What Non-Black Teachers Need to Know

2020 will definitely be remembered as a turning point.  Not only marked by the COVID19 pandemic and quarantine, but by world-wide protests and marches in outrage to the treatment and murders of Black people. I've been relatively quiet on social media this past month, trying to process everything.  I can't stop thinking about Black Lives Matter; my heart hurts and I'm frustrated as a teacher, with wanting to "do and say the right thing". I've been reading books and articles like crazy, watching videos, following Black thought leaders on social media, and listening to podcasts to inform myself.
As a fourth generation  (yonsei) Japanese American, I often don't know where I fit in or how certain issues reflect my experience: I am not Black, I am not white. I try to discuss issues that come up in the news through reading picture books to my students and having discussions that are safe and child-appropriate. I have books in the classroom with diverse representation. We talk all the time about social justice and standing up for what is right. But I know there's more I should and can be doing, especially teaching in a school with mostly Non-Black students and Non-Black teaching colleagues.

Annie Sheehan wrote an opinion piece, stating, "White teachers make up an estimated 80% of the teaching force in the U.S. White students make up less than half of the population of elementary students in the country, according to 2018 Census data. This means many students will go through the early years of their education without encountering a teacher who mirrors their own racial identity and background. You can read her complete article HERE.

I turned to a former student and a former parent (and teacher), to ask what they wish non-black teachers would know.  I hoped my request wasn't awkward or overstepping boundaries, but they appreciated being asked to share their opinion. I value their thoughts and admire their voice.
It’s so important that teachers, of every background, stay informed about BLM and share this information with students and fellow teachers. It goes without saying that there must be changes to the content and fashion that we teach American History. My hope is that we do our best to include more of the voices that helped create the America we live in today, and to explain how these different cultures arrived, diffused, and continue to influence our world today. So that when current events like the murder of George Floyd happen, students understand where the conflict stems from and why it is so important. There are some immediate changes that can take place in the classroom that teachers can facilitate to be receptive of their students' needs during these times.
For many Non Black Americans, there can be hesitation to speak about racial issues because their identity differs from the subject out of fear they may say the wrong thing or appear hypocritical. While I understand where these apprehensions are coming from, as a student, there was no one I  trusted more than the teacher. Teachers, if you can develop this trust and respect between you and your students, they will listen to what you have to teach them about racial issues, as well as demonstrate how others should act during a racial issue.
While teachers will be expected to help set the tone, provide accurate and responsible information on the subject, there will a point where they have to facilitate a discussion with all their students about the racial conflict facing America. It’s just as important to teach, as it is to listen. Active listening will help you identify when it is time to step in to change a topic, clarify a misconception, provide resources, or support an ousted student. When letting students speak, it is important that you hear from students (in this case African American) who are directly impacted by the content of the discussion. But you shouldn’t expect them to be first, or assume they will be loudest voice in the room or leave them to be the only voice. Your students have different personalities, comfort levels and coping mechanisms when it comes to talking about their race, racial history topics and race in relation to current event.  

