Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Conversations with a Student-Teacher of Color


Itoro Udofia is an artist and writer living in Amherst, MA. Currently, she is attending graduate school to study social justice and education. Her work focuses primarily on the African Diaspora, black womanhood, identity, solidarity, and love. She hopes to continue using art as a tool for social justice. 


I have decided that teaching will be my life’s work. I’m happy to say that I am on my way there as I train to be a teacher. I find that choosing to teach in today’s public schools—which are rapidly becoming an increasingly standardized and militarized space—has become a political decision. So many questions come to mind: How does a teacher resist these structures as well as work within them? Are our students ready to go out into a world where increasing hostility and secrecy have become the norm? As a teacher, what are the tools I will give my students to think critically about their lives and deconstruct larger society? And my more political question: How can I encourage my students to go beyond the classroom and organize to challenge supremacy in all its insidious forms?

I have learned that the road to understanding these answers is a messy process. All the while, some parts are quite basic. For example, as a teacher who wants to see a more just world, what does Community in the classroom mean? What does teaching students to stand in Solidarity mean? And what exactly are the political, economic and social connections that make us all essential to the emancipation of human beings?  I think of my professor who once gave one of many a lecture. She raised a point that has become a principle of mine, “I will affirm the best of human experiences and oppose the worst of human actions.” For the many who have attempted to live by this statement. Well…it’s pretty said and messy done.

I am a teacher of color in a playing field where about 83% of the current teachers teaching are white women. Also, I happen to be teaching with an all white staff and faculty (not really a surprise with the exception that most of the staff of color are custodial workers) and primarily white working to middle class students (with a sprinkling of students of color). Furthermore, in my teaching program I am the only visible person of color.

I find that as a teacher of color, especially as a black woman, I am usually at the center of my white students (and really all the white people I encounter) fears. Not only have I had to hear racist statements from the students, I also hear how white teachers (mostly self-proclaimed liberals) reproduce the same very thoughts and actions they seek to untangle. And there lies the arrogance of supremacist thinking, and the many contradictions of being in this struggle.  My days are often filled with amazing hostilities and headaches, with little to no support. Fortunately, I love the labor. Of course there is no pure place where this work can be done and I too am working to decolonize and sort out my own thinking. And yet, there is a longing for something else.

I love to teach and I love the students but there is a lingering question: “How much can I stomach?”  Doing this work in this particular area has brought many questions, yearnings and contradictions to the surface. I believe that white people, especially young white students need this social justice work more than ever. I am not sure if I should be the one doing it (but someone has got to do it). That is why I am often perplexed when I hear the majority of white teachers seeking to go out and teach poor black and Hispanic youth. I have seen many “well intentioned” white teachers carrying a sentiment that this population is the source of the problem. As a teacher I have seen that white supremacist thinking must be liberated from itself and if people (especially white people) are looking for a place to start, please start at home and you may find you have your work cut out for you.
It has been no easy task working with my students. However, some of the greatest teaching moments I have had, have come out of them spitting out their fears and contradictions. The list of their responses follows:

  • “Well we don’t want to be bad people. We’re not all bad.”
  • “Didn’t black people have slaves too?”
  • “Well Obama is president. He’s like the most powerful man in the country.”
  • “Well blacks had a hand in their own oppression too. It wasn’t all white.”
  • “Well I feel so guilty, so insignificant”,
  • “Well why should I feel responsible, its not as if I have any power!”,
  • “Well, change takes time but things have progressed.”
  • “It just sounds like complaining.”
  • "Well people of color can be racist too?!"
  • “Well why should we hate people because they’re rich? Don’t they obviously have to work hard for their money to get it?”
  • “Well if things were to really change, then what would happen to us?” 
These are all statements that at one point in time my students have blurted out. We have had to work through these thoughts together, to get to a place where we could learn and struggle forward. I wasn’t very surprised to hear these sentiments (I mean seriously, these thoughts are quite dominant and have become ways to stop a thorough analysis of our reality). In fact, I was thankful that they had the courage to spit out their largely white-class privileged (or internalized white class privileged thinking) fears and attempt to challenge it. This is something I find many adults won’t even do.

I have also seen that these thoughts usually are never questioned and are almost always unchecked. They become hidden and tucked into their consciousness and reproduced in the most subtle ways. Yes, having these conversations were quite painful. Yet, I am thankful for these students. I teach predominantly white working class kids. They too have been lied to and told that their political-economic interests are antagonistic to the few poor people of color in their neighborhood. I was happy that they let out their verbal vomit and were willing to challenge the basis of their ideas. As a teacher, it let me know that these students had to see examples of white people who have attempted to free themselves from supremacist thinking. People who struggled and worked to be anti-racist and denounce human exploitation. There are many historic and current examples. But these students rarely get to learn about them. And I believe that more work like this needs to be done in predominantly white areas. And I also think it’s quite telling that it’s not.  

The only thing that keeps me going is understanding that there are many other people who have suffered and are still committed to doing this work. Past and present. So I stand in solidarity with these people. And although lonely, we do not do this alone.

I also think of my friends of color, who are mostly activists and organizers. They have decided that we are living in a time of political urgency. Where unemployment is rampant and the U.S. is becoming increasingly unsafe for POC, for laborers. More frightening, these sentiments and actions are becoming further legitimized and legalized. My friends have gone off to work on immigrant rights, organize against globalization and neo-liberal policies, labor organizing and working with POC in low-income areas. They can easily hook into the experiences of those they work with and this further commits them to doing this work. So naturally, I wonder why I spend most of my days having these crucial conversations with predominantly middle class white folks and wonder if I should make an intentional decision to spend the majority of my time having this conversation with predominantly POC and working class folks. Everyday I think about it and I become further enraged. But for now, I am a teacher of color who works in a predominantly white working to middle class area with mostly white students (and a sprinkling of students of color). And there is hope in those students. They are not what they have been told to think…yet. There is still time. So I do this work in solidarity with my friends and hope that this is but one drop in the large bucket of toil.