Since watching Danny Bernard Martin’s NCTM session, “Taking a Knee in Mathematics Education,” I have been reflecting on my role as a white educator. The first school I worked at, the vast majority of my students were people of color. My current school is majority white. Yet in both contexts, I can only ignore race in the classroom to the detriment of students of color. This piece is my best attempt to reconcile my role as a white educator of students of color with the realities of race in America.
I recently read Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. While the events took place nearly a century ago, I found the narrative of Killers of the Flower Moon to echo the broader narrative of race in America in ways I hope I can learn from.
The Osage Nation were one of many indigenous peoples forcibly removed from their homelands to less desirable territory in Oklahoma. The Osage, however, had the good fortune of discovering large oil reserves on the land they were moved to. Profits from the sale of mineral leases were distributed to the Osage in the form of “headrights” that were passed down through families, and annual income from an individual headright was in the thousands of dollars for several decades, peaking above $13,000 (more than $100,000 in today’s economy). Then, in the 1920s, murders and suspicious deaths of Osage rapidly increased. The book focuses on the family of Osage Mollie Burkhart; Mollie loses her mother, two sisters, brother-in-law, and cousin in quick succession, and was being poisoned herself. J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation, which later became the FBI, began an investigation into the murders. The FBI discovered the Ernest Burkhart, Mollie’s husband and a white man, and his uncle William Hale, had orchestrated a plot to funnel headrights in the family to Mollie before killing her and inheriting them all together. Ernest Burkhart and William Hale were each convicted for their role in the murders.
This is a terrible story of white greed and the plunder of wealth from people of color. But the story didn’t end there, and the next turn was what really stuck with me.
The Osage were considered wards of the federal government, and were not considered competent to make their own decisions with the money they made from mineral leases on their land. Each Osage had a white “guardian” to manage their finances and approve any financial decisions they made. This led to graft and corruption in the community — white guardians and lawyers to administer the guardianships profited enormously off of the Osage, but the corruption did not end there. The period during the murders of Mollie Burkhart’s family was called the “Reign of Terror.” Ernest Burkhart and William Hale’s trials made the national news, and the convictions helped to establish J. Edgar Hoover’s fledgling Bureau of Investigation as a permanent American institution. Yet dozens more Osage died mysteriously during that time, and the vast majority of those murders were never investigated. The murders began years before Mollie Burkhart’s family was targeted, and continued for a decade after. In many cases, white men would establish guardianships over as many as a dozen Osage, and many of these Osage died mysteriously, in some cases almost all of the individuals whose finances were controlled by a single guardian. Bodies went missing and autopsies were skipped, as the same white doctors and white-owned funeral company always seemed to be there to explain away the deaths.
What was originally labeled a conspiracy seemed actually to be common practice, and the FBI investigation seemed a token gesture, a way of getting national attention to an ambitious bureaucrat trying to consolidate his own power rather than justice for the Osage.
Killers of the Flower Moon is a grim portrait of the ways that white people have hoarded wealth and power in America. But more than that, it was a reminder of exactly how that plunder happens. Some media narratives might portray racism as the actions of a few bad apples, or the result of societal norms that have since been changed. Killers of the Flower Moon reveals that the racism that might have seemed horrific and unusual was actually routine and accepted. And when an oppressed people asked for justice, they learned that justice was a chess piece in a white person’s game, rather than a sincere effort to right the plunder of people of color.
I believe that this narrative is at the heart of what has made America. Ta-Nehisi Coates has documented this same intentional plunder through discriminatory housing policy and practice, as policies at the federal, state, and local level prevent Black families from accumulating wealth through home ownership while creating system to do the opposite for white families. Nikole Hannah-Jones has documented the intention behind the continued segregation and hoarding of resources in our school system, as white families work to keep their children separate from children of color. This intention continues today. To grapple with racism in America is to acknowledge that racism is not a product of the past or an unfortunate accident of history or the result of the actions of a few. Racism is a system designed and perpetuated to strip wealth and dignity from those who are not in power. It is intentional, it is ubiquitous, and most importantly it has been intentionally hidden from the eyes and minds of white people.
