Above: My star (& a Favorite) German student Charlotte Hartman
The National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference is quickly approaching. As of today, I am planning on attending this very important meeting. It was during my second year of teaching that I became interested in the topic of race and independent schools. As many of you know, I spent some time traveling and doing a great deal of research on race and 19th and 20th century independent schools (read here). One of the early criticisms I received during my early years of teaching was this: “As a black teacher in America, it seems that you would have a greater impact on the lives of poor black students if you taught in an urban setting.”
A few years ago while attending the professors of color conference, this particular argument was raised during one of the sessions I attended. I have long contended that teachers of color are important role models to white students, as we shape white students’ images of what people of color can and do achieve. For white students and many students of color, professors of color could be the only people of color they see in professional roles. As noted in a paper I wrote a few years ago:
…non-minority students will benefit from the opportunity to experience minority teachers. Interaction with minority teachers will result in increased familiarity with minorities and in seeing them in professional roles. This can raise aspirations in minority group students and lead to higher expectations for minority group members in others .
However, as I noted to fellow colleagues in my presentation at the 2002 Equity Colloquium in Chicago, the difference between poor black students and wealthy white students are small. Although I teach a lot of highly motivated students, I do encounter white students who lack the appreciation for diversity. To them, attending a very good private school with some of the most qualified faculty members in the nation can be a moot point. I wonder if race and income by many white students limit their appreciation for the importance of diversity.
I have concluded that white students benefit just as much as students of color when it comes to having a minority teacher. Here is what I do not know: Does my teaching of class, race, and gender change the worldview of privileged students? In an e-mail today, I told an old but very important high school friend of mine that I often feel guilty for being a bit of an academic snob; my students see me as an elitists — which is not wholly true, but I see myself as one who champions social justice, as is the case for many black educated professionals. But, as noted by Lisa Arrastia of the Francis W. Parker School, being a person of color in a predominate white school has its challenges. For me, I am far more liberal than I am allowed to be at the affluent conservative school that I teach at. I often wonder how real my classes would be if I could show my true colors. I believe that many of my white students would benefit more. Because I attended a private high school, I have not had a teacher of color since middle school. And because of that, I never had a black instructor to mentor me when I was seeking one.
Lisa Arrastia of the Francis Parker School states that:
At the age of 18, after surviving 12 years of culturally complex and socially confusing independent school education, I decided to declare quietly to myself: I am an Afro-Cuban American Woman. Naming this identity is important to me, because until now it has meant only shame. My tenacious adolescent attempts to hide behind the veil W.E.B. Du Bois described in 1903 are weakening. It is not until 80 years after Du Bois’s pyschosocial revelation that this thin layer of protection and denial is challenged. I am sitting in James Baldwin’s History of the Civil Rights Movement class at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Baldwin’s first words are:” Whiteness is a concept.” Five minutes into the class my veil is lifted and I peak out, immediately understanding, on an intellectual and emotional level, the sociohistorical implications of my ethnic identity and therefore my shame around it. On that day, in the presence of one of the most prophetic minds in the United States, I realize that I must find something that I have been missing: My self.
For elite black faculty members, we face a number of challenges outside of teaching white students in private schools. Many of those challenges have more to do with professional opportunities than racial identity — which for me is not an issue.