“Mrs. Morrison, you’re going to be such an anomaly when you go to your interviews. They’ll snap you right up!”
Harmless statement? Encouraging? I beg to differ. To the outside world this comment may have seemed innocuous, but to me, a Black educator, I knew what it really meant. So, let’s unpack this, shall we?
A few years ago I was gearing up to change school districts as my husband and I were planning to move to a new city. I applied to several, smaller, surrounding districts that would be very different from the large, urban district I was leaving. Among all the farewell wishes came this “well intended” comment from a colleague: “You’re going to be an anomaly. They’ll snap you right up!”
a·nom·a·ly /əˈnäməlē/ noun
1. something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected.
DON’T BE TOO LOUD
This rule is particularly pertinent for Black educators. We constantly have to be mindful of our tone and volume in professional settings.
The stereotype: Black people are loud.
It’s funny but one thing I have learned by just living…many people are loud; not just Black people. However, when a Black person is loud, it is usually viewed negatively. Honestly, I am not a fan of noise that is disruptive. In years past, my students would even joke that “Mrs. Morrison is allergic to noise.” I value peace and quiet a great deal. Nonetheless, it’s interesting that voice level and tone in regards to Black people = disruption. I’ve watched outgoing, gregarious, loquacious White people speak in professional settings. Was their sheer volume a negative attribute? No. They were not seen as disruptive. Their presence wasn’t described as jarring, even though it very well could have been. They were fully accepted as they are. No stereotype. No judgment. As a matter of fact, the adjectives used to describe them were outgoing, gregarious, and loquacious. I can recall many occasions where the thought of “Am I being too loud?” “Are we being too loud?” crossed my mind. I will never forget sitting in a Beyond Diversity Training ironically wondering if my table (full of other Black educators) was too loud. We were working on tasks in groups and there was a moment where all of us looked at each other…
Even without verbally communicating we knew we needed to quiet down. Why? Because the White people in the room were going to think we were too loud. Why does that matter? Because we work too hard and have far too many degrees, collectively, to be judged in that manner. Yes, even as grown, professional women, we were conscious of our voice levels. We also decided this was a perfect example for our “Impacts of White Culture” list, so we loudly added this element to our group poster. Now, this isn’t something that surfaces in adulthood. This is a result of systemic training and centuries of stereotypes embedded in your growing up. Learning early on what White people think or may think of you and also learning how a White person’s perception can derail or even eliminate your opportunities.
The eurocentric standard: Be orderly and quiet. I reflected on this often during my time in the classroom. I was in a district where the slogan was “learning is loud,” yet I watched student groups of color being snapped at and quieted for being “too loud.” Were they on task? Yes. Were they collaborating as directed? Yes. However, our volume is not viewed as exuberance and enthusiasm. We are simply viewed as loud. Therein lies the problem.
CHECK YOUR FACIAL EXPRESSIONS
I’ve never had a poker face and no matter how many times I’ve tried, I fail. Myself, along with many others in the world, suffer from not being able to hide our thoughts. While wearing all of your emotions on your face is not necessarily a color issue, the implications of such are an issue.
Stereotype: my face= anger/threat.
Sometimes I’m just thinking. Sometimes I am actually taken aback by something that was said. Sometimes I’m processing or brainstorming. However, because my face may be misconstrued to be something that it is not, I am mindful of what I am showing. In meetings, in PLCs, in trainings- I am constantly and internally working on my expressions. I have friends, parents of Black sons and daughters, who tell their children to remember to smile and greet others when they walk into a store or any spaces, especially White spaces. Now, of course being courteous is important, but parents of color don’t just do this for courtesy’s sake. It’s another layer we carry because we know that our facial expressions can be perceived as anger or a threat. In workspaces, this can be hard to navigate at times. You will watch other non-people of colorfully express any emotion or facial expression they choose. Will they be perceived as a threat? No. Do they have to constantly be mindful of how they come across? No. Therein lies the problem.
YOU MUST BE THE CULTURAL FIXER
This one is probably the most exhausting. The one that some BIPOC may refrain from to save face. As educators, we frequently find ourselves in meetings and trainings that are exploring student subpopulations, data, referral history, etc. We oscillate between stepping into those conversations and retracting due to the exhaustion by those same conversations. Typically, we tell ourselves “If I’m not the voice, then who will be?” And so we engage……..and our desire to continue to do so comes in waves.
Stereotype: Black people love talking about race and culture.
In a celebratory fashion? Yes. To reiterate the same talking points that others don’t want to see? No. Nonetheless, we are made experts of our entire race, unable to obtain the individuality that non-people of color have. We automatically become responsible for unpacking why Black students underperform or why they make up over half of the referrals written (even when they may be less than 15% of the student body). We. Must. Explain. All. The. Things. Constantly. Meanwhile, white educators can sit comfortably while we do all the heavy lifting…waiting for us to give them the magical plan to change students….knowing all along that the change actually begins with adults. Do all adults take that responsibility? No. Am I always automatically given the responsibility? Yes. Therein lies the problem.
