Your White Teacher is Woke

by Maddie Fennell

I’ve been an educator for 26 years. Over 95 percent of the children I’ve taught have been children of color. I’ve worked very hard to not only teach with cultural sensitivity, but to confront my own prejudices and those of others. I call out friends and family members who make racist jokes or comments. Several of my students have lived with our family when they needed a home.

I say all this because I want you to know that I thought I got it. I thought I understood institutional racism and White privilege. I knew it in my head but on July 7th it tore apart my heart.

The tears started at 6:45 a.m. as I was putting on my make-up. I had watched the video of Philando Castile being shot and I was shocked. My mind just couldn’t wrap itself around what I was seeing—again!

Another Black man shot for doing what my White husband can do without fear—get stopped by the police while driving.

Maybe the connection seemed closer because Mr. Castile was a school staff member. I don’t know. But as I looked in the mirror I could feel the tears building. Once the floodgates opened, I couldn’t stop. I stood in my hotel room, sobbing as I looked at myself in the mirror.

I’m woke.

It’s a phrase I’ve seen and heard recently and I didn’t get it until that moment.

I felt like scales had fallen off my eyes.

Those times when I had said “I’ve been a minority in my own classroom”—no I hadn’t, I’d been a White woman of power. My tears became tears of shame as I realized I just hadn’t gotten it.

I wanted to call the young woman who has been like our daughter and tell her to stay home and be safe. I thought of the parents of all of my Black students and was overwhelmed with their bravery and courage to face that kind of pain and fear every day.

I started texting and calling some of the young Black men I’m closest to, telling them I loved them. Telling them I knew #BlackLivesMatter. Telling them “your.every.breath.matters.to.me.”

Being woke is painful. It’s like a heavy cloak that threatens to overwhelm me some days…but I know that what I’m feeling is a shadow of what others having been carrying for centuries.

I marched that night in a rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. I marched for Philando, and for my students Curtis and Tanika and Marquisha and so many more.

The next week I was at the annual meeting of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. When the discussion turned to a series of position statements to be voted on, I pushed that we should have a statement on equity, building on the masterful presentation we had just heard the day before by James E. Ford, 2015 North Carolina State Teacher of the Year.

What was supposed to be a quick and easy motion became a 45-minute conversation that was painful and frustrating but also honest and respectful; it was the kind of discourse that is sorely lacking in our country right now. Everyone in the room walked away with a greater understanding of each other and an organizational commitment to develop a position statement that would reflect our commitment to pursue equity in our classrooms and beyond.

In many ways I feel like I did my first year of teaching—full of passion with a lot to learn. I’ve read articles like Anatomy of an Ally; I’ve had intentional conversations about race and privilege.

In his article I, Racist John Metta states:

White people are in a position of power in this country because of racism. The question is: Are they brave enough to use that power to speak against the system that gave it to them?

That’s a challenge I accept. I will deeply question not only my personal beliefs, but those part of our system and culture that reinforce stereotypes, perpetuate injustice and accept violence as “just the way things are.” I will use my White privilege to speak to those who need to be challenged by someone who looks like them in order to see the truth of institutional racism.

The discomfort that comes from these conversations and actions is nothing compared to the pain of burying another father, husband, uncle or son.

Martin Luther King, Jr. admonished:

In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

To Ms. Fennell’s scholars, and to all our students, I promise…Your teacher is “woke” and I won’t be silent.

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