Many white people get uncomfortable talking about racism. I know I do. We are likely to claim that we have nothing to do with racism, to play down the impacts we have not worked to understand, and to frame racism as a past that we need to move forward from. I believe that, to come to terms with being white in America, and to come to terms with being a white educator of students of color, I need to name that racism exists because of the intentions and actions of white people, over centuries and continuing today.
The first thing I need to understand is that racism is not an accident of history or an isolated consequence of some anonymous “bad people.” But once I see the impact of racism on my students and the ways that we have been socialized to accept inequities in education, my fist instinct is to say, “well what can I do to change it?” That’s the second thing I need to understand — that there is no simple “action step” or easy change I can make in my classroom to solve racism. In fact, the instinct to want a concrete action step that helps me feel better about the realities of race in classrooms is another way that whiteness asserts itself and prevents the dialogue from moving forward. Here is Danny Martin in a 2009 paper:
A fourth way that race and racialized inequality is resisted, particularly in the context of mathematics teaching and learning, is through what I call solution on demand. I have witnessed this on several occasions and often experience it when I am asked to speak with teachers and administrators regarding mathematics achievement and persistence among African American students. Despite my insistence on the complexity of these issues, I am inevitably asked some version of the following: “What you have said is fine, but tell me, specifically, what I should do today when I go back to my school or classroom to work more successfully with African students?” In most cases, this is a sincere request. However, because these audiences are initially unaware of the degree to which I foreground race in my research, demanding an immediate and simple solution once they discover this can also be seen as a strategy used to hastily get past race and racism. Such a demand not only trivializes the complexities of race, racism, and racialization but also the experiences of those affected. In essence, it is a way to retreat from race and resists the realities of racism by reducing the harms to simple problems with simple solutions. My hesitancy to provide a specific answers is not meant to suggest that no solutions exist. But top-down, externally generated solutions that are not responsive to the needs and conditions of the context in question are unlikely to have a meaningful effect.
And in the question-and-answer portion of his recent NCTM talk, when asked a question along these lines, Danny Martin responded:
Step number 1, step 0 even, would be to hear me, first of all, to just hear me, open ears, open heart, let it soak in, it may not be today it may be tomorrow it may be a week from now, it may be a month from then but hear me. What am I saying, why am I saying it? I think that’s step 1, what sense are you making of it. Follow up, if you have questions about something I said, certainly ask for clarification so we can begin a conversation. In terms of the pragmatics of what do I do when I go back to work: obviously I can’t tell any particular person what they should do because I don’t know the context, I don’t know the children, I don’t want to essentialize whiteness or white people, black people, blackness. But maybe step 1 after step 0 is sort of the internal work, the self-reflective work. One simple question is if you go back into a classroom with black children in it, you have to ask yourself, “why am I here? Why am I here?”
Insisting on action can be a tool of the oppressor. I know I’ve walked out of equity-oriented sessions at conferences and heard well-meaning white folks say, or said myself, “I just don’t know what she wants me to do about this…” or “that was interesting, but I wish he gave us an action step.” I was in a local meeting filled mostly with white people talking about immigration, not long after Donald Trump was elected. The room was really excited about action — setting up sanctuary locations, asking the local Latinx community how we can help, and more. One woman at that meeting shared the perspective that it’s not always the job of white folks to jump in and try to fix things. We need space for the humble work as well. Maybe what the local community needs is not for us to jump into action, but to be willing to show up and peel potatoes so that those who have been marginalized can do their work.
That internal work is me peeling potatoes. I do hope that I can hear this reality and make change, but at the same time there is an important space to go slow and work to really hear what is being said and reflect on my role and my position, in the past and in the future.
Acting and not acting are both actions; nothing is neutral
There’s a fundamental tension here. I need to resist the instinct for neat and tidy action steps, yet at the same time inaction is a choice that can influence my students as easily as action. And these actions or inactions are bound up in the everyday acts of teaching — while I’m doing this internal work, I still have students in my classroom. Here is Deborah Ball, unpacking a few moments of an interaction between black girls Toni and Aniyah, stepping back to consider the context the two girls live in and the subtleties of the decisions teachers make in the moment. In the moment Ball is considering, Aniyah shared her thinking on a problem with the class, and Toni laughed and asked why she chose the answer she did. Ball is considering how to respond.
