White Fragility, Teacher Fragility, or Both?

(I will attempt to remember everything that happened in class this day because I want it to be as genuine as I can remember it, so that I can come back to this blog often and read, reflect, learn and grow in this)

The other day I was watching Hidden Figures with my class, I told them I wanted them to watch it not only because it is a good movie, but in order to look at dynamics depicted in the movie and compare them to today.  One student, a student of color, remarked :Great, this is gonna get me upset.”  I didn’t acknowledge that remark, but started the movie (Which, as I now reflect on the situation, was my first mistake).

Towards the end of the hour, I stopped the movie and started talking about the dynamics students observed.  At first students were hesitant to bring up any issues, and I asked what they thought the main theme of the movie was, and they replied Racism.  We then started to talk about that a little bit, and I brought up the idea of white privilege.  As soon at those words left my mouth, the same student scoffed and turned away from me.  I kept moving forward and tried to talk about what that meant (there were 3 white students, 3 native American students and on African-american student in the class) and how this was a negative impact.  The student laughed and turned away when I talked about how this is something that I know I need to work hard on, and when I asked her why she reacted that way she replied that it was a habit when she is anxious. I continued the discussion (mistake two- at least as far as I am aware of at this time).

She interjected at one point, asking why we should talk about it in class when it wasn’t going to change a damn thing anyway.  I replied that in order for things to change, these conversations needed to happen- that if we didn’t talk about them that we were supporting the ideology of white privilege.  These were conversations we needed to continue to bring up in order to change what we observe happening today.  She said something to me in a very rude, snarky tone (and I can’t recall exactly what it was she said, it was the tone and sharpness that hit me- and it was shock in other SoC’s faces that I remember, not the words). I commented that we are trying to discuss a topic that causes a very emotional response from parties, and that she did not need to be disrespectful to me (Another mistake I now see- part of my white fragility).

She commented in an almost equal tone as before that she was sorry I took it as her being disrespectful, she didn’t mean and that these conversations set her off.  She turned away from me and I was taken slightly aback and didn’t know how to proceed.  I reiterated that these are conversations that need to happen and that will continue to happen in class, then class was over.  I was able to once again demonstrate what I now know as white fragility- I was able to remove myself from the situation.

I have a unique working environment, working at a juvenile center.  There are many issues that are amplified at my workplace, as well as many rules and procedures that directly oppose what I typically did at a public school.  I need to find ways to be able to address this topic in this place.

As I have reflected on this event, and continue to do- I realize one glaring thing: I was not prepared at the time to handle her reaction to the conversation.  Was I unwilling, as a teacher to deviate from what I wanted to address or was it because I was a white male in a position of power?  I wanted to ask about her reaction, but I also did not want her to be an unwilling representative of African-American students.  Until this point, we have had a good rapport in class, I didn’t want to compromise that and have her shut down on me.  There are a ton of other things/feelings/excuses I could write here but they would all be protecting my white fragility.  I realize that as a while male teacher, I am the totally wrong person to hold all the power in these conversations.

So I write this, in this public place, not as a post to inflame.  I write this to have a permanent place to have this so I may keep coming back and reminding myself that I need to do better, I have to do better, it is my responsibility to do better.  I need to research ways to have these conversations and be prepared for the strong emotions they illicit, I need to be able to be supportive, respectful and have the ability to listen to them.  This was not easy to decide to blog about, nor easy to tweet about.

I need help to do this work, this is not something I can do alone but something that I can not allow to be hidden as well.




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