making sense of mathlissa

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 12 2013

Mornings with Malcolm X

“Don’t you believe there are any good white people?”

I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I told her, “People’s deeds I believe in, Miss — not their words.”

“What can I do?” she exclaimed.

I told her, “Nothing.”

She burst out crying, and ran out and up Lenox Avenue and caught a taxi.

~ The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley


In reading TFA’s pre-Institute work, specifically “Sharing Our Stories” from TFA’s One Day magazine, Four Voices from TFA’s Diversity text, as well as Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of A Single Story,”  I was reminded of this passage from The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

The accounts from TFA’s own magazine and Diversity text included stories from several corps members who self-identify as sharing the backgrounds of their students i.e. an African American teacher with African American students, or a Mexican American teacher with Mexican American students. These corps members spoke on the value of their students having teachers who “look like them.” The discussed the difficulties and triumphs of their own experiences.

And while I understand the importance for students, and the validation they must feel, in having a teacher who looks like them, I thought it left something unturned.

What about the value of a teacher who doesn’t look like you? Besides the point that you can be an amazing teacher regardless of your race or “what you look like,” I thought there was another point worth making. Just as the Black teachers, who said that their Black students called them “White” when they wore professional clothing or used big words, worked to show their students everything that “Black” could be — isn’t it just as important to show them what White could be? Included in some of the readings were problems in “locating White allies” — White role models for White people trying to become anti-racist. I think it is necessary to show that not all White people are bad or racist.

What does it mean to “look like” my students? Do female students not think I “look like” them, even if my skin is a different color? Doesn’t it mean something for all of my students, male and female alike, to see a woman in a male-dominated field, like mathematics ?

I’m not sure what is more insulting — that I wouldn’t be able to relate to my students because I don’t “look like” them, or that my students wouldn’t be able to relate to me because of what I look like. I think, at least I hope, my kids will be able to see past racial differences and realize other similarities we might share. Will it be harder? Probably. But I think we’re selling our students short if we think they can only relate to someone who “looks like” them — at least in a racial sense.

Bonding in terms of “looking like” someone is is superficial, despite the potential validation of having the same hair, or same outward characteristics — but being of the same race is more than that. To reduce is to “looking like” someone is sort of a cop out. As many teachers shared, they also related in terms of cultural attitudes, but some did not, which was a shock to them.

Beyond race, a teacher can relate to the family life of a student, or the socio-economic status of the student’s family, or any number of different factors that influence the student’s day to day life.

By no means do I deny the potential importance of having a teacher who looks like you. As I read, it can be a very powerful experience for students and teachers alike.

Years after he first met the woman in the opening quote, Malcolm X, also known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, deeply regretted his run-in with the “little blonde co-ed,” in which he told her she could do nothing. He wished later to tell her what he then told white people “who present themselves to be sincere.” Malcolm X later advocated White people “working in conjunction with us– each of us working among our own kind.” He believed that “working separately, the sincere white people and the sincere black people will actually be working together.”

Which leads me to how I connected Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of A Single Story.” I recommend watching it, as she presents a unique perspective and the video itself is relatively short (19 mins). One way of preventing “a single story” is to make sure that students have diverse teachers in terms of perspectives — including ones that “look like them” and ones that don’t. While I recognize themerits of same-race discussions of race, I think mixed-race settings are just as important.

Another problem I had with part of the pre-work is from Beverly Tatum’s “The Development of White Identity.” Initially, I disagreed with the idea that White identity is something that develops only in reaction to encountering Black identity. That doesn’t seem to make sense to me, though many White people profiled in her piece did not seem to be conscious of their “Whiteness” until an uncomfortable incident of race made them feel “White”. To reverse the idea, I don’t think anyone would say that Black culture is only formed in reference to an encounter with White culture. So why is White identity only understood in relation to  Black Identity?

In thinking more on the subject, I recalled an essay written in 1928 by one of my favorite authors, Zora Neale Hurston titled “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” As a biographical note, Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, but her family moved to Eatonville, FL, one of the first incorporated all-black towns in the United States, when she was three. She wrote that she always considered Eatonville her home, and, in true Zora fashion, occasionally claimed she was born there. In “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Zora wrote, “I remember the very day that I became colored.” When Zora was 13, she was sent to school in Jacksonville:

I left Eatonville, the town of the oleanders, as Zora. When I disembarked from the river-boat at Jacksonville, she was no more. It seemed I had suffered a sea change. I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl.

According to her, she feels “the most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” I found her take on this idea very interesting, and I recommend reading the piece, which is available here in its entirety.

Overall, I think that I have more thinking to do on this subject. In this piece, Beverly Tatum writes that White individuals who are highly identified with a particular subordinate identity e.g., being female or being Jewish, may also struggle with claiming Whiteness as a meaningful group category because they feel far from the white male norm. I think I fall in this camp as a female, and a feminist to boot, which might be why I don’t really buy this “White identity” business.

That’s not to say I don’t understand that I receive countless benefits everyday by being white,because I do. I know that. I guess I recognize that I am white, but don’t identify as white, if that makes any sort of sense. I don’t see the same sort of  White culture that would seem to accompany a white identity either. Unless there’s a picnic that I wasn’t invited to.

Regardless, I think it’s important to think critically, and criticize appropriately, what we are reading  for our pre-Institute work.

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    melissa's take on math and mastery and making sense of it all

    Greater Philadelphia
    High School

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