by Sumeeta Patnaik
Talking about race is always a prickly issue in the classroom with students’ eager to assert their own politically correct views of race relations today. With the election three years ago of the nation’s first biracial president, Barack Obama, the dialogue on race has become even more contentious with every racial group trying to determine their place in the “new” America. As a result, the classroom has become one of the first places where students learn to assert their racial identity.
In my classroom this year, my students are reading The Freedom Writers Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around themby Freedom Writers with Erin Gruwell. For the uninitiated who have not seen the Hilary Swank film, the Freedom Writers Diary is an anthology of diary entries written by Ms. Gruwell’s students, starting during their freshman year and ending with high school graduation four years later. The students chronicled their difficult life stories, which included domestic violence, gang violence, sexual abuse, and drug abuse. Through the perseverance and dedication of their teacher, who designed an innovative curriculum that emphasized tolerance, the students raised their grades, graduated from high school and eventually went to college. Today, many of those students are teachers themselves, and some work for the Freedom Writers Foundation, traveling with Ms. Gruwell throughout the country speaking about their experiences and sharing the Freedom Writers curriculum with other teachers.
Like Ms. Gruwell, I faced students who came to school with a variety of problems: poverty, domestic violence, and alcohol and drug abuse. I am in a unique position to be both a high school and college teacher and as a Curriculum Coordinator/Assistant Professor at a community college in West Virginia and supervise a high school to college program where students from families in a lower socioeconomic background take an introductory college course for free and get financial aid and college admissions counseling. The majority of my students are white, and many have very little interaction with people of other races. As such, The Freedom Writers Diary has brought up a great deal of mixed emotions in my own classrooms regarding race relations, particularly teacher attitudes toward the racial identities of their students.
As a woman of biracial origin, I never emphasize my race in class because, to me, it is not important. I simply regard myself as a teacher.
Nevertheless, an exchange with my students made me change my thoughts regarding my race and its place in the classroom.
We were watching the film version of the Freedom Writers Diary and in their reflections on the film, I asked the students to consider teacher prejudices toward students, particularly students from minority races. Then I asked students to reflect on whether or not they, themselves, have experienced prejudice. The question was met with confused faces as the students all asserted that they had not experienced any prejudice since “all of their teachers were white.” When I pointed out that I was, in fact, not white, the students responded with overwhelming outcries that I was indeed white, and in fact, I was “practically white.” When I asked the students to define what practically white meant, that too was met with some confusion. Some students said that I acted like their other teachers who were white; while others pointed out that I didn’t act like a “foreigner.” When I pointed out that I had a similar background to our president, the students protested again that I was nothing like the President, and one even pointed out that President Obama was more “caramel colored” than I was even though my skin color is exactly the same as his. The students and I ended class that day confused about the role of race in our class. To my students, my racial identification as a “biracial” teacher confused them since they saw me as white. For myself, I was confused that students saw me as being “practically white” since my race, gender, and socioeconomic status differs from other teachers at their school.
My race has always been confusing to students; many of who do not understand what the racial identification of biracial means. They are not alone. According to the United States Census Bureau (2011), only 1.4% of the state population of West Virginia self-identified as being of two or more races. Within the region of Appalachia, which stretches from southern New York to northern Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, only New York has a higher recorded population of biracial at 1.8% (United States Census Bureau, 2011). The United States Census Bureau reports that most individuals, who self-identify as biracial, are living on the West Coast of the United States. Thus, I believe that since there are not many biracial individuals in this part of the country, many students did not have access to teachers of this racial background, and often find them confused when encountering someone who self-identifies as biracial.
This discussion in the classroom led me to change my views on race relations in the classroom. Whether or not I wanted to admit, my race was and will continue to be a factor in how students view me. Nevertheless, I believe that one of the key factors in a student-teacher relationship is trust. Whether or not Ms. Gruwell wanted to admit it, her race was a big factor in her students’ initial dislike and distrust of her. It was not until Ms. Gruwell proved herself to be someone whom her students could trust did her race cease to be an issue. In my classroom, I can often see the same distrust on my own students faces until I have established a relationship with them. In my case, many students initially view me as someone “scary,” because my race, gender, style of dress, and speaking was different from their own. Nevertheless, once I have established a trust with my students, then we are able to discuss race in a constructive way. In teacher education, young teachers are taught to be colorblind and not acknowledge color in their classroom. In Appalachia, that is easy to do since the majority of students are White/Caucasian; however, as the economic landscape of Appalachia changes to become more global, then our students will have to learn how to interact and communicate with people from different races. For teachers of color who self-identify as Biracial, Hispanic, Black/African-American, or other, discussions of race in the classroom can help students learn to assert their racial identity in a positive way while viewing those of other races as their equals.