What They Will Never Have: The Duality of Being a Teacher and an Oppressor

When Freddie Gray was killed and the riots erupted in Baltimore, I witnessed the news trickle in little by little, and then all at once. Facebook statuses, news shares, video uploads, personal commentary, and opinion after opinion flooded my newsfeed. There were people who hailed the “Mom of the Year.” There were those who called for a real education of White America. There were those who stated that the riots and looting showed that the people of Baltimore were “animals.” As I did my best to read primary sources and (as objective as possible) news reports and video, my mind kept flashing to the students that I teach.


The school that I teach at is located in Chicago Lawn, a neighborhood on the Southwest side of Chicago 100 feet from Marquette Park where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched for open housing in 1966. The neighborhood is 49% Black and 45% Hispanic, a statistic that is duplicated within my school. 98% percent of our students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. But those are just numbers. Similar numbers are represented in neighborhoods and schools across the South and West sides of the city.


In his essay “This is Water,” David Foster Wallace coined the idea of “water” as a metaphor for common, popular, or automatic ways of thinking or being. In the famous commencement speech turned inspirational YouTube video, he tells a short story of two fish that are swimming along when they encounter an older fish who asks, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” One younger fish turns to the third and asks, “What the hell is water?”


This will not be an inspirational story, but rather a story about water, and about the stark difference between those who understand we are in water, and those who do not. It will be about the dual reality that exists for the people who know what water is.


At first, I was eager to talk to my students about Baltimore. After some reflection, I became hesitant. As teachers, we have to constantly ask ourselves the question: why am I choosing to do what I am doing, within the classroom? My dear friend and coach, Claire Miller, does a wonderful job of asking me: What is it that you are trying to achieve by doing (x, y, or z)?


I did not become hesitant for fear of what my kids would say about the situation, or that they would disagree with me. I was not concerned about the content of their thoughts. Rather, I hesitant to confront the fact that I might be using their blackness and brownness to make sense of my whiteness–that by talking to them about it, I would be using their experience as a tool to examine my own. As a white teacher in a school of brown and black faces, something I have struggled with deeply is how to best present and discuss information to my students that does not inherently invoke my perspective from a position of power and privilege.


I want to be clear for any and all who read this piece: privilege does not necessarily mean unearned. The title of oppressor does not mean overtly racist, or maliciously intended. Oppressed does not mean weak, dumb, selfish, lazy, or helpless. What those terms do mean, are that I am a part of a class who is systematically favored to succeed, over the population that I work with.


As an educator, my ambition is to teach my students to see the world with enough clarity to realize that it should seem unclear. “The way the world is” should not seem okay, right, or normal. My fear is that they have, through being born into unjust circumstances, have already normalized injustice. My fear is that without questioning their own reality, they will understand it to be just fine the way that it is. The question is: if they aren’t exposed to the “white” viewpoint–how will they ever understand that their circumstances are unjust? It is here that I am caught: they need objectivity to make decisions about the world and their lives (objectivity, here, meaning understanding of both sides of the coin–black and white), yet I do not want to perpetuate a role that has allowed for the white, privileged viewpoint to dominate conversation.


I often feel as though the most deeply frustrating and humbling aspect of my position as a white, upper-middle class teacher in a school that serves minority, low-income students, is that I participate in this dual reality. I work in a world where the shared reality is poverty, violence, and injustice. My third week into the school year, I had to call in a body on the side of the road to 911, at 6 in the morning. A few weeks after that, there was an attempted shooting outside of my school five minutes after dismissal, targeting a member of my school’s community who is involved in gang activity. On a regular basis, my kids share with each other their excitement over getting their LINK card (government assistance) re-upped. I do not share in this reality because I walk away from it at the end of the day. While these instances of hardship are more salient and real to me now than they were a year ago, I get to leave it at work, on the South Side, as I travel back downtown to my apartment. I jump into the pool from 6am-6pm, but can get out and towel off once I lock my classroom door for the night.


My simple conveyance of these images invokes a sort of sensationalist perspective, and is something I am extremely sensitive to; I try with everything I have to not be the white girl that only conveys the “bad” to her friends and family across White America to get them to understand the circumstances in which she works. But at the end of the day, I am the white girl who decided that she wanted to teach inner-city kids. Sensationalistic communication is not always malicious, yet we must ask ourselves how we ought to convey enough urgency without gravitating explicitly towards the most salient aspects of our experiences. The conditions my students grow up in, are more than anything, a matter that is urgent. How do we document the journeys of the underprivileged without sensationalizing or paternalizing them? At what point is does expressing an unfamiliar viewpoint become sensationalizing it?


It is the simple fact that I can consider these problems, frustrations, and dichotomies from a perspective that has participated in both realities that frustrates me. It is not my ability to take this dual perspective that frustrates me, but rather my students’ inability to do the same. I am able to move from a current situation to an “outside” perspective. I can take myself away from the situations that most overtly manifest injustice, and think about what I can and should do in my role. My students cannot. When, and if, they ever get the opportunity to examine injustice, they are doing so from within the beast.


There are many things that are wrong with the popular, majority conception of social justice. Social justice, as a concept, lives and breathes through the actions of those in power in conjunction with the actions of those who are oppressed. Social justice is not a project that is mapped out, carried out, and ultimately achieved. It is not about saving or servicing, but about shedding light on power in ways that were previously unknown.


As a teacher, I do my best to shed light on power dynamics, on decisions made by those in power, but most importantly, to shed light on the power within my students. So often we talk about “power” in the context of who has the most power, and who has the least power. So rarely we discuss the power within those who, as a collective, have the least.


We did not get the chance to talk about Baltimore immediately after it happened. My lessons took up too much time. But the discussion will continue next week; perhaps it is better that it continues after this is written.


At the end of the day, I will always have what they will never have–the ability to step back, to step above, look down, analyze, dissect, and make sense of the chaos below. At the end of the day, I can do this because I take part in the dual reality that my students will never be a part of–I am immersed in the world of the oppressed, but I am a part of the oppressing class. They cannot see the chaos below because they are in the chaos. They have learned that the stuff around them is water.


The most powerful thing we can do as educators is refuse to shield our students and ourselves from those with opposing, different, or abrasive viewpoints, for it is in the moments of unease that we discover something about a situation or society, and about ourselves that makes us uneasy to begin with. Social justice cannot be bestowed “onto” a population that the privileged believe needs it most. All we can do is our best to live in such a way that knowledge, and subsequent action upon that knowledge, is inevitable.


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