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A Letter to White Teachers of My Black Children

Dear White Teachers of My Black Children:

I am a Black mom.

I know it’s sometimes hard to decide whether to say Black or African-American. I used to identify as African-American because I loved hearing the reference to my ancestral homeland in my description of myself. But then to say African-American reduces the majestic continent of Africa down to the status of a country. Africa is not a country, and so I now identify as a Black woman. I identify here specifically as a Black mom because I have two children who are now in high school. Raising them to be inquisitive, informed adults with a strong sense of identity and agency is an essential part of my life.

I am also an educator, so I understand the deep importance of guiding and shaping all of our children. I’m also intimately aware of all the cultural complexity surrounding our work. I know, too, that we have a long way to go before we’re even close to treating all of our students equitably. This is why I’m writing to you today. I have much to say about what I wish you had been able to do for my children when they were in your elementary and middle school classrooms, and what I hope you will do for all children of color entering your classrooms.

Because I’m an educator, I know well what you — or at least the vast majority of you — learned in your pre-K-12 education and in your teacher-prep program. I also know what you didn’t learn. As you grew up, you were most likely taught in school and at home that Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator, that it was acceptable, right even, to refer to the people of the global majority as minorities, and that communities with higher percentages of Black families are in need of saving.

As a teacher, you most likely did not receive ongoing professional development about race and education in America. You’re likely to have a vague understanding about issues of diversity and equity and inclusion with an insufficient understanding of culturally responsive teaching and learning. On the other hand, you most likely received extensive training on the implementation of state and national education standards, new curricular initiatives, and how to improve standardized test scores. In recent years, you might have received professional development about social-emotional learning, but you’ll have done so without exploring the critical sociopolitical considerations that are essential to strengthening your ability to teach well across race, class, and gender.

In high school, college, and your teacher-prep program, you no doubt were taught something about race in America, but it’s highly unlikely that you learned the truth about the Black experience. It’s likely, for instance, that you’ve been taught little to nothing about the pre-enslavement contributions of Black people to the world, the horrors and impact of centuries of enslavement, post “Emancipation” Jim Crow laws and practices, and the many ongoing racially-based systemic injustices such as mass incarceration, housing discrimination, wealth disparities, and lack of equal access to quality education, health care, and more.

I didn’t learn about these things in school either, but thankfully, my parents made sure I learned about these important aspects of American life and history that are absent from the textbooks and teacher’s guides.

Because it’s unlikely that you learned about all of these things in school or in your home, it’s even more unlikely that you teach about these matters now. I know that those of you who taught my children when they were younger didn’t necessarily teach them about these issues. But here’s the thing: they truly wanted to hear it from you, too. We have talked extensively about these matters at home, but my children’s school experiences would have been far more valuable if you would have introduced them to the lives and works of Ellen and William Craft, Katherine Johnson, Lewis Hayden, Ida B. Wells, and Denmark Vesey. They wanted to hear you tell them the truth about The Black Panther Party, the reasons behind the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., the painful facts about Columbus’s experiences in the Americas, and the meaning of Juneteenth. And they didn’t want to just hear a few tidbits about these essential and complex aspects of American life in February just because it was Black History Month.

What my children needed from you in school — what all students of color need from you in school — is a much deeper understanding of racial history and ongoing racial matters. If you are to teach them well — teach them as I know you want to teach them — you need deeper cultural knowledge and skills. If, for instance, you teach a social studies unit on immigration and you have your students present about the countries of their ancestors, Black children need you to think more deeply about how this assignment feels for them. One of the many things Black Americans lost as a result of the nation’s involvement in enslavement is the knowledge of which African countries our ancestors came from. Although we now have some helpful information from Ancestry DNA, I, for instance, can’t say for sure whether my African ancestors were Nigerian, Senegalese, Ghanaian, Congolese, Beninese, Togolese, Cameroonian, Malian, or from the Ivory Coast. And because we didn’t have access to this information when my children were in elementary school, they ended up focusing only on their European heritage because our White ancestors are a lot easier to trace.

