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The most racist thing teachers do

 I just read “The Most Racist Thing That Ever Happened to Me” in The Atlantic. In the article, Touré shares stories of discrimination by prominent African Americans that shaped their lives.

I was struck by the following quotation by Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander:

The most racist thing that every happened to me would likely be a continual underestimation of my intellectual ability and capacity, and the real insidious aspect of that kind of racism is that we don’t know half the time when people are underestimating us. We don’t know half the time when we’re being cut out of something because someone is unable to see us at full capacity.

White teachers do this all the time. Perhaps the worst way that we do it is by giving disingenuous, over-the-top praise to students of color for above-average performance.

In our attempt to be encouraging, we see a student of color who does well in school, and instead of telling them the truth about their specific strengths and weaknesses, instead of pushing them, too many of us treat the student as if they’re infallible.

In our attempt to deal with white guilt, we heighten the pitch in our voice, we say things like “amazing,” our smiles get wide and toothy.

In our attempt not to be racist, we’re racist, and we’re creating for our students a very scary possibility.

If our students believe us, there is a good chance they’ll progress through school getting good grades with mediocre skills.

Then, when a teacher challenges the student, or says his or her skills need improvement, it’s easy to give up.

I’m trying to combat this dynamic in my English class this year. Some students, familiar with success, are frustrated because their essay grades haven’t increased quickly enough. My job is to keep them engaged while still telling them the truth. 

Please share your brilliant insights!