So we know from this report that came out last year, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, that discipline is disproportionately inflicted upon black girls, and here you can see for example that while black girls account for less than one in six girls in school they comprise over half of the multiple suspensions whereas white girls are half of the girls in schools and suffer only one-fifth of the multiple suspensions, and there’s more detail there [on a slide]. So how does that happen, how does that actually happen? Let’s try to think about that. So in the report what we understand is that these are for subjective judgments. These are for not visible actions, these are things that teachers have to interpret, like deciding that someone is disruptive or deciding that someone might be bullying , and you can imagine that Toni might be read by a teacher as bullying Aniyah, or that she might be read as disruptive, or somehow not attentive or not engaged. So it’s not that hard to imagine how Toni could easily be asked to step away from the group, to not talk, or maybe even be sent out in the hall and if she’s out in the hall she isn’t even learning, she’s also been told that she’s not valuable, and the rest of the class doesn’t benefit from her work. This is serious, and these are all I want to emphasize in the discretion of the teacher. These are not about bringing a gun to school, these are about how she’s being read and interpreted. So let’s think about what it would take to disrupt the patterns that fill the discretionary spaces that make it likely a black girl like Toni is marginalized.
Part of Ball’s answer in this situation is to take as axiomatic the brilliance of black girls — to enter the interaction as a teacher assuming that these two girls are brilliant, that their contributions have value, and responding in ways that work both to humanize the students and to draw out what they have to offer the class.
This leads me to another tension. I need to look at all students as brilliant and see my role as drawing out that brilliance, yet at the same time know the societal context that the students are coming from, and know that we are swimming upstream against forces that are working intentionally to prevent that brilliance from coming to light. This is why I need to be conscious of the context from which students of color, among other marginalized groups, enter my classroom. I want to look at all students as brilliant, and create a space where every student can be brilliant in my class. I need to double down on my belief in the brilliance of students of color specifically because of the forces working to keep that brilliance from surfacing.
If we expect to prepare both students and future teachers for a more participatory democracy, a focus on tensions in teaching from an equity stance is one place to start.
This quote from a paper by Rochelle Gutierrez is one I keep coming back to. Embracing these tensions is my answer to the question of action. My goal is not to come up with a neat and tidy action step to address the racism outside of and within my classroom. Instead, my goal is to create a space where I can embrace the inherent tensions in this equity stance, and use those tensions as opportunities to continue to learn from interactions in my classroom.
Gutierrez writes elsewhere about “The Mirror Test.” If I look in the mirror and ask myself if I am doing what I set out to do in teaching, what would I say? I want to practice the central value of surfacing the brilliance in every student, and working to be aware of the forces that seek to undermine that brilliance for certain students. And I want to practice that value by seeking out tensions inherent in teaching from an equity stance that don’t have easy answers, and that I need to navigate to actualize the brilliance of every student.
There’s no neat list of those tensions either, but here are two that are on my mind right now:
- Students arrive to my class with different levels of preparation. I have to work every day to hold every student to high expectations and know that they can engage in cognitively demanding mathematics, yet also put in place supports and scaffolds to build a bridge from where students are to where I want them to go. And, despite the brilliance of my students, in some cases I need to put a lot of work into building that bridge and helping them reach ambitious goals.
- I have an obligation to teach certain standards, and in many ways helping students reach the standards of the education system as it exists will empower them with the agency to see their own brilliance in the future. At the same time, the education system is not designed to draw out the brilliance of every student; it is designed to sort and rank and bestow distinction on some at the expense of others. I need to work within a broken system, while also working to give students the knowledge and tools to dismantle it.
One essential piece of looking at equity through the lens of tension is humility. It means stepping back from my goal of being the best teacher for every student and acknowledging that I don’t have the skills or the knowledge to do that right now. It means being willing to embrace the tensions in coming up short, and looking at my lessons as a work in progress and seizing on shortcomings as an opportunity to learn from my students’ perspectives and get a little better next time. Recognizing these tensions is my version of peeling potatoes, it’s my internal work, it’s my process of education to make better decisions in those discretionary spaces where action or inaction can uphold or disrupt oppression.
I don’t have a neat and tidy ending for this piece either. I am a work in progress. But in order to make progress as a white teacher in America, I see these three pieces as central. Recognizing the intention behind racism and plunder, knowing that my instinct for action is often unproductive, and being willing to do my internal work, recognizing the inherent tensions in teaching toward equity.