative that addresses issues of access, relevance, and diversity in the classroom and at local writing project sites. You see, as an African American educator, I thought not only that I understood these issues but also that I was already addressing them in my classroom. I arrogantly welcomed the opportunity to find ways to share my understanding with colleagues who weren’t as enlightened as I.

It has always been my firm belief that a key aspect of ensuring my students success involves providing them with literature and activities that are diverse, relevant, and accessible. As such, much of the literature that I use in my classroom is specifically chosen to serve not only as a medium for improving my students’ reading and writing skills but also as a venue through which students can see themselves and explore their place in the world. My literature choices often include selections such as Brent Staples’s “Just Walk On By,” an essay recounting the author’s realization that he had the ability to alter “public space in ugly ways” simply because he was a black male, or Miles Corwin’s And Still We Rise, a novel that chronicles the lives of twelve high school seniors in South Central Los Angeles as they try to overcome the obstacles that stand in their way.

It never occurred to me, however, that my intentions were biased. I didn’t understand that when it comes to matters of race, ethnicity, and culture, biases can show up in the most unlikely places. That is, until I met Kevin.

Kevin wasn’t the first Caucasian student that I had taught. A few years before him, I had had a student named Miro, who was an immigrant from Croatia. I guess I just assumed that if Kevin was at my school, he must be an immigrant from some other country. It wasn’t until the second or third day of school, when I walked up to him and said, “So, Kevin, where are you from?” and he responded with, “What do you mean? I’m from Bridgeport,” that I realized the mistake I had made. I can’t be sure, but shock and embarrassment must have shown on my face. Unfortunately, this initial encounter set the stage for how Kevin and I would interact for most of the year. Although I was very aware that there was a distance between Kevin and me—a distance that did not exist between me and the rest of my students—I wasn’t sure of what to do about it. So, I did nothing.

My relationship with Kevin further deteriorated once I introduced the first thematic unit of the year. It was a unit on language and its uses. During the course of the unit, students were asked to explore the ways that language could be used to empower, to disempower, and to tell our stories. As I previewed the unit, I realized that the selections I had chosen, selections such as James Baldwin’s “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” and Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” favored my African American and Hispanic students. I realized, in fact, that the unit did not contain any authors or readings that would help Kevin to see himself. But I didn’t want to just add readings and selections from white authors. That felt too much like tokenism.

Instead, I adjusted the readings so that they represented a variety of ethnicities. I included pieces like Simon J. Ortiz’s “The Language We Know,” an essay that explores how American Indians can use language and education to fight injustice, and Garrett Hongo’s “Kubota,” an essay that explores the Japanese American silence about the internment and the effect that that silence has had on their children. I knew, however, that there would still be some discomfort when the class began the section of the unit that dealt with language and how it could be used to disempower.

As we looked at essays such as Gloria Naylor’s “The Meanings of a Word” and Christine Leong’s “Being a Chink,” both of which explored the use of racial epithets and slurs, Kevin’s presence in my class began to diminish. He had always sat near the back corner of the class. As the unit progressed, however, he began to inch further and further into that corner. Then he started putting his head down on his desk whenever discussions about race and racism occurred. Had Kevin been any other student in the class, I would not have allowed this type of behavior. But because it was him—and because I knew what was triggering his behavior and understood the discomfort that he was feeling—I did nothing.

I understood Kevin’s behavior and discomfort because I was feeling a lot of it myself. I had always prided myself on being able to create a community of learners in my classroom. And I was very aware of the fact that Kevin was not part of that community. This awareness affected not only how I treated Kevin, but also how I viewed his work and how he functioned in my classroom. I viewed every assignment through his eyes. I constantly asked myself, “How is this assignment going to affect Kevin?” I also found myself questioning the authenticity of the work I received from him when the assignment revolved around race or racial issues.

As a final exercise for the unit on language, I had the students write a persuasive essay in which they debated the use of the words nigger and nigga. Before the students began their essays, I engaged them in a discussion of the topic. As the rest of the class passionately debated both sides of the issue, I couldn’t help being drawn to Kevin’s silence. He didn’t have his head on his desk. It was obvious that the energy of the discussion had engaged him on some level. Yet he remained silent, and his silence bothered me. I wanted—needed—to know what was going on in his head. I needed to hear his opinion on the subject. So I asked. And when I did, the entire class fell silent. He responded by saying that he didn’t think there was a difference between the two words, that he didn’t believe altering how the word was spelled altered its original meaning, and that he “never used either of those words.” I didn’t believe him. I wanted to. But his response seemed too politically correct. I couldn’t help but wonder how much the fact that I was an African American affected how he responded. I wondered if I would have gotten the same response if I were white.

