In Portland, we are wrapping up an interesting year. Schools in the historically underserved Jefferson, Madison, and Roosevelt clusters here in Portland, Oregon are seeking new senses of normal while the city that holds back on supporting them also watches from afar with binoculars, waiting for the next headline. At the same time, schools in the increasingly wealthy and white Cleveland and Wilson clusters are in damage control, regrouping from racist and homophobic acts at the hands of both teachers and students. Portland Public Schools is in its second year without an equity program to which school leadership can execute with fidelity in their buildings and in their hearts. Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero touted the incoming of our equity work replacement, swapping out the work of the renowned Pacific Educational Group, for what he called “Equity 2.0.” Whereas, 4 years ago, you could ask PTAs, kids, and teachers alike to recite the Four Agreements of Courageous Conversations About Race, now you would be lucky as the lottery if you were to ask ANY Portland Public Schools stakeholder what Equity 2.0 is. No one can tell you. Because no one knows.
Even in volunteerism, one could expect PPS’ Racial Equity Policy to be within trainings and discussions, and one could expect to hear white teachers discussing race’s impact on their own teaching decisions, without fear of major judgment. White volunteers either came or left with an equity lens that sparked some learning - good, bad, or indifferent. Nowadays, white volunteers would be lucky to find a school where it is even okay for a white adult to say the word “black” without some negative connotation. Gone are the days where conversation was exploratory and meant for an understanding, and some would even say that we have regressed as a district. And, as we know that schooling is one of the biggest facets of national politics - this trend falls directly in line with our national leadership and political climate of control of the poor, the women, the black.
There are still many white folks that are awakening to consciousness of this fact, and who are willing to affect change by going where it starts - in schools with high populations of children of color. Colleges and universities have sociology students, psych students, and education students who set up class time to volunteer in schools. While dutiful, there are some things white volunteers must know and remember in order to not step in a pile they can’t clean off. Take heed - because you sure won’t get much advice from a district who dismantled its entire equity team.
1) Nobody asked you. See something or hear something that teachers or students of color are saying or doing, for which you can add a story? Don’t. Think you can solve or fix something you weren’t asked your opinion on? Keep it all thee way to yourself. This is less about students/teachers of color’s need to connect with you, and more about your white guilt driving you to force-connect with them. This is also about your need to belong, in a place where you don’t. Don’t try to insert yourself when children or adults of color are talking in a group without you. You belong everywhere else - in grocery stores, driving, on mainstream television, in books, magazines, ads… no butting in, okay?
2) Lose the Lingo. Please, for the love of God and all that is good and well, don’t. That means no fist bumping, no “my maaann, “hey girl,” “yaaaaasss,” or any other thing you know you would not say to your immediate vanilla circle or on a visit to Grandma. Kids will spot a phony fast - kids of color will spot a phony faster. The best white educators I know, show up as their authentic selves. One acts like shaggy from Scooby Doo, and one like Thelma Harper from Mama’s Family. One is real Tom Hanks’ish and one is Pennywise sans creepiness. And every. Last. One. Of. Them. Have the respect of their students and parents of color. What makes YOU think you gotta walk up in the classroom like The Fresh Prince if they aren’t?
3) You are not cooking. You are serving. This is less of a message to stay-in-ya-damn-lane, and more of an opportunity to give a shoutout to those in the service industry. While in Lincoln City last weekend on an eat-sleep-repeat cycle, I watched those who managed - cashiers, owners, and auditors; and those who executed - housekeepers, servers, custodians. Everyone doing their own job allowed for everyone else to do THEIR own job. The difference was that the servers and housekeepers were the ones who dealt the most intimately with the customers - from listening to their gripes about bad coffee that they themselves didn’t brew, to cleaning their body-fluid-soaked towels and sheets. Service workers play an underappreciated and highly important role in making people feel good and helping folks recharge by catering to their most basic needs - which is why I probably spent $200 in tips alone this weekend. In the classroom, you are not doing a single report card or assessment, or anything else managerial. You are doing whatever that teacher needs of you. There are as many ways of teaching, as there are teachers, and no, you’re not going to identify with or understand all of them. Unless you see a potential physical or emotional hazard, zip it and serve. If you think you can do it better, go back to school and become a certified teacher. We need you, hell.
4) If you don’t get your feet off my couch… If you do have something to say, add, or ask, ask permission first. A common home custom for most nonwhite groups is to not walk up in the house, have your feet all up on the couch, go in the fridge, etc. without asking every step of the way. That is not your house, and your mama raised you better than that. Nor do you two-step your way into a classroom, colonizing opinion space, without asking permission first. You are not a Superhero rushing in to a burning house to save a people. We are fine. We don’t need saving. “Is this a good time to ask a question about…” or “I’m curious about…” are two simple sentence stems that will save you. And, if on the other end of that sentence stem pertains to hair, behavior, culture, or features of a nonwhite child, please… I beg you…
5) Don’t. Under any circumstances. Teachers, parents, and children of color do not exist to appease your curiosity or console your misunderstanding. You DO know that it’s 99% likely that your curiosity or misunderstanding is founded upon the tenets of white-saw-premise-see that every one of us Americans were raised beneath, right? You will not say a word. Instead, you will G2G. Some say that means “Go to God.” And, I mean, I’m not stopping you if you need to. But here, it means “Go to Google.” Life experiences, scholarly articles, rebuttals, and refutations to those rebuttals all exist for whatever you ask of Google. People of color have been under white gaze forever, and lived to tell about it. You need your nosy itch scratched? Don’t subject another person of color to reliving painful experiences for your learning benefit. Take thine own self to Google - it has no feelings and is open for you 24 hours a day. Do the work.
6) Fog-Breath your glasses and clean them on your shirt. There is verified, documented, and proven evidence that developmentally appropriate behaviors in black children and white children are viewed differently, even if the behaviors are the exact same. Black boys and girls are seen by white adults as less innocent than white girls and boys by the age of 5. (Fact checking this is highly encouraged, and is also a high indicator of white ascription of my black intelligence and believability. So go ahead if you must.) You need to constantly clean those glasses off. Ask yourself: “Am I seeing this behavior differently than I would judge if it were my own child? Did I get away with things because I was a perceived boy or girl, that someone opposite my perceived gender could not get away with?” If both are yes, then you fully understand that your thinking about child behavior is influenced by what our institutions say and show about black people as young as Kindergarten babies. Though gender oppression is vastly different than racial oppression, the point is that you understand being a participant or beneficiary. Clean those glasses and look again.
7) Idle? Blackout Bookout in the library. Nothing left to do? No, this is not the time to commiserate with your other classmates, colleagues, or parents about “this school” or “these kids.” One thing teachers can always use are books from either the school or county library. Go there, and ask for a book bag or bucket with that class’ grade level or content area, featuring black and brown heroines, protagonists, authors, illustrators, subjects, inventors, and so on. Ask the librarian. They will tell you exactly what to get, and many will get them together for you. Still idle? Grab a book out of the bucket and crack it open. I’m willing to bet that half of them will be new knowledge to you.
Whatever you do - keep out of circles, keep your fake lingo, keep unsolicited stories and advice to yourself, keep the heart of a servant, keep your feet in the house, keep your lenses clean, keep reading, and keep busy. When you’re not serving, you’re talking, perpetuating, and manifesting an attitude of supremacy and saviorism.