I was in my first year of teaching. It was second semester, and I was having to teach a required ACT course. I was burnt out. One of my students in the back of the classroom had his hood on and was exchanging dollar bills with another student. As a public school student myself, whose model of classroom management that I had received from my own teachers had been one of confrontation, I knew exactly how to handle this situation. I needed to shame the student to get his attention. It didn’t matter that my teaching context was a predominantly African-American school in Mississippi, right?
“_____________, you may not care about your future, but please respect that others around you may.”
It is with much embarrassment that I admit that I said that. Not surprisingly, the situation quickly escalated. In order to save face, the student responded with profanities. Before I knew it, he stood up, dropped his book bag, and raised his hands as if preparing for a street brawl. I had degraded a student’s dignity and worth to the point where he felt he had to fight me for it. A defiant tear ran down one side of his face, and I watched him brush it away before his friends could see. That moment in time still flickers through my mind like some image on a film reel that I cannot unsee.
I have learned a lot about teaching in an African-American school over the last three years. I share that anecdote, because it was a turning point for me where I began to realize that, as a white teacher, correcting black students in a state that is still fraught with racial tensions comes with a lot of historical baggage. You can try to ignore it. You can dismiss acknowledging it as white guilt. But it is there. It’s a pain that resonates on my student’s faces, students who do not have the benefit of saying, “I don’t see color. My primary identity is not my race.” It’s convenient for whites as the majority to downplay race as a primary factor in identity, because the majority does not have to account for that in their identity. This is something I have only recently come to understand: how the African-American community is a people robbed of a collective history because of the 18th and 19th century practices of manstealing. Or rather they have a different collective history, one that is inseparable from the trauma of slavery and segregation.
In terms of my teaching, this has transformed my approach. Unless I recognize and respect the unique identity of each individual student, I am not teaching in a way that respects the image of God in them. And inherent to the identity of each African-American student is the narrative of how whites have treated blacks. If I (we) want to change that narrative, it does not happen by pretending it is no longer relevant. It only happens through empathy: imaginatively entering their experience and understanding their perspective. By empathy, I do not mean a paternalistic kind of sympathy. That kind of approach only further perpetuates injustice and inequality. Sympathy looks from the outside while empathy looks from the inside. Sympathy looks down on one in pain while empathy looks across to one in pain. Only when we seek, albeit imperfectly, to understand what our neighbor is going through will we foster equality.
And so I ask my white brothers and sisters, when you look at the face of an African-American adolescent, what do you see? Do you see the context of pain and suffering and inescapability of them having to define themselves by their own skin color? If you do not begin there, you do not see. My eyes are now starting to open, but my vision is still blurred. I repent of times when I have acted in ignorance or not loved my African-American neighbor or brother or sister well, and I continue to repent. Gradually, by God’s grace, my sight is improving.