As the year progressed, Kevin became more and more invisible. His behavior and my reaction—or nonreaction—to it, became so apparent that my other students, when being reprimanded for some misdeed or classroom infraction, would shout out, “But if I was Kevin, you wouldn’t say anything.” There was no denying that both the students and I treated Kevin as an outsider, as the “other.” I could see it and was deeply troubled by it. I was deeply disturbed by what was occurring in my classroom, as well as inside me. I just didn’t know how to address the problem in a way that wouldn’t embarrass or further isolate Kevin. So I did nothing.

This pattern of behavior continued for most of the school year. It finally reached its climax one day in early spring. The students had come to class in a playful mood, more than a little intoxicated by the feeling of spring in the air. Their playfulness quickly turned into what can only be described as innocent teasing. Although the students were engaged in the lesson, any misstep or misspeak by a classmate served as fodder for the mood. Things were going well until Kevin decided to join in the fun. In response to a question I had posed to the class, a female student had given an answer that caused the whole class to break out in laughter. The laughter was peppered with some innocent chiding. The girl in question was taking the whole situation in stride until Kevin shot a barb her way. No sooner had he completed his sentence than she began to verbally attack him. “Kevin, shut up and mind your own business! You always got something to say,” she shouted.

“I know! He’s always butting into other people’s business,” chimed in another female student who decided to join the fray. “He makes me sick!”

I don’t know if it was embarrassment that these two girls had ganged up on him or simply stunned shock at the unexpectedness of the whole attack, but Kevin retreated into his corner. As he did, our eyes met momentarily, and in them I saw a glimpse of something I had never seen before: pain.

I couldn’t even remember what it was Kevin had said. And in all honesty, I knew it didn’t really matter. The explosion that occurred was an inevitable one. A slow-burning fuse had been lit during our first encounter. That fuse had inched its way toward its inevitable destination all year. And as I sought to calm the class, I thought about all the subtle jabs and ignored comments that had brought us to this moment. Little things such as students asking, “Miss? Why are we always reading all these stories about white people and racism? How do you think that makes Kevin feel?” The sly smiles and smug smirks that accompanied these queries always told me that they were feigned displays of concern whose actual intent was to create discomfort. But because they were subtle, because there had never been any overt racial incidents, I had avoided addressing the issue of Kevin’s whiteness and how it affected the classroom environment. However, there was no getting around it this time. The issue had to be addressed. I could no longer stand by and do nothing.

It took a few minutes to regain control of the class. But once I had the female students and the rest of the class calmed down, I looked at them and said, “You know what? You guys are racists! You don’t think that Kevin should have a voice in or be a part of this class simply because he is white. And in my book, that makes you racists.” I don’t know how many of the students in the class agreed with or even truly heard me that afternoon. What I do know is that Kevin became a more visible, vocal part of the class after that. While I never could get him to move his seat from the back corner of the room, he did stop putting his head down on the desk. And on occasion he would willingly participate in class discussions regardless of the subject. In retrospect, I realize that Kevin had spent most of the school year waiting for me to step up and acknowledge him as a member of the class. He had been waiting for me to stand up and do something.

Failure is a hard thing to own up to. But there is no doubt in my mind that for most of the school year, I had failed Kevin. I let his whiteness get in the way. In spite of all my talk about access, relevance, and diversity, I had never once stopped to consider what happens when the student who is being marginalized comes from the culture of power.

Had I not met Kevin, I could have gone through the whole Project Outreach experience and never truly gotten it. I could have gone through the whole experience without ever truly understanding how difficult it can be to address issues of race, ethnicity, culture, and gender and how these things affect access, relevance, and diversity. I also may not have recognized or even understood the biases that I was bringing into my classroom. I know for certain that I would not now be as empathetic to the difficulties that are an inherent part of what we, the Project Outreach teams, ask our writing project sites to do.

I may have failed Kevin, but my failure will not be in vain. For in the experience of failing and the subsequent self-examination of all the reasons why the failure occurred, I’ve also gone through a learning process. What I have learned about myself and the particular types of biases I bring to my classroom will ensure that this never happens again.