This can also be a tough and painful assignment for other students of color as well — especially for First Nations people whose ancestral stories are overlooked by misrepresented in the textbook versions of American history.

My guess is that you didn’t think about all this in planning the unit. Going forward, I hope you will.

Because you were entrusted to partner with me in the education of my children, I wanted you to be curious about them with the same intensity with which you’d have them stand to pledge allegiance to the flag. I wanted you to wonder how they felt when they saw Mount Rushmore or the face of Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill they handed you with their field trip permission slip. I wanted you to wonder how they felt in your class after hearing about yet another unarmed Black life erased from this world by police brutality — all because the melanin we see as so beautiful looks like danger to others. Do you know how it felt for my children when you didn’t say anything about racial injustices at the time of their occurrences? Do you know how it feels for your Black students today?

If your school is anything like the schools where I taught, you’ll be expected to interact with your students’ families at open houses, conferences, and literacy or math nights. On those nights, families are expected to come to school and are often judged harshly if they don’t. I want you to think about this, think about why you are judging them harshly and what assumptions you are making. During parent-teacher conferences, you will most likely not have a lot of time, so you’ll probably default to talking at families about their children instead of engaging in dialogues with families as partners. I know it’s hard. I’ve been there, too. But I’m asking you now, when it’s time for conferences, when families show up to engage in conversation with you about the most precious people in their lives, please don’t see your contract as a limitation. Use these moments as opportunities to connect, learn, and share.

As you well know, the dominant culture in the United States tries to suppress conversations on race. There are numerous reasons for this, most of them related to the maintenance of the power status quo. I’m asking you to help break this damaging practice — especially among adults in your school. There are certain conversations that take place in teachers’ lounges about students and their families that I find both infuriating and heartbreaking. Too often, teachers are silent in the face of racist, prejudicial, biased, or stereotypical comments. I know it’s uncomfortable to confront a colleague. I want you to consider, however, how uncomfortable it makes my family and all other families of color to know that there are people who we’ve entrusted with the care and teaching of our children who think of them as less than — less important, less worthy of our love and attention. When that moment arises next time — and it will arise — I want you to think of how uncomfortable the students are in that teacher’s classroom, and I want you to speak up on their behalf. If a colleague says something derogatory about a child and/or that child’s family, you must speak up. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

My children are in high school now and have had the privilege of participating in advanced placement and honors courses in school. They have scored at proficient and advanced levels on standardized tests. They are amazing young people, and they have worked hard. But none of these accomplishments make them exceptional or in any way better than their schoolmates who have not had these same opportunities. It also doesn’t make my husband and me exceptional or any better than the families of their schoolmates. Please consider the access and opportunities that are available to all students in your schools. Our job, if we are doing it right, is to celebrate every child where they are and move them forward with skill, love, courage, and grace. In a nation that claims to believe in educating all children to become engaged citizens, this practice of failing so many students of color, or tracking them based on implicit bias, or pushing them out of schools, or driving them into the criminal justice system, or ignoring them in hopes they’ll simply drop out — this adult behavior in schools perpetuates inequitable systems.

Finally, I know it’s tempting to think that because you teach in a school with a high percentage of Black students, racism isn’t an issue for you. Please know that proximity doesn’t equal awareness. That would be like a male teacher saying, “I can’t be sexist because I have female students.” Know, too, that racial colorblindness isn’t really a thing. While it’s right to treat children equitably, it’s also important to understand how race shapes lives in a racist system.

We all breathe in the smog of oppression, and the only way to expel it is to read, listen, reflect, ask questions and become better as a result of what we learn. I’m here asking you as educators to help lead the way. By improving equity in schools, by becoming truly inclusive learning communities with an effective anti-racist curriculum, we improve both individual lives and equity and justice in society. I’m here for you and I’m rooting for you. As Lilla Watson said, “… your liberation is bound up with mine.”

With love, respect, and hope,

Afrika Afeni Mills

A Black Educator Mom