My first teaching job was in an historic Black school in a Midwestern city, and it was a crash course in understanding the dynamics of urban settings, race, and poverty. Being brand new to the professional world, it is highly probable that my youthfulness translated into a White-savioresque attitude à la Dangerous Minds, even though I didn’t consciously enter with this perspective. In spite of my intentions, I encountered two quite contrasting responses to my naïveté.
The first was from an African American teacher next door who railed angrily at me one day for something I’d done that irked her. I don’t remember a word of what she actually said to me, but I clearly remember returning to my classroom in tears, feeling crushed by her anger and assumptions regarding my White ignorance. I’d tried to seek her insight out on previous (failed) attempts, and now she’d shut me down for good. From that point on, our relationship was one of icy glares and cold shoulders.
The other response was from another African American teacher who kindly took me under her wing. She showered me with hugs as she gently taught me the basics of African American history and urban culture. She took kids home with her when they needed a mama and brought them breakfast at school when they were hungry. All the kids knew that you went to her classroom first if you needed some extra love, and I followed their lead frequently.
While Loving Teacher’s response felt better than Angry Teacher’s harshness toward me, both reactions taught me vital lessons in the world of race relations. Nearly twenty years later, I cringe at my youthful self with a grateful nod to the lesson Angry Teacher taught me. After I got past the initial sting of the Angry Teacher’s reaction (which, I might sheepishly add, took years), I began to contemplate why she may have responded the way she did. She’d lived down the street from these kids and their parents and their pastors for longer than I’d been alive, and she knew a reality that I did not.
As I’ve reflected on it over the years, I’d guess that her anger stemmed more from the continued systemic racial injustice that she navigated daily rather than from my specific actions. My young White naiveté and curiosity simply represented the cycle of systemic injustice that had wreaked havoc on her home, and it (understandably) made her angry with me. For all the good I hoped to do in that context, it forced me to acknowledge that she was the one with the lasting influence and that I was simply an observer passing through.
Read more about Jody’s story toward understanding and forgiving her own people in her book Pondering Privilege: Toward A Deeper Understanding of Whiteness, Race, and Faith.