DON’T BE TOO KNOWLEDGEABLE
It wasn’t until I ventured into the world of instructional coaching that I learned the gravity of this one. I’ve been told I’m “intimidating because I know things.” I’ve often wondered what makes me intimidating and then I notice how other Black educators and administrators are typically described. Intimidating is usually one of the first adjectives used. I didn’t want to reckon with the fact that age-old thinking is still floating around, but alas, in some cases it is. There was a time when it was not acceptable and even disrespectful for a Black person to tell a White person anything. We weren’t able to know more, do more, or have keen insight. It was the standard and the norm to keep our knowledge to ourselves lest we were punished.
In 2019, I would like to believe that these mindsets have been uprooted and cut away like old branches. However, I’ve realized that not everyone has progressed in their thinking. I’ve watched teachers reject my ideas because they came from me. I’ve watched the excitement over resources or plans I’ve created and teachers’ willingness to use them…until they discovered it was my idea. You tell yourself that it’s not about color even though you’re the only Black person on your team. Then you feel the snubs, see the looks, and overhear the teachers’ lounge conversations. And then you know. As tough as coaching can be, do my White colleagues always have to jump through these same hoops? No. Therein lies the problem.
DON’T SPEAK UP TOO MUCH
It never fails. I’m usually the one that foresees the issue. Sees the inequity. Realizes the facade. And yet, I find myself having to be strategic about how I address the issues I see. I came into this profession 1) Because I feel called to be in education 2) Because I care about kids. ALL kids. Not just Black kids but ALL the children. Unfortunately, not everyone in our profession is here for those same reasons. Needless to say that this is why we continue to see elements of our system break down. Speaking up is noble initially. You’ll get a pat on the back. People will thank you for being the voice. However, tread lightly. You certainly can’t be the Black person that speaks up all the time. The one that speaks the truth, especially in places where awareness is scarce. Have there been moments where I didn’t care about the possible target on my back? Yes. Times where I chose to speak up even though it was difficult…for the greater good?
[bctt tweet=”You certainly can’t be the Black person that speaks up all the time.” username=””]
Yes. However, I am not naive in thinking that perceptions of me won’t change. You hear and feel the unspoken comments. You can have an opinion, just make sure it isn’t too Black. We see you but we don’t hear from you. We want diversity and diverse voices as long as we can remain comfortable in our thinking. The infamous James Baldwin quote comes to mind:
The American ideal of racial progress is how fast I become White.
It’s not a secret there is a standard and if you’re aware enough, you know the default standard is eurocentric. People of color are measured on how close they are to THE standard. That’s what makes you the good, Black teacher…your ability to dance between who you are and how well you fit into White spaces. I would love to think that many of these standards and rules are not related to our unhealed views on culture and race. However, we all know there is a bed of truth in the foundation of each of these areas. Simply the need to be conscious of these things is where the problem lies. Even if we take the risk to disregard the rules to fully be ourselves, we know that a risk is still present….and that is also where the problem lies. Those who don’t have to walk in the same shoes may have a blurry view of this concept. They may even think that people of color are creating false realities.
To those who may not fully understand the extra mental load that is carried, I would ask what areas do you constantly have to be conscious of in your day to day interactions? I would ask teachers to consider the weight of microaggressions thrown onto students of color on a daily basis. I would argue that your students will grow up to become adults who enter workplaces (even in our field of education) and carry some of the same “standards and rules” with them. Why? Because these mindsets, feelings, and cultural insensitivities are unfortunately threaded into our American fabric and school systems.
As we head into reflections and celebrations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Black History Month, my dream is that there will be more awareness around these unspoken rules.
My dream is that many will begin to see the implications of this weight on educators of color.
My dream is that more light will be shed on the need to support teachers and students of color.
My dream is to see educators of color hired for their content knowledge, character, and impact on student achievement.
My dream is that the voices of educators of color will be valued instead of hushed.
My dream is that our school systems will see the benefit of having educators of color.
My dream is that many will strive for a true representation of all backgrounds across campuses (not just the one black teacher for your diversity checkmark).
My dream is that educators of color will feel safe in White spaces, free from judgement, questioning, and labels.
My dream is that empathy will take root and more will be willing to SEE before they justify.LISTEN before they dismiss. UNDERSTAND before they discredit the lived experiences of BIPOC teachers and students.
Teachers carry enough weight in the world of education, and I feel that teachers of color have an additional weight: educating our future while also seeking equity for their students…and most importantly, themselves.