This Is What It Means for Me to Teach Your White, Privileged Kids

Linda Chavers, Dame Magazine, November 30, 2014

I’m an educator. I teach English at one of the top independent boarding schools in the world. I’m also a Black woman. With a Masters in English, which qualifies me to teach it, and a Ph.D. in African-American Studies from Harvard University, which, among other things, scares the shit out of everyone.

Yet, here I am, in rural New England, teaching the literature of my choice and with an interdisciplinary bent (read: African-American) and how to write the personal essay to a mostly White, upper-class population.

And this is a good thing.

When applying to grad schools I wrote in my personal statement that my presence in a classroom is a revolutionary act. I fill a space of authority that is still very much White, male and very, very privileged. When I visited my current school’s campus and saw the alumnae list full of governors, Supreme Court justices and presidents I felt emboldened. What ran through my head would become a recurrent mantra since my time here, “I’m here for the White boys.”

In August, a month before starting my job, I’d visited Ferguson. I snuck into Governor Jay Nixon’s first press conference to address the recent riots following the killing of Michael Brown. I watched him speak. It was one of the saddest and most enraging scenes I’ve ever witnessed. I won’t even address the things he said or, rather, didn’t say. By now, we’re aware of his urging for townsfolk to “go to sleep” while the National Guard took control. His body language at the press conference was just as offensive. There was a moment where he seemed to hide behind one of the Black officials. He never made eye contact with any actual human present.

I remember thinking, This man has never dealt with a Black person in his life.

I’m sure he’s existed among Black people: The people who clicked his ticket on the train, put his items into the grocery bag, panhandlers on the street as he as his driver waited for the light to change.

I remember thinking, He has never had anyone like me in his life in a position of authority, in a position higher than his.

So while it was absolutely jarring to go from this–from scenes of razed buildings, burned-down gas stations, and from the memorial site where a boy’s dead body lay bleeding on the street under the blue sky for four-and-a-half hours to a nearly 300-year-old, billion-dollar-endowed institution and sit in meetings where colleagues happily discussed their child’s first bike ride or another’s trip down South to discover his forefather’s Civil War roots, I felt a strong resolve that I was in the right place. That I was there for the White boys.

I’m here for the Black girls and boys, too, so that if, for nothing else, they can see a Black woman exerting authority in a manner and in a space not traditionally filled by us. This particular institution is faculty led. The administration is also the faculty, decisions are not passed down–they are shared. In other words, I am not just an English teacher, I’m among the keepers of the gates.

And they need to see me here for the White boys.

{snip}

{snip} It is now a week since Darren Wilson was not indicted by a grand jury for shooting and killing Michael Brown. A week since he testified that he felt as if Brown was an “it,” “a demon” that would not die. A colleague tells me she and her husband are taking their 1-year-old son apple-picking. An old high-school friend posts pictures of a warm, wholesome Thanksgiving dinner. I want to scream, Fuck your apples! Fuck your turkey! Fuck your holidays! Fuck your smiles! Fuck you! Fuck. Your. Children. Since the grand jury’s announcement I’ve been simultaneously addicted to and repulsed by social media. Professionally, I have no business on Facebook when there are stacks of papers to grade. Yet, that’s also what feeds my ire: How can I do anything, how can anyone do anything remotely normal like motherfucking apple-picking?

How can I teach at this world-renowned private institution to these privileged White kids? What does that even do?

{snip}

Remember, it’s only once you start feeling uncomfortable that we’re getting anywhere. Remember, Darren Wilson had a defense fund. Remember that what you will not see are the many White folks who will shake his hand.

So I share that heartfelt message with you and then I want to remind you that it also doesn’t mean shit.

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