This Is What White Supremacy Looks Like in Our High Schools
As a public school teacher, I saw how a culture of fear is holding back anti-racist education in our classrooms
In the spring of 2017, I took a part-time job teaching English at a high school in a small agrarian and prison town just far enough outside of Seattle that people fly Confederate flags with impunity. It was just after President Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, in which he invoked the idea of “American carnage.” The kids at this school would notoriously lead a “build the wall” chant during lunch as a group of Latinx students entered the cafeteria — an incident of racial terror highlighted in the revised edition of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD. Some of those same students later protested my poetry class by complaining to a school security guard that I was being “racist against white people” by highlighting artists of color in my class. (Why they went to the security guard and not school administrators is telling — these students trusted those they viewed as the “police” more than the principal.)
When the administration approached me about the student complaints, I was told my teaching “wasn’t inappropriate, per se,” but as a new resident to the area, I didn’t yet understand these students, whose ages ranged between 17 to 19 years old, “were not ready for a conversation about race.” My response came blasting out of my mouth like a bullet, ruffling some feathers: “Whose fault is it that high school juniors and seniors aren’t ready for a talk about race?”
Few schools have leaders willing to openly and effectively challenge systemically racist structures.
I checked in with the English department about our curriculum, but the mere mention of critique prompted older white teachers to throw their arms up and walk out. I found one ally, a young, hipster-looking guy from Cornell who seemed to understand the issue, but didn’t feel like he had any support from the others. Another teacher, who fathered a transgender child and advocated for LGBTQ+ safety in the district, confessed to me he had been too burnt out trying to fight the system.
I checked in with the social studies department about their curriculum and was laughed out of the room. They told me: “Social studies teachers should be neutral.” I strongly disagreed. At the school, racism was everywhere. Students suffered in miserable silence, but nobody with power seemed too bothered. If they were concerned, they were tight-lipped about it. It was clear this school wasn’t going to want me back the following year. They’d say I didn’t “get it” when referring to school culture. I’d say they’re upholding white supremacy.
There’s a cycle of inaction that repeats itself in educational settings after Black Americans are unjustly killed. A tragedy receives national attention and vocal outrage that lasts for a news cycle. Then local community members start to pressure schools to take racism seriously. Issues regarding police on campus, restorative justice, or other vague “equity” issues are briefly discussed. Inevitably, there is push back from critics who say “now isn’t the time” or “schools should stay neutral” in talks about race. Administrators consider establishing a committee on anti-racism efforts — perhaps there’s a PowerPoint, maybe the creation of a local Facebook group — but often, the action ends there.
In my experience, few schools have leaders willing to openly and effectively challenge systemically racist structures. It’s an explicit norm that teachers stay politically neutral in public spaces. On social media, educators are periodically dismissed due to “unprofessional behavior” when being explicitly anti-racist online.
New teachers, in particular, lack protection if they want to push for anti-racist curriculums in schools. Many districts empower school administrators to weed out new teachers who challenge norms. These teachers aren’t technically fired; administrators have the freedom to decide whether or not to renew a teacher’s contract within their first three years at a district. This can lead to a staff culture built on a loyalty system. Administrators who don’t want an anti-racist teacher on staff can simply opt against hiring them. If they do hire someone who challenges systemic racism during their first three years, administrators may decline to renew a teacher’s contract for another year and instead replace them with others who may value career survival more than systemic change.
Because teachers earn relatively low salaries early in their careers, many are often forced to stay silent for years for the sake of their job security, until they’re effectively tenured. This culture of silence imposed on new teachers is such an open secret, my professor at Lewis & Clark College of Education, Zaher Wahab, PhD, would joke, “Your job is to change the world, but you’ll have to be sneaky about it.”
I found out the hard way how the internal politics of education forms a culture of complicity. My first job in Washington state was at an alternative school in a small town about an hour outside of Seattle. The school had an all-white staff, and a population of mostly white, very poor students, many of whom struggled with addiction and homelessness. The town had been given the moniker the “meth capital of America” some years ago when everyone was talking about white kids on meth. This was a community in pain.
I worked there during the last years of the Obama administration, after Trump had started his racist “birther” conspiracy theory and some regions were flirting with the idea of banning Confederate flags. I had just moved to the Seattle area from Oakland, where I began my teaching career in San Lorenzo. I went from a high school of mostly non-white students to a high school of almost all-white students and all-white staff. The commonalities were poverty and segregation.
An administrator once asked that I take down a poster of President Obama. “A parent came in here screaming that you’re brainwashing all our kids to follow Sharia Law.”
