For the better part of 23 years, I never thought about being white. There were times when I may have considered it, perhaps while laughing at the truth to the blog Stuff White People Like or being laughed at when sharing that I am a rapper. But a laugh was all it ever was.
Then I started teaching in a school made up of 95% African-American students. Needless to say, I think about being white all the time now.
There are certain stigmas that are attached to every race, for better or worse. When you are white, you don’t often have to consider the stigmas attached to your race because they’re either not very negative or they’re easy to ignore when you are surrounded by people who look just like you. It’s a privilege, to not have to worry about how the color of your skin might make people perceive you.
For most of my students, they will never have access to that privilege. My students are 12 and 13 years old, and they already think about the color of their skin. Every day. One day a few weeks ago, my students were learning the various poetic devices. They took a ‘gallery walk’ through the room, with devices like imagery and metaphor defined and exemplified on the walls.
While taking this gallery walk, I overheard one of my students say, “Why do we have to learn English? We’re black.” The rest of the students erupted in laughter.
And I froze. I didn’t know what to say to this “joke”. The student said it in jest, but there is an old adage about how all jokes are rooted in truth. Was what he said a joke to him and the other kids, or was there something about his words that deep down he and the others really, truly felt?
Since becoming a teacher, I have developed the superpower of recognizing teachable moments. There is a sixth sense that comes with being a teacher, in which you are able to recognize off-handed remarks and offensive jokes as moments where you should stop the entire class and drop some knowledge about life on your younglings.
I knew this was a teachable moment, but I have yet to fully master the superpower of having the guts to talk about what I haven’t experienced. Don’t get me wrong: the poetry unit we just wrapped up used rap music with social messages about race and overcoming discrimination, hardship, or circumstance to be successful in a world that often tells young black children that they cannot be. But that doesn’t mean I have figured out exactly how to address these issues with my children in a way that will mean something to them.
I recognize this divide between me and my students daily—a bridge that often feels grueling to cross, even impossible because of the missing boards that our nation has failed to replace over the years. A few days ago, a teacher told me that some students say they don’t respect me because I’m white. My students have literally said the words, “I don’t respect him because he’s white. What’s he going to do to me?”
What am I to do with this? What are we to do with this?
I have students that are expressing that they don’t fear me because of an actual, deep-rooted and long running fear that white and black will never mix well. It breaks my heart to know that these preteens have already developed a mistrust of the other, because the other cannot possibly be similar or even the same.
A different story, but related: a few weeks ago, a controversy sparked over the rap category at the Grammys. Out of the four categories covering the rap genre, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won three. They also took the Best New Artist award.
In most categories, their debut album, The Heist, was competing against Kendrick Lamar’s debut album. There is a widely-held consensus (to which I subscribe to) that Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city was obviously the better album. There was even a debate over whether Macklemore should be eligible for the rap category, perhaps being a better fit for the pop category. And yet, he went home with four Grammys and Kendrick none.
Afterwards, the internet was abuzz with the racial undertones of one of the few white rappers in the music industry beating black artists, especially the one (Kendrick) who many consider to be the best thing to happen to hip-hop in years.
I got caught up in it for a minute. I love all of the artists nominated, but I couldn’t help but feel there was an injustice to Macklemore winning almost everything. My students wanted to talk about it and—once again—I froze. “Yeah, Kendrick deserved to win,” was all I could manage to say.
I kept thinking about the Grammys long after people stopped caring—after all, it’s just one show in a lineup of spectacles, and the Super Bowl replaced it in headlines only a week later. But you’re talking to a guy who watches the biggest football game of the year just because some of his favorite sitcoms come on afterward. What do you expect from me?
I have been listening to Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar for about the same amount of time. I started listening to them both around the same time that I decided to become a teacher. I don’t really consider them factors in that decision, but both of them have taught me about important issues that I have taken to heart in my few months of teaching.
Macklemore’s and Ryan Lewis’s album The Heist deals with crucial and relevant issues like alcohol addiction (“Neon Cathedrals”, “Starting Over”), American materialism literally causing the death of children (“Wing$”), and the consequences of our hookup culture (“Thin Line”). (I think “Same Love” is also an important conversation, but I don’t want you to tune me out because of your opinions about something irrelevant to this post.)
Kendrick Lamar’s album good kid, m.A.A.d city also deals with crucial and relevant issues, as the entire album follows a teenager through a day on the streets of Compton as he deals with peer pressure, gang violence, drug use, insecurity, alcohol addiction, and the death of loved ones. The whole album, to me, is telling kids just like the ones I teach that they can avoid the “fate” assigned to children living in poverty and make better lives for themselves.
Do you see what happened when this race debate raged over Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar? America missed a really good chance to notice that two artists are trying to be lights in a world of darkness. We wanted to talk black and white instead of positive and negative messages. We wanted to criticize Beyoncé’s sensual performance and Katy Perry’s “Devil-worshiping” act. We gave the highest honor to Daft Punk for an album that says what to influence our children?
Few people who were unaware of what Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar rap about became aware that they are saving kids’ lives with their positive words. Few people who reel against rap as a negative, moral-less genre realized that two young artists are going to make sure it never turns into that mostly untrue stereotype.
And I think it is this inability to talk about what really matters that has caused a few of my students to mistrust me. It is this attention to the wrong details that has made my kids think about their blackness more than their potential to change the world in positive ways. It is this ignorance that has affected my ability to cross a bridge with my students and show them that we are different but ultimately the same.
I visited a school last summer where a student told me that his teacher had taught him that “the only race is the human race”. I want my kids to celebrate their race and never ignore that it is an important part of who they are, but more than that, I want them to celebrate their humanity and how that connects them to everyone else, regardless of skin color.
I want them to not let their race be the thing that separates us.
I want to tell them that the only race that can pull us together is the race to spread a little light in the dark before our time is up.
We aren’t long for this world; we can waste our few years mistrusting each other and letting our differences hold us back, or we can stand next to one another and make this world just a little bit better than when we arrived. I don’t need to think about my color or your color to know that we can’t do it without each other.