Over that past 10 years, there has been a surge in the awareness and social research around race. Thanks to a variety of educators, researchers, and historians around these issues, they have emphasized the importance of dismantling systemic racism in order to truly dismantle oppression. What I find interesting is how this manifests in education. What we know we need to see in education is representation of minority educators and administration in schools. Administration being the key here; we need to have minorities in leadership– a proverbial seat at the table where decisions are being made. We need to have minority teachers in the classroom. We also now understand that the demographic of the teachers needs to more closely match the demographic of the students and that it is problematic when we have all white teachers in a school that has any splash of color in their student body. However, when we place all this emphasis on systemic change without looking into the day to day life of an educator, we miss a key piece: Retention. We not only need to focus on recruiting educators of color in the system, but we need to retain them. So comes my next question: Why are educators of color leaving?
What we need to understand is that educators of color are leaving at an alarming rate. And no matter how many teachers of color we hire, if the same number leaves, then we are at a standstill and nothing changes. So what is happening that makes the environment so insufferable to work in? Well, being an educator of color in my third year of teaching, I can immediately feel the effects, the burden, of a racist system that is still in place. And what is worse– any changes being made from the top are not felt by me quite yet– someone on the bottom of the pyramid, waiting until universal changes are made and trickle down to my level. For instance, a BIPOC may have just recently gotten a new director of equity position at the district level, but perhaps their initiatives to have more BIPOC in the district office do not have any immediate impact on my job as a teacher in the classroom. Although these initiatives are essential to dismantle systemic racism.
The factors that make a minority teacher’s day to day life overwhelmingly difficult are the fact that we are more likely to be the subject of accusations of targeting white students when we teach diverse voices or perspectives. We are more likely to be accused of pushing an agenda. We are more likely to be challenged. And we do not always have protection from these accusations depending on who is in charge. If your principal is a white male who doesn’t understand racial issues, then it is over. If your union does not understand what is at stake when a parent files a complaint against you, then it is over.
Recently, I learned a hard lesson. I learned that anyone can claim to be an ally. Anyone can claim to be antiracist. But what happened is when I challenged my department to reassess how we teach diverse authors and that we need to consider how the author’s racial identity impacts their story, I was told that the text was more about gender. I argued that it is actually about intersectionality; the idea that gender and race are actually intertwined because you cannot separate one from the other. I was met with defensiveness and protests about how the other teachers are, in fact, exposing the students to valuable voices without having to delve deep into what the text was truly about. Because we are in a pandemic and now all meetings are held over Zoom and recorded, the department head (a white male who claimed to be an ally) turned around and gave the footage to the white male principal (who claimed to be an ally) stating that I was aggressive. Additionally, I received an email from another white male teacher in the department who accused me of making them feel “unsafe” and that I made the meeting feel not “inclusive of all voices” and no one felt okay to share. So, I want to summarize this for you: I, a minority Asian American teacher, suggested to my department that we reassess our texts so that we do these diverse authors justice, and I was accused of not being inclusive because two white men felt uncomfortable. The principal scheduled another meeting over Zoom as a follow-up to that meeting. He saw the footage. He agreed that I was “aggressive” and that what he saw was “disturbing”.
White fragility is a term coined by Robin DeAngelo. The initial department meeting was proof of white fragility manifesting and weaponized against me. What frightened me is that I was accused of such dangerous terms such as “aggressive” and eliciting feelings of exclusion by my white counterparts, but I did not have an ally. The administration at our building is composed of three white men and one white female. Where is my protection? Who is in a position of power to intervene? No one. When I was in my chair at my desk, staring at the Zoom screen where these bombs were being dropped on me by my white principal, it immediately came to my mind to quit on the spot. And then it occurred to me: This is why teachers of color are leaving. The lack of support and protection where it counts. And if I were anyone else, I would come away with the lesson that it is better to suffer in silence and in oppression than it is to speak out against racial injustice. But that is what oppressors want.
There are clearly other factors at play here. Like gender. No one can handle a strong woman nowadays, not to mention a strong minority woman. Because of Black Lives Matter, BIPOC suddenly have the courage and strength to speak out and the reality is that white people in power are scared. They feel like they have to give up some of their power, some of their control without realizing that they don’t have to give anything up. Just use your power to amplify our voices. But this message is falling on deaf ears. All they see are insults that they are not running things properly when the truth is they simply do not understand, cannot understand, what it is like to be a minority in this country and they do not know what we need because they can only see issues from their own white lenses.
This is only part of the issue, of course. Besides a lack of advocacy, educators of color simply need different training than our white counterparts. This never made sense to me why this has never been acknowledged. The district usually pushes out a one-size-fits-all training on equity, diversity, and inclusion to all teachers, but it does not focus on the crux of the issue: Teachers of color need differentiation. We need training on how to talk to our white students. This is especially important in districts with majority white students in their demographic. The training is almost always for white educators to speak with their white students about race. This ignores the fact that when we talk about race to our students without considering our own race and the students’ race, it is problematic. When an educator of color attempts to navigate a tricky conversation with a white student about race, what is inadvertently created is a divide between the student and the teacher. The conversation suddenly changes from “Let’s talk about race” to “Let’s talk about your race”, since obviously, the student and the teacher do not have the same racial identity. And it is safe to say, that even two people belonging to the same ethnicity do not have the same racial identity since racial identities are made up of our racial experiences as well. Race is complex and nuanced. We are ignoring so many factors when we push out equity training that is the same for every single educator without considering what ethnicity the educators are students are.
All in all, this is why educators of color are leaving education. Although we are striving for systemic change, we need acknowledgement that systemic change means retaining educators of color, but educators of color are leaving because we do not have advocates in places of power which brings us back to systemic change. It is a circle. And while we are slowly waiting for leadership to look more like us, it doesn’t address the issues we face that feel so immediate to us like parent complaints. There is no quick solution. Unless you consider “waiting” a solution. So I guess we just have to accept that until the changes made in leadership look a bit more like us and until we receive differentiated equity training, we cannot be as loud as we would like when it comes to antiracist work.