By Jay Wamsted
Recently I was running a lesson in my 8th grade math class. I called it a “game,” though my students knew what that really meant – not a competition, rather just a whole-class activity with a tv-host voice and loud music for keeping time.
About once a unit or so we play one of these so-called games. For some reason, we all love it.
I choose my musical breaks carefully, and on this day I used “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. (Nota Bene: if you needed me to tell you that Nirvana sang “Teen Spirit” then the rest of this paragraph will make no sense. You should google it and watch the video before continuing).
For 45 seconds or so the song played while my students were writing a description of a graph on the board. Which meant, of course, that for 45 seconds I was banging my head up and down, causing my over-long hair to thrash back and forth. I was also playing air guitar. Obviously.
(“Over-long” is the polite way of capturing my teenage daughter’s feelings about my hair: “You need a haircut,” said ten times a day).
Students were writing. I was rocking out. It was Friday. Everyone was having a great time. At least, as great a time as time allows in middle school math. Then I hit pause, caught my breath, went to the board to talk. Before I could get to the graph, however, a student said, just loud enough for all of us to hear, “That man is so white.”
Needle scratch time. The class went dead quiet.
Three Main Options
I should say that there were 30 or so students in the room, only two of whom were white. Of the remaining students, all but one was Black. I teach right outside of Atlanta, in what used to be Newt Gingrich’s congressional district before rapid demographic change turned it from mostly white to mostly Black, from Romney to Biden. Our school has undergone a similar shift.
A teacher has three main options in a moment like this. The easiest is probably to play pretend, to act as if I didn’t hear, to just move on with the lesson as if nothing had happened. Adults gaslight children like this every day of their lives; nobody in the room would so much have batted an eye if I had just kept teaching.
A second option is one I will, with major shade, refer to as “the Ron DeSantis.” That is, I could come back at the students with some version of color blindness. You can’t quite imagine what I’m talking about? Allow me to demonstrate.
Now students, let’s not talk about race in math class. It doesn’t matter that I am white or that most of you are Black. In fact, it never would have occurred to me to even notice such a thing, because race doesn’t matter in the city of Atlanta or in our classroom. Remember what Martin Luther King said, that we want to judge people “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” If Martin Luther King didn’t think race matters, why should we? Now, let’s get back to the math!
If you’re finding either of these options uninspiring, join the club. They are both poor pedagogical responses to the moment. Staying silent in a potentially awkward situation? I’m not saying there’s never a time and a place for dodging a conversation better held between parent and child. But, despite what the CRT-scare folks would say, talking about race with teenagers when it arises organically is far from a run-away kind of moment.
And the Ron DeSantis? Another pass. We need to push back on the nonsense that we can somehow choose to “not see race.” Even if such a thing were possible, it would not be preferable.
Like it or not, race is an inextricable part of our culture and identity. In the words of Lisa Delpit, “if one does not see color, then one does not really see children.” I wager to say that not a single Black child in my class would choose for me to erase their Blackness with my blithe words.
And, just in case someone feeds that MLK quote to you out of its original, blistering context, please feel free to toss this one back: “It is obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.”
Propose to them that MLK would like to see some serious reparations enacted before we get to this “content of our character” utopia. See what happens.
Why Not Get into Race and Culture?
Back to my classroom. I chose option three, going right for the conversation on race. As you may have guessed, I was halfway looking for it when I chose the 30-year-old alternative anthem and started banging my head. After all, why not get into our race and culture in the classroom? Why not try to know each other a little better?
I am, in fact, so very white! Let’s talk a little bit about that and acknowledge the elephant in the room, the ghost that has haunted our country for over four hundred years. It is only in discussion of a difficult thing that we can hope to ever move past it.
To put a point on it, this act is nothing like the dreaded CRT. It is just one human building trust with another. It is the essence of communication. So we communicated.
For my next song, I very deliberately put on DJ Khaled’s slightly more modern anthem, “All I Do Is Win.” Pretty much everybody in the room sang along instantly. Not me, of course. I’ve heard the song a hundred times, but I just can’t keep up with the flow. Never fear, though – I did manage to “put my hands up” at the right time. The students loved it.
And, just in case you were curious, the math activity was a screaming success. One of the best Friday afternoons of my 17-year career. Because when the students and the teacher can be authentic with each other, learning will happen at a higher rate. And authenticity involves nothing so much like “judging” someone by the color of their skin.
It just necessitates an acknowledgement that race matters. Especially when that teacher just happens to be “so white.”
Jay Wamsted has been teaching math in Atlanta for 15 years. He writes about race and racism, specifically focusing on white teachers. More of his writing can be found at Harvard Educational Review, The Bitter Southerner, and Edutopia.
Jay’s 2017 TEDx talk, “Eating the Elephant: Ending Racism & the Magic of Trust” can be found on the TEDx YouTube channel. He and his wife live with four children, one beagle, and 10 chickens, and he is fortunate enough to be able to walk to school with his middle-school daughter. Connect with Jay on Twitter and at his Medium blog.