Black, Like Me: Teaching About Race in a White Community

As I was organizing some things on my shelf in preparation for summer closing procedures, I ran across the reflective essays that my seniors wrote at the end of semester one. The objective was a pretty simple one–to talk about two units that they had participated in and explain how they could apply ideas and skills from the classroom to real life. We did a lot during first semester–a professional writing unit, an advanced reading strategies unit, The Things They Carried, short stories… Any of these would have been fairly easy to write about. Instead, I remember being shocked that the majority chose to write about a social justice unit I designed around topics of racism, poverty, and white privilege. Though I didn’t post about this part of the year as it was happening, I feel I must return to it now. It was definitely one of the most difficult and rewarding parts of this school year.

The book Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin, was already set in the curriculum for seniors. Written shortly before the Civil Rights Movement crescendoed, the memoir chronicles Griffin’s real life experience in the deep South. Griffin was a white man who chemically darkened his skin tone and lived as if he were black in order to get a true perspective about the injustices suffered by the black community at the time. When I learned that this–the only book about race in our curriculum–was written by a white man, my first instinct was anger–I remember thinking, “Doesn’t this just reinforce the ongoing devaluing of writing and thinking that is any color other than white?” I felt confused and lost, particularly thinking back to the complex and genuine conversations I used to have about race with my multi-hued kids in Milwaukee. How was I supposed to talk about race with a class full of white students, without them tuning out or feeling attacked? How would a social justice approach to teaching be received in this homogenous, conservative community? Should I play it safe and just teach using a historical lens to examine Black Like Me in the context of the Civil Rights Movement? Or could I use this unit as an opportunity to have difficult discussions about race, privilege, and power in our contemporary society? As I grappled with this, I thought back on my first teaching experiences, where I was the only white person in the classroom. I thought of how much my own perspectives on race and social status have changed since I was the suburban teenager sitting in a desk. I thought about how I’ve become a better person because of it. I knew I had to ask my white students to come with me, to open their eyes to the invisible barriers still present in our America in 2011.

I started the unit by telling my students straight out that they would feel uncomfortable with the discussions we would be having in class. After all, who can face her own role in centuries of pain and injustice without feeling uncomfortable? I also reassured my class that they need not fear that I was going to accuse them of racism, that I wanted the unit to be an experience where they could ask honest questions and speak vulnerably about their own experiences and views regarding race. Finally, I reiterated that, while we would still read Black Like Me, our study would be a comparative one, looking our present society square and critically in the face.

We did all kinds of things during this unit. We watched documentaries on racism in retailing, used Frontline’s wonderful site and film about Jane Elliott’s A Class Divided experiment. I talked about my own experiences confronting my ideas about race as I became a member of more and more diverse communities in Milwaukee. We talked about Sheboygan and Sheboygan Falls. We speculated on the ways that Griffin’s journey may be similar or different today. We read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” We read Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and an essay by Toni Morrison. We looked at Disney’s treatment of race in animated films. We role-played different socio-economic situations. We examined the achievement gap. We talked about the myth of a fair and equal society and the tough reality that even today, we can’t say that “everything’s ok” as far as race and poverty are concerned. My students exceeded my expectations during the unit, with their curiosity, open mindedness, and willingness to discuss these ideas. But what they wrote in their reflections really sealed my pride in them. Here are some student samples:

“Of course I knew racism was still happening in our country. However, I never thought about how some people don’t have to work to get the status they have. Probably because most people don’t want to recognize it themselves.”

“We think we are not racists because we don’t show it. But we have to be very careful about that, because the problem is not solved yet. And we should use our privilege of being white to try to create a real equality, not just a fake one.”

“With help from a progressive young teacher, I have been introduced to information about white privilege in the United States though literature. These new ideas filled my head and conscience and because of it, I will never be the same… After seeing the list of privileges, I began to think about how they are present in my own life… They altered the way I thought about race in America and I don’t like to recall how I used to view it. When I look back on the first semester of my senior year, I know one thing I will never forget is that just from reading a couple pieces of paper, I was able to change my whole life.”

As I look back on these writings several months later, tears fall. As a teacher who feels the drive to incorporate social justice into my pedagogy, I know that I will keep working toward unity, justice, tolerance, and understanding for my whole life. I thought that I had to be in the city to do it. But after working with kids that look just like me, I’m realizing that, just as there is a passionate anti-racist beneath my lily white skin, I need to have faith that my white, rural students have that capability, too. I am forever learning more about the human race, and all the beautiful colors therein.

P.s. Fellow educators, we’ve still got work to do. If you’ve got social justice teaching stories or ideas, please share them!

2 thoughts on “Black, Like Me: Teaching About Race in a White Community

  1. Dawn Hogue says:

    Amy, Thanks for sharing this. I’m sure it was a transformative experience for your students. They care about social justice more than we realize and I think sometimes we teachers are a bit timid about some subjects, especially race, especially if we’re members of a privileged class who cannot know what it’s like not to be (and I refer to myself most of all here). Your unit sounds complex and rich, full of catalysts for discussion. I hope it is one you will repeat again and again.

  2. Ah! I got misty eyed as I read the student commentary you included. It’s crazy how easy it is to get lost in the “curriculum pressure.” With the demands of this American Literature curriculum (three novels first semester (two of which I had never read!) and two novels plus a research unit second semester), I really felt overwhelmed. Although I was able to infuse some meaningful discussions about race, identity, stereotypes, oppression, and culture, I know that I need to do more. As teachers who began in MPS and then moved to more suburban/rural areas, I think it is important that we carry our experiences and passions with us. While I sit here, feeling inspired by your unit and your post (while also considering the culture and demographics of my school), I am also mind-drafting an email to the other tenth grade teachers in my department. Last summer, when we were creating the curriculum, the majority of teachers voted to teach _For Whom the Bell Tolls_ instead of _Invisible Man_. I think I’ll send an email requesting that we reconsider _Invisible Man_. Thanks so much for sharing this!

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