“Strong Language”: On Whiteness, Semantics, and Tyranny

For the past two school years, on the very first day, I have told my students that they can expect from me what I expect from them. These anticipated reciprocities are generally along the lines of honesty, effort, respect for the classroom space, and respect for others’ thoughts. As the year progresses, these “mutualities” often develop into shared personal respect, vulnerability, and willingness to try. It would be hard to identify an expectation I have of my students that I either would or could not truly live up to myself–except when it comes to race.


There is something intangibly hard about being a white teacher of minority students. This difficulty has to do entirely with identity, and the willingness and capability of white teachers to associate themselves with language that overtly identifies them as “oppressor.” Here, I will argue that the tendency for the white teachers to dissociate themselves from the language of structural racism, oppression, and tyranny prevents authentically promoting social justice in the classroom. So often we require our students to be black and brown. So rarely–if ever–do we require ourselves to be white.


For clarity, in this context, “strong language” will refer to the language that explicitly identifies white people as historically oppressive. Additionally, the working definition for social justice will be as follows:


“A process, not an outcome, which seeks fair (re)distribution of resources, opportunities, and responsibilities; challenges the roots of oppression and injustice, empowers all people to exercise self-determination and realize their full potential, and builds social solidarity and community capacity for collaborative action.”


White teachers must identify with strong language in order to authentically promote social justice in the classroom.


If someone were to ask me to describe myself, I would likely do so in flattering language. I would say that I am bright, willing to learn, and generally kind. If asked, I could generate numerous examples of when I demonstrated these characteristics. In the same way that I gravitate towards positive language, I repel myself from unflattering language. I am likely to see my brightness, capability, and kindness as attributable to my general disposition. While I sometimes exhibit rudeness and stubbornness, I would isolate those to specific situations. The major difference between my own relationship with positive and negative language is that I see positive as the way I am, and negative what I sometimes do. To me, the negative is not a central component of who I am.


White teachers tend to do much of the same; because we do not see ourselves as oppressors, we are likely to attribute oppressive actions (lowered expectations, zero-tolerance, misunderstanding cultural dialect for disrespect, etc.) to isolated instances, and not manifestations of white dominance. However, these actions, paired with the actions of hundreds of thousands of other white teachers, stifle collective engagement in the process of social justice, and create an educational landscape that continues to demonize the minority child. We must see our individual actions as contributing to our historical identities.


In “The Phenomenology of Perception,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote:


“I am a psychological and historical structure. Along with my existence, I received a way of existing, or a style. All of my actions and thoughts are related to this structure, and even a philosopher’s thought is merely a way of making explicit his hold upon the world, which is all he is. And yet, I am free, not in spite of or beneath these motivations, but rather by their means. For that meaningful life, that particular signification of nature and history that I am, does not restrict my access to the world; it is rather my means of communication with it.”


I have not read this text in its entirety; I encountered this excerpt out of context and there is the chance I am interpreting it incorrectly. However, what I believe Merleau-Ponty is asserting is the following: we do not have a choice in which “structures” we are born under, but we do have the choice of whether or not we are going to confront these structures. For example, I was born into a middle class family. I was born white. I was born female. From the moment I entered the world, there were facets of my identity that I did not choose, but are critical to how I engage with the world and interact with those in it. I entered an arena where it already meant something to be white, female, and middle class.


If, as a white person, I am to communicate my “hold upon the world,” the language I associate myself with is a direct result of what I have been conditioned to associate with: my “historical structure.” My situation as a white person is historically more favorable than the situations of racial and ethnic minorities. Conversely, and more importantly, my “historical structure” as a white person has positioned me as a member of an oppressive and often tyrannical group. Understanding and confronting my own identity entails understanding which words apply to the historical and psychological condition I find myself in.


If I do not first and foremost understand that my situation has been molded by this “historical structure,” and that I am not independent of it, I naturally will not be able to apply the language of oppression and tyranny to myself. If I cannot apply the language to myself–if I cannot name tyranny–how am I to stop it?


I once read that a lot of writing about oppressed populations tends to “reduce living, breathing, joking, struggling, sensual, moral beings into dupes who are shoved about by invisible forces.”


White teachers who enter the classroom with any quantity of background knowledge on society and its power structures can likely look around and both identify and understand the historical contexts; we get that there are groups of citizens who are and have been oppressed. However, when white teachers know, learn, or are told that the face of the oppressor looks like their own, their powers of understanding these structures seem to disappear because it is mistaken as an attack on personal character.


