Students will gain the benefits of a culturally competent teacher who is racially informed. If teachers recognize how oppression and systemic racism work and if they look through a racial lens in their work, they will understand that systemic racism impacts student lives and will start the lifelong journey to do the human work necessary to avoid perpetuating it in the classroom.
Setting the Stage by Beginning from Within
Looking to and starting with the needs of our students is instinctual for us as teachers. For example, responsive teaching requires that the teacher observe the students’ behavior and assess the best way to provide quality instruction. We carefully plan lessons to give them the skills needed for the next level and we carefully choose which messages we want them to receive on the walls of our classrooms. But rarely do we reflect on how we grew up and how our backgrounds shade our pedagogy. In my experience, many teachers do not look to themselves as focal points to satisfy learners’ needs.
Resma Menkem (2017) states that the vital force behind White supremacy is literally in our blood and in our nervous systems, no matter how light or dark our skin. He provides a startlingly different approach to the persistence of racism through the trauma associated with White supremacy. Literally beginning from within as it pertains to neuroscience and the body is the ultimate goal. In order to get there, we must understand some key terminology for cultural competency, oppression, White supremacy, race, and racism to do right by our students.
What does it mean to be culturally competent in this current world of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and everything associated with them both? Recognizing that out of all the human elements of intersectionality, race is the only one that is not real. The human identifiers like ethnicity, gender, economic status, nationality, disability, religion, and sexual orientation are real with the exception of race. Race is the only identifier that was socially constructed, created by White property-owning males. Race was made up, a social construction. And racism is a by-product of race construction and a mechanism to support White supremacy. Yes, race and racism present complex realities. Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) know that racism is real although race is not. With this reality, understanding of one’s own cultural competency should go deep in order to optimize the learning experience of the teacher.
When I envision what needs to be done in our field of language teaching, I am reminded of the passion with which Michael Jackson sang “Man in the Mirror.” The teacher’s reflective practice of looking within by starting with self seems appropriate here.
“I’m starting with the man in the mirror
(Man in the mirror, oh yeah!)
I’m asking him to change his ways
No message could have been any clearer
(If you want to make the world a better place)” (Ballard and Garrett, 1987)
When teachers begin from within, they recognize their own racialized being. Just as there is biological and psychological development of human beings, there is also racial identity development. These are demonstrated in continua of being for various ethnicities in Helms (1995), Cross and Oldershaw (2000), and Sue and Sue (2003). Each presents different stages of how we show up in the world. A paradigm-shifting experience is created by recognizing where we are positioned at any given moment of our lives. It acts as a mirror, making our currently unexplained existence clear. We must know where we are in order to know where we are going, and these models of racial identity development help in this process of seeing and understanding our racialized being.
Seeing and Understanding Racism
Through observation, both anecdotal and statistical, most English language learner (ELL) teachers from the U.S. are White. This underrepresentation of BIPOC in the field contributes to institutionalized racism. Linguistically marginalized students (Villegas, 2018) and non-White learners (Galman, Pica-Smith, and Rosenberger, 2010) are being taught by a majority-White teaching staff of 79.3% in U.S. public schools (U.S. Department of Education, 2019). Due to these facts, White or White-passing teachers will have to do the heavy lifting, because whether intentionally or unintentionally, they benefit from and uphold White supremacy when not taking action to be anti-racist. As members of a race-based society, BIPOC educators must also deal with how they have internalized racism.
Being teachers demands so much of us, but reaching our highest potential as human beings is all of our salvation. Racism is a social disease that permeates the very fabric of our existence. Then why do educators not recognize our obligation to address it? My hope is that most teachers want to make a change in the world through their work with students.
Making a difference is what I believe many teachers live for. However, a missing factor in our field of language teaching and in the institution of education as a whole is how racism touches all of our lives in some form. It is all around us, we are swimming in it, and it is in the air that we breathe whether we are cognizant of it or not.
How often do we, as teachers, educators, instructors, and faculty members, ask ourselves vital questions about our pedagogy on a consistent basis? Even more so, how many use an equity lens when doing so? For that matter, most teacher education programs neglect to show us how race, racism, and power operate in the classroom, from the textbooks we choose to the interactions we have with the caregivers of our students. Even what is mandated by the state or administrators of our schools is seeping with White supremacy in all its glory, yet most are blind to it and remain in a bubble of indifference and apathy. Thus, it persists.
Being color-blind is not an option when our students demand otherwise. Those who believe we live in a color-blind society even after the barbaric and sadistic killings of Ahmaud Marquez Arbery and George Floyd should read Debby Irving’s book Waking Up White, Omi and Winant (1994), and Wingfield (2015). Bell (1995) informs us in layman’s terms that oppression occurs on four levels in a framework he calls the four Is. Those include ideas, institutions, interpersonal, and internal forces of domination. We cannot tackle one without intersecting with the others. The pervasive system of racism has kept us in this place, and this place affects our students and us.
Reflective practice should be a part of every teacher’s daily routine, and the integration of a lens for diversity, equity, inclusion, and social and racial justice demands that we take action. That action can take the form of being listener, reader, writer, researcher, and speaker. Listen to documentaries and videos about the lived experiences of Black people in light of anti-Blackness in the world. Read articles and books about the history of Indigenous people’s sacrifices. Write about your thoughts when learning about the cultures of people of color. Research White supremacy embedded in our institutions and White fragility that stops the dialogue from happening. Speak about centering BIPOC in your actions.
Cooper (2020) initiated this series with a wealth of resources to get language teachers started on the human journey of profound cultural competency. We can make sense out of the inhumanity in our world by addressing the trauma that it has caused us all and doing the interpersonal work that must lead to decentering Whiteness and disrupting systems through our own education. Starting with ourselves, we can listen to Seeing White, a podcast that looks at racial structures through the lens of the oppressor. Specifically for language teachers, read Byran and Gerald’s (2020) piece on how educational institutions can address the ways language is coded and weaponized. Keep a reflective journal by writing about what you are discovering and learning about how you have internalized racism using the questions in “Reflective Practice” (Coney, 2015). Research the long-standing history hidden from us, like Black Wall Street, human zoos, the Wilmington, NC, coup of 1898, and the “gasoline baths.” Get the tools to speak up whenever you encounter those difficult conversations by practicing Campt’s (2018) R.A.C.E. model strategies in the White Ally Toolkit. America and Moore (2014) provide a powerful life habit-building opportunity for those whose eyes have not been open very long.
Live Up to Your Fullest Potential
Are you an actor, ally, or accomplice? There are levels of engagement when doing this human work of dismantling racism through our teaching and it can take a lifetime, so we must get started. It is the missing link that demands our engagement to be anti-racist educators. To do this diversity, equity, inclusion, and racial and social justice work is to be fully human (Jensen, 2005). After teaching for over 30 years, it could be no clearer to me that this is the work we should be doing for ourselves, for our students, and for the world.
“No message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
(If you want to make the world a better place)
Take a look at yourself and then make the change
(Take a look at yourself and then make the change)” (Ballard and Garrett, 1987)