The school called itself a “family,” and teachers worked with kids on community food drives and put on art shows — the sort of nice, feel-good gestures that you see in many school communities. But I soon saw the insidious racism at our staff meetings, where students of color would be talked about in critical terms, and white students were seen as more sympathetic. I remember when I was hired, I was told to “look out” for a few students who were “troublemakers.” This is a horrible, unprofessional thing to do in education, as it promotes a culture of looking at a student with prejudice. The “troublemakers” were almost exclusively BIPOC or gender non-conforming students.
As an anti-racist educator, I set up my classroom promoting people of color, hanging up pictures of Justice Sonya Sotomayor, Chief Joseph, Malcolm X, President Barack Obama, and dozens more. My administrator soon approached me and said we needed to talk. “It’s about the poster,” they said. I had dozens of posters in my classroom; usually, the one that gives me the most guff from white people is Malcolm X. But this complaint was about the President of the United States of America.
“A parent came in here screaming that you’re brainwashing all our kids to follow Sharia Law,” the administrator told me. “You need to take it down.” I couldn’t believe a public school administrator was asking me to take down a poster of the sitting president, the first Black American to lead from the Oval Office, because a white parent came in parroting a grievance that she heard from conservative media.
“This is how it is here,” the administrator told me. The implied threat was very clear. If I caused a fuss, I wouldn’t have a job next year. My wife and I were planning on having a baby, and I had over $100,000 in student loan debt. The threat was deeply disturbing, but not an uncommon one lobbed against new teachers who “step out of line.”
It didn’t take me long to realize we cannot trust our educational system to protect students of color. In 2014, just as the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson began, my only Black American female student came to me sobbing. She said her classmates called her “n***** b****”, and she couldn’t take it anymore, she was exhausted. Later, when a math teacher asked what was wrong, the student confided in her and said her classmate Johnny and his friends were responsible for calling her despicable names. The teacher responded: “Oh, I know Johnny. He wouldn’t do that.”
My only Black student said her classmates called her “n***** b****”, and she couldn’t take it anymore. The teacher responded: “Oh, I know Johnny. He wouldn’t do that.”
I decided to escalate the issue. Not only did Johnny direct terror at a Black student, but he was also responsible for flying the Confederate flag in the school’s parking lot. But instead of seeing the student disciplined, I got myself into trouble.
My administrator tried to placate my report by saying she’d sit down with Johnny to talk about what he’d done. My recommendation of seeking restorative justice was rejected because it wasn’t practiced at this school. I offered to talk one-on-one with Johnny about the pain he was inflicting. Noting my position as the school’s history teacher, I offered to talk about the problems with the Confederate flag. This idea was also rejected.
I reached out to my teacher’s union to ask for help on how to proceed. The advice I got was “don’t rock the boat.” I sent a letter to the district superintendent asking how the district can prevent such bold acts of racism and protect our students of color. What I got in return was a letter of discipline, an action taken against me by the administrator for insubordination. I was written up not just because I had rejected my administrator’s handling of racial violence, but because I drew attention to it and had created an uncomfortable situation for the district. My superiors wanted me to sign the letter to put in my file. After conferring with a lawyer friend, I didn’t sign it.
Later that year, the superintendent walked into my classroom. They said I hadn’t been properly filling out some paperwork, which gave the district grounds to discontinue my contract. It was a clear and direct threat to my position as an educator at the district.
I asked the school’s English teacher to audit my paperwork, and we found I had been filing my paperwork correctly; it was the rest of the staff that had gotten it wrong. My administrator didn’t appreciate being told this.
I later resigned and took a temporary teaching job at an affluent suburban district. The district ended up replacing me with the math teacher’s daughter. She was an accountant who had received an “emergency” certificate in social studies, beating out countless other qualified teachers who had applied.
I’ve had to wait years to write about this experience, or otherwise risk losing my job. And because I don’t know which way the political chips are going to fall, I’m not disclosing specific names or schools because I fear retribution from those in power. Education should not be part of a political game. Anti-racist education should not even be an argument at this point.
Even as I write this, my current suburban Seattle school district is experiencing in-fighting over anti-racist training — should it be mandatory or optional? At the moment, they’re siding with “optional” because, well, that story is yet to be told. But I already know the truth: There are administrators who fear the wrath of white teachers who will complain the training is “racist against white people” or some version thereof, and we’ll be back into the self-selected committee of well-meaning liberals doing their clubs, while administrators try desperately to appeal to every parent and every teacher equally.
Administrators and politicians may say in private that they’re being attacked from all sides. But it’d be easier if they decided to pick the right side of history.