This is Not a Test

“At times I’m impatient with younger blacks who insist they were or would have been better off in black schools, at least from pre-K through middle school. They had, or would have had, a stronger racial and social identity, an identity cleansed of suspicion, subterfuge, confusion, euphemism, presumption, patronization, and disdain. I have no grounds for comparison. The only schools I ever went to were white schools with small numbers of Negroes….We were not protected from our teachers. Or our parents. We were not protected from the shocks of physical difference”

– Negroland, Margo Jefferson

I’ve been reading Jose Vilson’s book “This is Not a Test” (see his blog here) and have found it to be incredibly powerful because it shows the importance of not only culturally-relevant pedagogy but culturally-relevant teachers. In the sterile world of data we know there’s something to “race congruence” or “race-matching” of students and teachers. To some extent this makes me uncomfortable, it almost seems as if we’re advocating for the re-segregation of schools (who am I kidding, in the United States schools are still segregated). However, it’s not so much that we’re saying “students benefit most from teachers of the same skin color as them.” Instead, what we’re saying is “students benefit most from teachers who have similar experiences to them–who can relate to them on a more personal level.”

When I reflect on my own educational experiences, I believe this to be true. I didn’t have many teachers of color in either my school or university days, but those who have most impacted me have either been of color or come from a background that showed them that racism is real, alive and well–they know that there is a battle/war to be won. There is a history of pushing teachers of color, particularly male teachers of color out of schools following Brown v Board of Education. Now, we suffer the damages of that. In a public education system in which racially-defined minority students make up more than 50% of the student body, but White teachers make up more than 80%, there is a need to diversify the teacher workforce. A need to think through how we can teach culturally-relevant pedagogy and attract the teachers best equipped to provide it.

I’ve been thinking through a lot these days. As a PhD candidate, I know a lot about the data and the theory, but I have little practical long-term experience working with students myself. As a person of color, I could perhaps make an impact in the lives of children who look like me. I attended mostly White schools growing up, with mostly White teachers, I am seen as an Oreo. “Oreo” is used to describe an individual who, like the cookie, is Black on the outside and White on the inside. I never took offense to this name, in fact, in school I used it to describe myself. I was one of two Black students at my secondary school taking Advanced Placement courses; the overwhelming majority of my classmates were White. I was an “Oreo” because I was in academically accelerated classrooms while many of the other students of color were in ‘regular’ classes. Reflecting a few years later in a “Race and Power” class I took during my undergraduate degree at Stanford, I realized that my adoption of the term “Oreo” alluded to the implicit and explicit associations we tend to make between intellectual or academic ability and skin color.

Was calling myself an “Oreo” a way to try and fit into a situation where I was seen as different? Or where people justified my position in academically accelerated courses? Sure, I’m a person of color in this AP Physics class, but it’s ok because I’m culturally White. This is the problem–the idea that to succeed in the classroom you have to be “White.” To be me, to be Black and be successful, that is an exception, and anomaly. That is something seen as having nothing to do with who you are and everything to do with the mannerisms, language, and approach you take. So I am treated as Black, but when I succeed, that success is monopolized by Whiteness, seen as a result of Whiteness rather than an accomplishment despite it.

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