I am a white lady. It’s not a surprise to anyone who has meet me, I mean I am quite obviously white, able-bodied, and female. Which puts me in right in the majority of my students’ teachers. In fact some of my 9th graders hadn’t had a male teacher until middle school. Many of them could count the few non-white teachers they had on one hand. I was not one of them. I am a güerita.
It took me a lot of years to figure out I was white or at least to know it in anyway that mattered. It took more than that for me to be able to talk about it in class. This snippet happened recently as part of a bigger conversation.
I didn’t know I was white growing up. – me
What do you mean you didn’t know?- Student 1
Well, when did you know you were brown? – me
Like, I don’t know, always. – Student 2
I mean, seriously, like I never didn’t know. -S1
No really, think, when was the first time you knew that you were brown?. -me
I guess it was when my mom looked different than the other moms at kindergarten. I like knew those kids were white so I was not white.- S2
Yeah, I mean I always noticed kids had different skin even when I was really little. – S1
Okay, well I didn’t know being white was even a thing til high school and I didn’t realize it affected my life til I was probably 26. -me
I talk to kids about the way I grew up. I talk about the way people look at me in stores, the way I see myself reflected in tv and books, the things people assume about me because I am white. I talk about privilege. I use the word privilege. I tell them I have all sorts of privilege they don’t I’m an adult, I’m their teacher, and I’m white.
I have said this before and will say it again, I am not a magical wizard teacher. I do not do this perfectly all the time. I do not casual inform my children about racism in the perfectly modeled lesson with questions ready and responses pre-thought. I do though wade in to waters that are tricky. I stumble and screw up and falter for the right words. I do not get through to every child. White boys are a particular challenge for me in these conversations.
I can say pretending that me being a white lady didn’t matter wasn’t effective. Thinking that the children might not notice I was white or trying not to notice they weren’t (or were) did not lead to a realistic community in my classroom.
In my student teaching I taught a class of Algebra 1 in Spanish for students who were new to the country. My Spanish was not good enough to do this but I tried. They tried so hard to say Schwartz but the schwa sound doesn’t really exist in Spanish so when I wasn’t there they called me güerita. Essentially, nice white lady or white lady we like. I would like to say that that was a tipping point in realizing my whiteness but it wasn’t. It came much later for me. Maybe, just maybe, the conversations in my classroom will push that timeline up for someone else.