Being a Black teacher is not enough for Black children
Yes, we need more Black teachers. But we need them to be Black *and* not an agent of white supremacy.
By Brittany Willis
It took me seven years of teaching before I had the opportunity to work in a school where the student and staff population were both majority Black. I don’t mean “majority” as in just over half—no, literally everybody was Black except two white staff members and three Latinx children who were siblings. After interviewing with an administrator, she informally offered me the position saying, “You’ll like it here. Everybody is young and Black.” There’s not many places you can go where the selling point for employment is Blackness.
I was excited. Like most workplaces in the U.S., schools across the country are primarily staffed with white people. For seven years, I had to navigate this whiteness and all the landmines it dropped in the classroom, with the safety of both myself and my students in mind. So I looked forward to having that particular burden lifted. Blackness is a safe space for me and that safety net was finally going to expand to where I worked.
One week later, while I was setting up my classroom, a co-worker who had been helping me get acclimated to the school visited. She asked if she could see my class roster so that she could give me some insight on the students she worked with last year. Although I enjoy getting to know my students organically, I’m always open to some advice from their previous teachers.
As soon as she saw my roster, she twisted her face. “Oh, you got these kids,” she said.
I knew what she meant and yet I still asked, “What do you mean?”
She then proceeded to go through each name on the list, highlighting the worst attributes of every child and the difficulties I was sure to encounter once they stepped foot in the building. She made sure to soften the blow of her words with jokes and giggles so as not to scare me away. No amount of lightheartedness could hide her disdain for my students, though. As she moved down the list, I became less and less interested in what she was saying, and more annoyed that I entertained her in the first place.
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I never spoke to that coworker about my students again, but I quickly found out she wasn’t the only staff member who very clearly didn’t like children—or at least not the children in that school. I wasn’t surprised this was true. Most adults treat children horribly. But I was disappointed that I had been led to believe Blackness automatically meant “safe” when, in this instance, it really only meant “safe from white people.” I had tried so hard to get away from the inherent violence of whiteness that I never acknowledged the harm that could occur in Black spaces.
“We need more Black teachers!”
It’s a phrase I hear often and one I’ve shouted myself—because it is true. However, I’m not sure we all understand why it’s important for us to teach our children, and therefore don’t understand what should happen once we get in front of them. We seem to believe that more Black teachers are needed just so Black children can see themselves—can have someone to relate to while learning. We think that representational Blackness is enough for them.
But what happens when our children see us and also see a familiar trauma? What happens when they lash out at our Blackness because it reminds them that, at times, theirs is void?
We don’t need more Black teachers simply because they’re Black. We need them because whiteness is incapable of holding space for Black bodies without committing violence against us. We need more Black teachers because white teachers can’t be responsible for our children’s whole being since their whiteness—and all that comes with it—is in direct opposition to Black life.
If we understand that white people can’t do the work it takes to love and educate Black children wholly, then we understand there’s work to be done in the first place. And our Blackness does not exempt us from doing that work.
Being Black wasn’t enough when my coworker spewed hatred for my students, “warning” me about their character before I even met them. Being Black wasn’t enough when, later that school year, I allowed a Black police officer to come into my classroom and re-traumatize a boy who was consistently subject to police violence in his neighborhood. Being Black isn’t enough when we verbally abuse our kids in the name of discipline, or when our idea of discipline is no different from rudimentary forms of punishment created by whiteness. Being Black isn’t enough when our children lash out at us and we respond to them violently, or ignore them altogether. Being Black isn’t enough when we exploit the school system—and by proxy, our children—for selfish and capitalistic reasons, and then encourage others to do the same.
Being Black takes work, even if that “work” is simply survival in the midst of whiteness. So why do we think filling a space with Blackness doesn’t require our consistent labor to ensure that that Black space is sustained?
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The truth is that our Blackness has a nasty parasite tethered to it called whiteness. And even though we didn’t ask for that attachment, we have to do what’s necessary to cut it off. Every day, whiteness is intentional about its pervasiveness and perverseness. So, we have to be intentional and strategic about dispelling whiteness from our personal lives, and preventing it from infiltrating our community (again).
Yes, we need more Black teachers. But we need them to be Black and not an agent of white supremacy or else they’re just Black hosts for the violence that already besets our children outside of Black spaces.
We need to be Black and aware of the trauma we’ve experienced, so we don’t further harm our children when their trauma exposes ours.
We need to be Black and actively working towards healing from our trauma, so that we can show our children healing is possible and there are multiple ways to go through that process.
We need to be Black and conscious of the fact that our children bring their anger and pain to us the most because bringing it to anyone else—expressing it anywhere else—is grounds for death.
We need to be Black and creative and imaginative about our existence absent of whiteness, because limiting our imagination to the confines of our current reality limits the capability of our children to change that reality.
Blackness continues to be a safe space for me, and it can be for our children—and honestly, all of us—if we understand that we have to work to maintain the integrity of that safety net. We have to love each other enough to willingly labor for each other. I believe that we do and that we can.
Brittany Willis is a proud Baltimore City native. She is a teacher, writer, special education advocate, womanist, and Blerd who loves Black children, Serena Williams, and Beyoncé. Follow more of her stories at medium.com/@heymisswillis