As a precursory note, the hope of this post relies on my efforts to address what I have learned about myself in the context of race, class, and culture, and to examine the construction of my students’ understandings of race, class, and culture since teaching. Additionally, I seek to explore the meanings of these notions as an educator. Ultimately, the hope is to acquire strategic solutions to mitigate racial, cultural, and classist obstacles in the microcosmic level of my sole classroom, though, as a first-year teacher, these obstacles seem no less formidable than those at the core of the urban education crisis itself. Truly, for these reasons, urban teaching is tough, endless work, despite how well-educated or how intuitively an educator understands the complexities of race, class, and culture of students in urban environments.
Usually, I find auto-biographical work self-indulgent; but, having my students reflect on the latter ideals meant that I had to reflect, too.
Black cuisine, black dialect, black, whooping religion, black music, black people–throughout my formative development as a child, I never recognized race. The fact that most of my friends were products of fatherless homes and that the conditions of my school and community were tumbledown, at best, never struck me as black issues. Even though I had working-class white friends, I unconsciously grouped them with me and other black comrades, granting them access to the peculiarly, and oftentimes exclusively, lexicon of blackness. And so, the complexities of class were never obvious to me, that class bleeds into race, which makes it possible to hold a consanguinity of blackness–even if one’s skin is not black.
For example, the endearing semblance of the protean “N-word”, nigga, was commonplace in the vocabularies of my black and white childhood friends–this is the notion that my white friends, many of which were less affluent than me, were no less a part of blackness than me. Yet, slowly penetrating my skin like millions of sharp needles, “nigga”, when used among my newly befriended white, suburban classmates felt different. Reflecting on that experience, I realize that what I began to process and understand the legitimate toll of harm packed in “nigga”, seemingly innocuous before, and that usage of this word holds considerable consequences – the loss of reputation, the blackening of one’s eye, or worse yet, the threatening of one’s life – simply on the basis of the user. Conversely, it is important to note that I believe that my urban, white friends at the time, holding comparable socio-economic status, would have experienced as just as much challenge as I did acculturating to middle-class whiteness, despite their white skin.
Never had I considered race, class, or culture, much less the interconnectedness of the three–one passing into the other, forming the greatest American barrier of divisiveness. Clearly, I was insulated in–and by–my own blackness.
This vile ignorance was born of the same seeds, of the same roots, and of the same beast: the white-wash insulation of my white high school classmates was no less damning than the charcoaled insulation that had barricaded me. Skin color had little to do my insulation, or my middle-class, suburban friends’ insulation, hence many experiences and regard of disadvantaged whites in American. Blackness and whiteness, alike, exist as identities, ideologies, and institutions. I became aware of my insulation, when, at the age of fourteen, I moved from the soot-covered, all-black inner city to the white picket fences of all-white suburbia. From one insulated society to another, my world, and everything I held to be familiar, was shattered. These paradoxical experiences–the clashing of white and black worlds–are the best thing that ever happened to me.
Bleeding as ink on wet paper, the juxtaposition and blending of race, culture, and class in my own life may provided some entry and glimpse into the divisiveness of American society through my eyes, specifically within the local community of my students. Growing up, I dare advance the claim that my black community only conditioned its members for its own set of values and standards, often times values reinforcing white supremacy or preventing upward socio-economic mobility. Alternatively, the white community that I later joined only conditioned its members for its own set of values and standards, often times values acting as steps of “the great American ladder of conventional success”.
For example, as a black youth in all-black, low-income elementary and middle schools, academic success was equated with whiteness, that being inquisitive, reading books, and exhibiting academic excellence–encouraged and commended actions for all Americans–was viewed as “acting white” and “un-cool” among my black classmates. This, too, is the case among my students. And, on the other hand, in my all-white, middle-class high school, in the suburbs of Alabama, I found the exact opposite, that being smart, answering questions, and being academically well-positioned were the popular things to do, and that one’s popularity was often tied with the largeness of one’s drive to achieve.
This lone comparison of behavior, seemingly apples to oranges, is drawn to show the magnitude of difference and dynamics that characterize the two worlds. A member of these two environments, where race and class are the pivotal factors that mold culture, was key in my development as an adolescent and my own understanding of race, class, and culture today. I provide this example to also point to one example of how my students construct race, class, and culture.
