Still waiting for Superman: White saviors and systemic racism in Baltimore City Schools

This post was jointly written with Katia Hildebrandt and crossposted from her blog.

“No nation can enslave a race of people for hundreds of years, set them free bedraggled and penniless, pit them, without assistance in a hostile environment, against privileged victimizers, and then reasonably expect the gap between the heirs of the two groups to narrow. Lines, begun parallel and left alone, can never touch.”

– Randall Robinson

Maggie: A student’s mother called the school office with the accusation that I was racist. My only thought was, This is insane! Everybody who knew me would’ve defended me. Racists hate, and I didn’t hate anyone; racists use the n-word, and I would never; racists are killers, and I was a teacher. The mother, the principal, the student, and I met in my classroom. After the mother spoke about my behavior towards her son, the principal asked, “If she was a racist, would she be teaching our kids?” As if that were the most obvious thing in the world. 

Katia: I applied to Teach for America in my last year of university. I made it to the second round, a phone interview: a TFA alum drilled me on my beliefs about education and the achievement gap. And then she asked what I would do if, even after meeting with parents and creating student contracts and doing home visits, I had a student who still did not show up regularly at school. I said I’d do what I could, but in some cases even my best efforts might not be enough to get the student back on track. Silence. I knew, at that moment, that I wouldn’t get into the program, although at that point I didn’t know why.

Maggie: At least three courses I took to get a Masters degree in teaching required viewing and writing reflections about Freedom Writers, a film in which a pearl-wearing, pony-tailed Hilary Swank succeeds in changing the lives of her underprivileged, tattooed, angry but lovable students through her dedication to their education. None of my professors promoted this film as anything other than inspirational; no deconstruction of the movie took place. On the third or fourth viewing, after some extracurricular reading and conversation, I asked one of my professors about the problems of perpetuating the white savior myth, and she responded that I should reconsider my educational approach in more uplifting terms.

Katia: I spent two years in a Masters program designed specifically for teachers working in Baltimore City Schools. Two years. And I didn’t hear the term “systemic racism” once. I wasn’t given the works of Joe Kincheloe, or Gloria Ladson-Billings, or Paulo Freire to read.Lisa Delpit was mentioned once in passing, and at some point we were told to read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities so that (I can only assume) we could be shocked and outraged by the horrible treatment of black children in American public schools – as if we weren’t witnesses to this story every single day. We didn’t even have drinking water some of the time, because the pipes were lead, and the water coolers were only sometimes filled. But systemic racism? Unheard of.

Maggie: I tried hard to believe the white savior myth, before I knew enough to call it that. Even while I recognized that I wasn’t going to be a teacher who never resented the amount of time and mental energy it took, I did think that I should. But I wasn’t close to being a decent educator until I allowed doubt and questions to mess up that kind of thinking. The idea that everything would be fine as long as you worked hard fell away; a lot of my students were not fine, and neither I nor “hard work” could help them. That I had a racial and gendered identity that impacted my approach to the classroom, and that in fact that identity made me part of the problems I wanted to solve, became known to me. Thoughts of myself as removed from or above the city’s situation left me as a result.

Katia: On the last day of our summer training, we presented inspirational skits. One group performed Taylor Mali’s spoken word piece. That was how we felt – like real teachers, like people who could do the things that Mali did, save and inspire our students like Mali had. But who were we, at the age of 22, to walk into classrooms that September with six weeks of training and some experience in a summer school classroom under our belts? We believed, we were taught to believe, that we could make a difference. The motto of the program at that time was: “The need is real. The time is now. Teach.” I still have the t-shirt with those words on the front; the back is signed by the members of our cohort.

* * * * *

Last week, we received an email from the Baltimore-based alternative certification program through which we’d both earned our teaching certificates. We hadn’t received a single email from the program since we finished our coursework six years ago (not to mention the fact that they rarely contacted us while we were in the program), but when the Freddie Gray protests  turned violent and began to garner media attention, the head of the program sent a message to all alumni.

Taken at face value, the email called for teachers to give students the space to voice their concerns about the protests and about the injustice in their communities. In fact, many people would call the email well-intentioned. But there’s a forgiveness in that word that is part of the problem – it is easy to excuse small acts that serve to perpetuate systemic racism, because this allows us to distance ourselves: “They didn’t mean it in a bad way,” “they’re not bad people.”  But the language of the email tells a more complex story.

We were told, “These are conversations you may never have expected.” Seriously? Yes, seriously: further evidence of the lack of critical engagement with racism and economic injustice that plagued our certification program and our own thinking as young white educators. In a school system like Baltimore’s, systemic racism is writ large on the broken furnaces and cockroach-infested rooms and leaking ceilings of the school buildings, where student data is posted in the hallways and pep rallies are held to build excitement for upcoming standardized tests: the American Civil Liberties Union actually declared the poor condition of school buildings in Baltimore to be unconstitutional. That conversations about race and inequity and injustice do not occur on a daily basis, and are not encouraged to occur on a daily basis, is at the root of the problem.

And we were told to help students to “use nonviolence to demand justice in their community.” It was hard to ignore the underlying message: “It’s fine for your students to be angry, but please make sure they express their anger in the ‘appropriate way.’” To be clear, we are not in support of violence, but there are many articles circulating at the moment that present a more nuanced perspective on the call for peaceful protest (see, for instance, this comic, this video, and this article).

And then the kicker. Attached to the email were resources to help us with these difficult conversations: resources for how to talk about Ferguson. Ferguson? Now? The events of months ago? Should we not have been talking about Ferguson when it was happening? Why were we being sent these resources only now, when the situation had hit too close to home, when our schools had been directly impacted? Why were we only asked to have these uncomfortable conversations when it was no longer possible to avoid them?

Underlying the email and our reflections is the prevailing story of racism, the one that says that we should not normally talk about race, that we should be colourblind, that the idea of meritocracy works for everyone, that the answer to injustice is to protest according to the rules of those in power. And there is the story that pits the good (white) teacher and her students against the world, or the story that teachers should be superheroes like Taylor Mali, teachers whose dedication to the “underprivileged” youth of America knows no bounds. These stories insist that the most important factor in a child’s success is the teacher. But these stories are red herrings: they allow us to pretend that systemic racism does not exist by pinning the responsibility for the “achievement gap”  (in itself a problematic term) on the shoulders of the individual teachers and their students. Yes, teachers can play an important role in the lives of their students. But putting all hope on individuals means that we, as a society, do not have to face up to the systemic inequality in our educational system and our society.

We need to accept that racism is pervasive in society and see our own complicity in the structures of privilege and marginalization. We do not need to accept “well-intentioned” oppressive language and actions, or to excuse acts of racism based on a person’s “good character.” We need to discuss these issues long before they explode in the media and become impossible to ignore. We need to speak out alongside, and not for, those whose voices our privilege often seeks to suppress.

And we need to do so now.