Diary of a Targeted Teacher
The Illegal Work of Racial Healing
Helping students talk honestly about race in a political culture that doesn’t want them to
Willie Randall | March 17, 2022
Image credits: Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress, Richard Vidutis / Library of Congress
I teach race.
Let me be clearer: I teach race at a private, elite, mostly white high school in one of the 44 states where legislatures have outlawed or attempted to outlaw teaching critical race theory.
I’m also white. And male.
Such a statement—a white man teaching race at a private high school—is difficult for many to imagine or understand. For others, such education is analogous to heresy or treason. Teaching race is now a form of pedagogical criminality. Indoctrination is expected and assumed. Never in my long career has the classroom become so politicized and confused, teachers so maligned and distrusted as the view of education being a vehicle for transformation dims. Americans used to believe the classroom was the path to success; now, it feels like a battleground.
What’s it like to teach race in such a climate?
Honestly, it’s quite beautiful. I want white parents, politicians and school boards to peek in and see: there’s nothing to fear. Your white child isn’t being guilt-tripped or shamed. In fact, he’s being offered something life-saving and transformative; she’s processing lessons she’s often most grateful to receive: knowledge and freedom and connection. Your children are starving for some sort of real experience of conversation, discussion and honesty, not just scraps from the Tik Tok table. Teenagers today are exhausted, anxious, begging for some vision of a more cohesive nation. They watched George Floyd take his last breath, saw BLM explode across the nation, and yet have never witnessed a group of white, Black and brown adults sit down with intentionality and care to discuss the deepest source of our nation’s wounding. No one has modeled the very thing that most needs modeling.
“Have you ever seen your parents or other adults sit down in loving and intentional ways to talk about race?” I ask.
No, they say. Never.
So, each day, they attempt to do the impossible work, the heavy lifting. Yes, it often is impossible and grinding; there are days we are leveraging against generations and decades of conditioning, segregation and misperception. We made mistakes. Correction: I make mistakes. This work is complex, god-awful frustrating, drop-to-my-knees rewarding and humbling. Black students have walked out in anger at the ignorance of their white classmates. Other white students, as if hearing for the first time, have wept in grief. I have wanted to do both.
Teaching race is now a form of pedagogical criminality. Indoctrination is expected and assumed.
Yet, ultimately, this is a love story. Teaching race is an attempt at integration—the heart, the mind and conditioned ways of thinking, our past and all its complexities, our yearnings for community and truth—and this difficult challenge is always grounded in acts of love. Teaching like this may feel like the tightest of tight-ropes, but I believe there is a way to teach so that understanding, not division and hostility, is the fruit of education. Teaching race calls for a deeper definition of love: a process built not of saccharine niceties, but of something tangible and real, relationships forged, arrogance and unknowing replaced with humility and a desire to repair, not just argue. Many of my students come from powerful families; they will inherit this power. If not them, then who?
“My young daughter’s name is Sheniqua. And she is brilliant,” one guest speaker—a former gang leader—tells the class. “When you’re the boss and owner of the business, and her resume comes across your desk in the future, I need you to not throw it away just because she has a Black-sounding name.”
To teach race, I first teach trust, honesty, and vulnerability. Only then can a classroom become a container of honest discourse, so that students of color may feel free to tell about their lives and experiences without fear of judgment, white-splaining or no-it-can’t-really-be-that-bad. Correspondingly, we offer white students the skills to actively listen, while putting aside their reactive judgment, conditioning and need to argue or be heard. Just listen. Let him explain why calling the cops often makes things worse. Let her teach you what being Muslim in her grade can feel like.
For white students, who say they are often terrified of being called out or canceled as racist, we must work to establish trust so they can make mistakes and be offered correction, kindness and grace. They need to tell their stories too. They need freedom, too. And by they, I really mean we.
“I was a child, rummaging through my grandfather’s closet. I loved him. Adored him,” one white student said. “Then I saw it. He had a Klan robe hanging up in the back of his closet.”
To teach race is to help create a path forward for that white student, to help him unburden himself from a history that is not his. Here’s what I don’t teach: guilt. Shame. Blame. In my experience, such emotions can lead to dead-ends, especially in the 16-year-old mind. I don’t berate, intimidate, coerce. I tell my students I love them, reminding them quite frequently that of all the people in the room, I am the one with the most baggage.
Teaching race calls for a deeper definition of love: a process built not of saccharine niceties, but of something tangible and real, relationships forged, arrogance and unknowing replaced with humility and a desire to repair, not just argue.
“I have made far more mistakes than any of you combined. There was a time my mind and heart were so clouded and confused,” I say. “Yes, it hurts. It hurts others, and it hurts me. But can I learn from my mistakes? Can I keep my heart open? Can I learn from what this person is telling me? Or do I shut down?”
For students of color, this can be quite perilous, the risking of honesty. Will they hear me? Often, no. But sometimes, yes. For them, this classroom becomes the only institutionalized place where there are attempts at honesty—or a site for some conversation in which the bullshit is named and seen. That may not be much, but in our school, where unknowing whiteness is so normalized, such a tenacious and bone-deep gravity holds down the status quo like unmovable tent stakes. In this setting, having a place to voice, rage, express, mourn, shut down or blow up can make all the difference. Somebody, please see us, these students say. Hear us. Listen to us. Give us a place where we can stop pretending. Mississippi goddamn, Nina Simone sang. This school, goddamn.
“We have such low expectations of white people,” one friend said to me.
These students never seem to ask for much. Just someone to be honest with them.
To teach race, I teach tenderness. Each student walks into class with a body conditioned, scarred and alive with fear, joy, dreams, heartache, stress, exhaustion, daydreams and trauma. Black kids, brown kids, white kids, all kids.
“No matter what we look like, if we were born and raised in America, white-body supremacy and our adaptations to it are in our blood. Our very bodies house the unhealed dissonance and trauma of our ancestors,” Resmaa Menakem writes in My Grandmother’s Hands.
These students? We adults don’t realize the immeasurable burden they carry at 17. Headlines tell them their democracy is dying, the planet is dying, our politics are dying. High school was suckerpunched by a pandemic; now, heads barely above water, they worry about the world being plunged into World War III.
To teach race, we must descend from the head into the heart—where relationships, always the turning point, occur. Wisdom will remain elusive until our students are able to exhale; our educational pedagogies must include the intangible realm of 20 bodies breathing in the same room and all the possibilities, difficulties, tensions that such a dynamic can mean. You can hide from this when your teaching looks only like lecturing and memorization. However, when you begin to touch a very deep thing within us, bodies can erupt.
I let their bodies breathe. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
I teach race so that their bodies can continue to breathe. These are our stories.
Willie Randall is the pseudonym for an American educator who’s taught race and racial theory at multiple schools in multiple states. Student names have been changed or their experiences compiled together.
Diary of a Targeted Teacher is a recurring column featuring the experiences and reflections of an educator seeking to teach the truth about race in America in the midst of a campaign to suppress all such classroom discussions.