Due to the sheltered white ego and psyche, suddenly the oppressed become pushed around by forces that are invisible, because we intentionally made them invisible. We do not associate ourselves with strong language. If I do not acknowledge my own historical position as that of oppressor, I automatically stunt and stop progress. Exempting ourselves from the demonized abstraction of “white” fixes nothing; it merely makes invisible what has always been invisible to white people.


We so often separate “we” from “me” as a protective mechanism. If a white teacher talks about “white oppressors,” they are likely not including themselves in the oppressive category. I can see it in my own writing: ”they” as opposed to “we.” So long as I continue to dissociate from the color I wear on my skin, I will merely be disseminating information to my students at arm’s length; so long as I refuse to acknowledge being white, I am teaching behind a glass wall. I can see and hear my students. They can see and hear me. But am I really with them?


Sarah Bakewell wrote:


“True rebellion does not mean reaching towards an ecstatic vision of a shining city on a hill. It means setting a limit on some very real present state of affairs that has become unacceptable … Rebellion is a reining in of tyranny. As rebels keep countering new tyrannies, a balance is created; a state of moderation that must be tirelessly renewed and maintained.”


If tyranny’s maintenance is fueled by creating these “invisible forces,” then I can set a limit–in a real, personal sense–of making it visible. To make visible, I must associate with the strong language that applies to the historical structures I found myself thrown into.


Teachers must learn to “come out” as white to their students, much in the same way that many in the LGTBQ community “come out” as any of a number of sexual and gendered orientations. Both are characterized by an immensely personal and public recognition of a significant part of their identity. Once, last year, a student asked me if I was white. While I can tan in the summer, my skin is fair and my eyes are blue. It is clear (to me) that I am Caucasian. The student’s question seemed less confusion of my race and ethnicity, but more of: “Are you really one of them?”


When we can understand that we are “one of them,” we can name. When we name, we can change. We cannot attack the tyrants if we do not know who the tyrants are. We especially cannot attack them effectively if we do not know how to recognize them.


One limitation of learning to associate with strong language is its mitigation of personal tolerance: when a white person “comes into” her whiteness, and “comes out” to any particular subset of people as white, it is amazingly easy to become intolerant of people who resembled her one or two enlightenments ago. As someone who has experienced this, I often find myself both impatient and intolerant of those who express and discuss views contrary to my current views and beliefs, but all too similar to beliefs I held not long ago. I would not recognize the “me” of six years ago. I have had to try, learn, fail, and try again–to allow myself to truly be white.


Learning to “be” a white teacher–one who makes an active effort to acknowledge, address, and unpack the racially-charged power structures within the classroom, school, and society–proves to be a process that cannot be undergone instantaneously. There are steps that come with learning how to be a white teacher of explicitly minority students, and I cannot confidently say that process is ever finished. The first step is simply acknowledging race. “Colorblindness” is not only false, but it is dangerous. It is dangerous to play the “I do not care if you are black, blue, green, or yellow” card, because black and brown has a history white will never.


The second step is acknowledging one’s whiteness, and it is this step which requires understanding and associating with strong language. The third step, and likely most difficult, both to the white psyche and ego is to analyze and break down the meaning of one’s skin color alongside our students. If I discuss their history of being oppressed, I must discuss my own history of oppressing. This step is the most difficult because it poses a threat to the sheltered white psyche: it makes visible the invisible.


Understanding my historical structure means understanding that among the good that white people have done, in our society, their existence has also been defined by tyranny. If I can understand and acknowledge this, then I can find solutions that speak in the language of oppression and tyranny. For example, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire is a good read when we believe the “oppressor” to be an amorphous evildoer. But it is an effective read when we understand that we are the oppressor. Understanding histories among the full spectrum of language–both flattering and strong–allows us to find solutions in places that we would not have found them before.


The challenge and charge of the white teacher must be the realization that requiring our students to be black and brown is not enough. We must also, daily, require ourselves to be white.


When it decides to confront history, being in itself can be rebellion.


This radical being encompasses infinitely more than passively existing as a recipient of the world. I can exist as white every day by doing nothing. But truly being white, in the most active sense of the word possible, encompasses observing, confronting, acknowledging, refining, and if necessary, rejecting components of my identity. As a white teacher, I cannot literally eliminate the oppressive history of my identity. I can, however, eliminate my tendency to ignore it.


Image courtesy of Pamela Schmeider, Flickr Creative Commons


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