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Teacher to teacher: How racial identity work makes us better advocates for our students

By Shaquala Butler, MA

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

As an educator, my main job is to advocate for my students — and to help them advocate for themselves. To do this, I have to get to know my students and see them as individuals with unique life experiences.

But first, I need to know myself. I have to understand my racial identity and confront any personal biases I may have. These biases can affect our work and hinder our students.

This year more than ever, this self-work is important as we head back to school. The current events around racial injustice and the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately affect communities of color, especially Black communities. We have to understand the challenges our students are facing. Taking a close look at ourselves is hard, but it can ultimately help our students thrive.

Examining my privilege

We must begin with self-work around our own racial identity and how it relates to our country, its systems as a whole, and privilege. 

“Privilege exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do. Access to privilege doesn’t determine one’s outcomes, but it is definitely an asset that makes it more likely that whatever talent, ability, and aspirations a person with privilege has will result in something positive for them.” —  Peggy McIntosh

I begin my identity work by naming where I have privilege in the classroom. Once I name it, I think about how my privilege can unintentionally create a space that is not inclusive for my students. This awareness is important to make sure I am removing — not creating — barriers for my students.

For white educators in America, race is a privilege. As a Black teacher, I do not have racial privilege in terms of removing systemic barriers to learning for my students of color. But my self-work has made me even more aware of the racial barriers my students of color face. Knowing this, I can work to remove these barriers.

Though race may not be a privilege for me, my identity work has made me aware of places where I do have privilege in my classroom. For example, I am able-bodied. The way I arrange my classroom could create obstacles for someone with a physical disability. My awareness of that privilege reminds me to create a learning space that gives access to all students. 

This example may make the work seem simple. After all, rearranging a room is something I can do in a few minutes. But this work is anything but simple. 

Recognizing biases and misinformation

When we have unchecked biases, we ultimately become the barrier for our students. As I’ve done my racial identity work, I’ve realized I have a lot of misinformation — or sometimes no information — about other racial groups.

I had a student who was a second-generation immigrant from Yemen. I had no information about the student’s native country, language, or culture. I took the time to educate myself because I didn’t want my student to have to be my personal teacher about their racial identity. That is a burden students should never have to bear in the classroom. 

To learn more about the student’s background, I started by searching for information online. In the end, I learned the most by talking with my student’s family. They shared with me the cultural differences they had experienced so far, especially related to the school system. By listening to them, I realized my student had to navigate several barriers in my classroom. What I learned pushed me to advocate for my student as an individual and to remove those barriers — ultimately giving full access to the learning environment. 

Doing the difficult work

This work is not easy. Every day, I try to make myself aware of my biases and then actively work against them. This awareness influences my daily decisions — the books I choose, the quotes and art that adorn my classroom walls, the way I communicate with families, and all the other aspects of my role as an educator. 

My students rely on me to disrupt systems of oppression. I am responsible for making sure my classroom is not part of the problem. By modeling this work for my students, I show them how to advocate for themselves.

I give them the language of self-advocacy to use beyond our classroom’s four walls. Every year, we start by establishing goals, including “I know I can do anything beyond me” and “I know there is a resource to help me with my ideas.” This language is just one way I empower my students to disrupt systems of oppression for themselves. 

Educators, as we prepare for the next school year, I want to charge you with becoming aware of your own racial identity. This is not an overnight process. It’s not a list where you check off things and declare yourself a “racially self-aware” educator. But you’ll be moving in a direction that makes you a better advocate for your students. 

Here are some next steps to try:

  • Take responsibility for your own education around race in America.

  • Create space in your peer groups to have challenging conversations.

  • Learn about the racial identity of your students. 

Below is a list of resources to explore. I hope they help you with beginning or continuing your journey in advocating for your students who experience racial barriers.

“Color blind or color brave?” TED Talk by Mellody Hobson

“The danger of a single story” TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“What does my headscarf mean to you?” TED Talk by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

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