For me, I wasn’t comfortable speaking out; not first, anyway. It felt like all eyes were on me and that people would see me differently or make assumptions about who I am, based on other African Americans in the media. This is why teachers have to demonstrate to students how to appropriately talk about racial issues, even if they aren’t the ones directly impacted so that Black students are not the only voice in the room. It’s why the BLM has been able to make so many strides recently because there were more voices than just African Americans. It’s the dividing point between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter. BLM is not exclusive to black voices and does not operate at its best if only Black voices are participating. While ALM may be nice on paper, it doesn’t recognize who are being most affected in this current moment.
Students have different ways of reacting to racial issues in history and current events. It can be beneficial for both the teacher and the student to have an understanding of how they will feel during these topics. In middle school, my history teacher told us after class that we were going to be covering slavery the following week and if anyone said or did anything offensive, I should come and talk to her. Though at first I was caught off guard and worried I was in trouble, it was one of the most reassuring things that a teacher had done for me. I was fortunate that I never had to talk to her about anything but it made me feel safer knowing someone was receptive of how I might be feeling while learning this unit. There are many ways this can happen based on the age and relationship you have to your students. Updating parents may be another solution. If there is a larger body of students who would be impacted by a particular unit, you may want to open a space for them to talk about it and know that you’re there to help. More recently I’ve noticed teachers and professors include a paragraph at the end of the syllabus to address outreach and mental health, which can be effective but saying it in person or bringing up contextually may help as well.
When it comes to talking about current events and things that impact them today, usually students want to be a part of the process and feel like they’re doing something to help. Whether that’s providing resources to get involved with volunteer organizations and activists that help BLM or an assembly to hear from activists and politicians to learn about how they’re making changes, writing to the neighborhood, community, and city councils or even having your students draft their own constitution or declaration about the principles they believe are important to promote a good classroom for all students. It’s about finding ways to put the principles you discuss into practice, so they feel they’re making a difference. All of this takes practice. It’s something new for everyone and we are all bound to make mistakes. But if you own up to mistakes and recognize you’re trying your best, your students will respect you for that. It already means so much that teachers are out there wanting to make a change and taking these first steps. I have no doubt that teachers can do it. Everything I’ve said, I learned from paying attention in school. 
There are so many things that need to be done to make a lasting change, but I will focus on two things that I, as a Black American, a parent and a teacher, feel are important. We need to be proactive and not reactive. We are here because nothing has been done to make a positive, lasting change in this country. We are slaughtered, we protest, papers are signed, we all go back to our homes and we hit repeat. We need a change within our educational system and that’s not just putting money into Black communities. I’m talking about educating Non-Blacks. We’ve always understood and learned about the history of others, but no one knows about us. You don’t have to send anyone a letter asking about Whites and what we need to know about them, but yet we have been in this country for 400 years and the only thing most Americans knows about us is what has been put in the media and that’s usually a negative narrative. We are more than just slaves and would like more acknowledgement about who we are and the contributions we have made. We need to infiltrate the curriculum with a positive narrative and not just during Black History month. 
I’m a supporter of the arts and sciences and there are so many successful black artists that we never discuss. I am a product of one of the country's largest school systems, yet I was never assigned a Black author by our teachers nor did I ever hear of any Black artists. The only discussions of Blacks was during Black History Month and only about slavery and MLK. The first time I was assigned a book to read by a Black author was during college!

We should be discussing Blacks in the classroom, and highlighting their contributions. Some of my favorite Black authors are Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, WEB Dubois, James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, Richard Wright. Although some of their writings may be too mature for elementary students, others like Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, Vashti Harrison have children’s books. (see below) Some of my favorite visual Black artists include, Jacob Lawrence, Bettye Saar, Elizabeth Catlett, Aaron Douglas, Jean Michel Basquiat, Mark Bradford, Romare Bearden, Kehinde Wiley, Faith Ringgold (author & artist), Alma Thomas, William Johnson, Horace Pippin, and Gordon Parks.
So many times people say they’re not racist, yet they don’t have any diversity in their friends. Children do what they see their parents do. Who’s at your home for dinner, what authors do you read, what films do you watch? I joined a book club and every book we read was by a White author and no one wanted to try anything new or different. You can’t expect change when you’re not open to change. The more time people spend with others, the more we realize we are not that different. We raised our kids looking for schools that offered diversity in the classroom, diversity in the staff, and diverse viewpoints. Our home is open to everyone and we are always engaging our kids in conversations about others. Because we embrace diversity, our kids have a diverse group of friends from whom they’ve learned things that we would have never been able to teach them. This is how we help end racism and change some of the negative narratives.
Note: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
In a later blog post, I'll be sharing some book reviews on books for adults, as well as more children's books, as I continue my learning journey. This is an ongoing process! Please share any book recommendations or your thoughts below; I'd love to hear from you!

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