They Can’t All Be White: Why Representation Matters in our Schools

 

By: Wendy Davis

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Wendy has been a NYC Public School teacher for over ten years teaching on the elementary school level. She is now an Instructional Coach/Staff Developer and is a supporter of increasing diversity among teachers and curriculum.  

“All of our teachers can’t be white,” I stated matter-of-factly at our Instructional Cabinet meeting one morning a few years back.

My principal stared at me intently. His eyes probed me to say more.

“How can we have a school building full of black and brown kids and all their teachers are white?” I continued.

No one said anything. We all kind of sat in that statement for a few minutes. I wondered if any of them had ever even considered that before. I scanned the faces at the table. There were eight of us there. My eyes went from the square-chinned, white face of the Literacy Coach, to the blue-eyed and blond-haired ESL teacher, to the other blue-eyed and blond-haired Technology Specialist, to the white, brown-haired  IEP teacher, to the white Assistant Principal, to the African-American Math Coach, and then lastly, to the face of my African-American Principal. And then there was me, the Staff Developer, a very fair-skinned Puerto Rican and Cuban. I noticed their eyes scanning the faces at the table now. Were they counting all the white people at the table? 5 out of the 8 decision makers at this table were white. In all reality, upon a first glance, many people would add me into that number of white people because of the fairness of my skin. So let’s revise the ratio. To an outsider looking in, 6 out of 8 decision makers at the table were “white”.

Silence continued. Awkward silence. But I wouldn’t let it go.

Eventually, a conversation began and the people at the table slowly acknowledged the “whiteness” of the school building. We had a total of 4 black, brown or Latino teachers out of more than 30 teachers in the building. Which means that out of approximately 600 students, only about 120 of them had a classroom teacher that looked like them. Those 120 students had representation of themselves and their families, but what about the other 400+? I pushed a little more. What about all the other staff members? Not just the teachers. Were our black, brown and Latino students represented anywhere else in our building? And then we noticed something. It was quite interesting to say the least. We did have other black or brown staff members besides the 4 teachers, the Math Coach and the Principal. We in fact had several paraprofessionals, school aides, cafeteria workers and custodians that were black, brown or Latino.

“Think about that. What unintended message do you think that is sending our kids?” I asked.

Silence.

Then my Principal spoke. His eyes were sad. “Besides the few of us at this table, all the minorities I’ve hired are ‘the help’”. The air quotes he added around the words “the help” were sullen. It was as if he were disappointed in himself for not noticing this sooner. He did not want his school building to perpetuate media-induced stereotypes of black, brown and Latino people only being helpers or maids or subordinates.

And so began our school’s conscious effort to diversify our teaching staff so that our students could see themselves and their families in their teachers. But more importantly, so they could see that black and brown people can have any and every role in the school community and beyond.

But does cultural representation really matter? My answer would be 1,000 percent yes!  Now more than ever, in an America that is inundated with negative images and commentary around minorities, our students need to see and believe that they are so much more than what society tells them they are. According to Laura Thomas, Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, “Our children's early experiences -- including the hours spent consuming media -- shape what they imagine to be possible for people who look like them, live where they live, or come from where they came from. Simply put, kids determine what they can be based on the examples around them.”

So let’s think about that. Children spend upwards of 35 hours a week, 140 hours a month, 5,600 hours a year at school. These hours are filled with experiences, both good and bad, that they are internalizing. These experiences are shaping who they become. With that being said, how powerful and purposeful it is for students to be surrounded by people who look like them, like their parents, like their aunts, like their uncles. How empowering for a student to believe and see with their own eyes that people who look like them are important, are intelligent, are articulate, are needed.

Think about how amazingly mesmerizing the release of the movie, Black Panther, has been across the country. On television, on the radio, on all social media outlets, there is a buzz penetrating conversations everywhere. People of color are heading to the theatre in droves, dressed in gorgeous African garb as a way to embrace and shine a light on the beauty of this movie. A movie based on a black superhero, surrounded by a cast of strong, black men and women, is bringing people together in a way that was most likely not anticipated. “Black Panther became a bastion of inclusivity and empowerment for people of all colors in the audience.” (Khosla, 2018) Why is this such a big deal? Simply put, people of color have always been under-represented. Everywhere.

But now, because of this movie, there are images everywhere of young, black and brown children, both male and female, feeling magical. This movie is putting an image in the mind of our young people as to what #blackgirlmagic and #blackboyjoy looks like. In a tweet from actress, Mica Burton, she wrote, “Seeing a whole film full of strong, powerful, educated people who look like ME not being discriminated against or mocked. No hurtful stereotypes of blacks. No ghettos or slaves or thugs... just beautiful royal kings and queens of Wakanda.” If cultural representation in a movie can bring this feeling to people of color, imagine what it can do when they are able to see themselves represented EVERY SINGLE DAY in schools and college campuses across the country.

Of course, it’s not just a black and white thing. The representation of all minorities matters. Asian children deserve to see themselves. Middle Eastern children deserve to see themselves. Caribbean children deserve to see themselves. South American children deserve to see themselves. The list goes on and on. The people of our country are not one color or ethnicity, and neither are the students that make up our school communities. Therefore, it is imperative that school staff members should be equally diverse. Let our students see themselves. It means more to them than we may ever realize.

And if you were wondering how my school is currently doing with diversifying our teaching staff, we now have 17 brown, black or Latino teachers out of 35. We are on our way. We are definitely on our way.

 

Works Cited

 

Thomas, L. (2016, August 22). Why Representation Matters. Retrieved February 25, 2018, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/why-representation-matters-laura-thomas

 

Khosla, P. (2018, February 21). 'Black Panther' is a huge victory for representation in film. Retrieved February 25, 2018, from https://mashable.com/2018/02/21/black-panther-representation/#E84rd7sBSaq8