“The Only Christopher We Acknowledge Is Wallace”—or, how to lay your whiteness aside to teach effectively

When I read the journal entry by one Mr. King Johnson, I remembered why I teach (after I got finished signifying and laughing and yasssssssss-ing). Here’s the picture in full:

So now that you’ve seen it (again), my white teachers and assimilationist non-white teachers, I want to give you some things you should DO (instead of telling them you disappointed, trifling…) when a student engages you in a manner uncomfortable to you.

  1. DO get outcho feelings. The student is taking a huge risk to speak honestly about how they feel about their learning. Being so sensitive that you cannot put your personal feelings aside to respond to the matter at hand–which are some valid questions about the content–and not answering the questions–will make a child stop listening to you altogether. The goal is mental and emotional engagement, not factual engorgement. And if your feelings are really hurt,
  2. DO respond by requesting time from the student to think about what s/he said. I am quick to tell my students that I don’t know, or to allow me to think about it before giving a response. I don’t do it just to put them off, either; I do it because I am being honest. I don’t know; I do need time to think before responding. This honest communication demonstrates how to have a disagreement while keeping boundaries. Because even children deserve to feel how they feel. Adults do, too, but they have an added responsibility to be careful not to signal to children that who they are and what they feel doesn’t matter.
  3. DO get some feedback from more culturally responsive colleagues before responding. The thing that chapped my hide here as an educator is that this teacher harmed this child because she didn’t take his perspective–or anyone’s besides white revisionists–into account. She didn’t go back and review what he said, look it up, suggest some sources, ask more questions, or get the reference to Biggie (that was a gem. Black folks around the world was looking like: Meanwhile, white sis shoulda went and found one of her colleagues and asked for a second opinion. Because she was culturally incompetent if she ain’t get and respond to that joke alone. And she needed someone to help her not be so sensitive.
  4. DO stop drowning in white tears. By now even the whitest of white people know good and well that Columbus was a terrible person, a bad businessman, and a bungled explorer. He brought more death, disease, and destruction than anything else. People suffered and died because of him. Therefore many groups of people find his legacy to be distasteful at best and inhumane at worst. This young boy obviously falls into the latter camp–as is his right. And rather than drown in your sorrows of whiteness challenged, you have an opportunity to do what it is you get paid to do: TEACH.

Teach children how to read primary source documents.

Teach your students how to argue their points effectively after researching.

Teach the kids how to look at different perspectives and experiences in history–you know SOCIAL STUDIES.

Teach them that not all white people act a certain way.

Teach them that you care.


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