Attending a predominately white, middle-class University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), an institution of great diversity I must add, my election to the student body presidency would have been impossible had I not acquired a capital of culture that lends itself to more than one race, class, and culture. Understanding institutions, cultures, and ideologies of people different from me in the formative years of my life crystallizes and reaffirms who I am.
Like crabs in a barrel, what I fear most, and one of the greatest challenges to mitigate among my students, as aforementioned, is the notion of “acting white”. This idea –“acting white” — is at the heart of black America, but is truly infectious among all minorities of color. When minorities of color are successful, well-off, or educated are labeled as “white” by its own members, it backpedals the particular community of minority status. When I examined the Teachers College of Columbia notion of “racial microaggression”, the “brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color”, I whole-heartedly endorse this idea. Undoubtedly, this exists; however, what fails to receive more attention in our society is the notion of “acting white”, which seems to be negated microaggression, or simply, “reverse” racial microaggression, where assaulters are not white or operating from privilege, but of the same race, class, and/or culture.
Today, members of minority communities, as has been the case for at least a century, patronizingly discount its own members – who are successful – for “acting white”. This, to me, is considered a “microinsult”, an act that seeks to demean another’s racial identity (274, Teachers). Yet, the nasty reality of this form of microaggression lies in the perpetrator, who is not white, but instead, a member of the victim’s own racial, cultural, and/or classist community. This is one challenge among the students that I teach in which I hope to develop remedies to reverse; it is a widespread epidemic. While this is a very hefty challenge, even on a micro-level as small as my sole classroom, I think that it is ameliorant with the right course of actions, rhetoric, and ideology.
The second challenge of interest is instilling hope in my students. As evidenced in Chapter I: “The Roots of the Racial Wealth Divide”, The Color of Wealth, there are strong sentiments about economic success in America, and rightfully so. For example, “White Americans in particular tend to believe that the playing field is now level…In 2004, 77 percent of white respondents said they believe that African-Americans have as good a chance as whites to get any kind of job for which they are qualified. Only 41 percent of blacks felt the same” (2, Wealth). This notion comes unsurprisingly. When reviewing polls and other statistics that point to how economically stratified American wealth is – by race – the conventional tools of logic are not enough to convince children of color that what they are doing now, in high school, will equate to meaningful results, like future economic success. Oftentimes, and unfortunately, students fail to complete homework, or even come to school at all, because they do not connect their educational success to their lifelong prospects. Another reason of this cultural disconnect may exist by residing in a financially abysmal household.
The conclusions that I am interested in drawing are complicated. Many of the problems in urban communities that make teaching difficult in these communities are problems that may exist because of historical experiences; they may exist because of Jim Crowism and Jim Crowism Jr. While I can conjure countless hypothetical root causes of plight within minority communities, these problems may continue to be exacerbated by the communities themselves.
As a black male, I have been labeled as a sellout to my own race because I have values typical of white America, yet I have been praised by the same people for this work in urban education. For my students, I find that gauging the internal pulse of students is difficult when having talks about their success and race; because they respond with bleak prophecies when we discuss their potential or future, and they, unfortunately, blame their race for any future shortcomings. Yet, when I say that it is completely within their scope to be successful, and I use myself as an example, they say I’m different. This is more of a cultural and cognitive battle, than it is the idea that schools are “unequal”. There needs to be an rhetorical overhaul in schools, because the tone and messaging seem inaccurately calibrated.
I have committed myself to reversing mindsets of the students in my classroom, from the “acting white” phenomenon to their valuations of race, class, and culture and what that has to do with being successful. And, most importantly, that is it possible to be both black and successful.
Teaching Civics has made conversations of race, class, and culture commonplace and real, and it has made me more committed to de-constructing these sentiments, on a small scale, that works against black advancement. I believe I have made meaningful progress. My work, to me, has become national in significance, and it keeps me grounded and passionate about teaching. While urban education may be challenging–perhaps with obstacles insoluble in my lifetime–it is rewarding to see the resolve of my classroom, a community of students who have the potential to succeed by any gauge, so long as they are willing to work hard and believe that they can achieve.