Note: Let these quotes be an opportunity and invitation to reflect on and discuss the workplace experiences happening in private schools among faculty and staff of color. For context, I work at a Catholic school in California. And these were some of the things I heard as a new faculty member.
1. "We have always done it this way."
Context & Commentary: Even before I stepped foot into a classroom, full-time, I was told this in my interviews, in the new faculty orientation, in the hallway, in the dining hall, in the parking lot, in the chapel, and even in the faculty locker room. Damn, can a brother use the bathroom in peace? In many schools, public, private, independent, comments like this are unwritten, unspoken code. This statement contributes to a larger code of silence when joining schools, especially established private schools. It’s like “no snitching,” just more corporate and institutional. In other words, when I started asking questions about the school, the curriculum, and the culture, I had been quickly met with this one statement as an attempt to silence me or to keep in my place. Me, silent? Me, out of place? To the chagrin of some, I had once walked the hallways of private school as that token black kid, so this wasn’t my first rodeo, so to speak. Now as an adult and teacher, I have had to observe, make allies, and ask the same questions in different ways to different people. I had to dust off my code-switching skills specifically designated for private schools.
Extended Commentary: I get it. People have certain ways of doing things, and or they have a strong affinity or connection to a space, a community, a mission. We are all creatures of habit and products of our environment. Whether we are conforming, questioning, deviating, or abolishing, we have to come face to face with the past and the present norms and narratives. In these private or independent schools, white alumni relations are strong, so it is no surprise that most of the employees, past and present, are proud graduates. On the black hand, the alumni of color got in and got out and not without their fair share of scratches, scabs, and scars. And do not simply write us off as snowflakes when you have never faced the heat of white rage, the icy glares of white entitlement, or the unpredictability of white emotional instability.
2. "You must be a basketball coach, right!?"
Context & Commentary: When you’re black, athletic-looking, black, black, and black, people feel that you look best on the court or the field, just not in a classroom with their kids, okay. And yes, I do strongly believe in seeing and supporting students outside of class. I try to recognize, respect, and celebrate the gifts they bring in and outside of the classroom. And that is not an indictment on anyone who doesn’t. I just love seeing students in their element, in their flow, and in their happiness. In education, we call it teaching the whole person or the whole child. Anyway, since I was assumed to be an athlete, instead of a scholar, in high school, I never took offense to the comment as an adult. I just laugh in my head and then proceed to ask probing questions in order to see white people eat crow and eventually fly the coup in red-face embarrassment. It is one of my daily guilty pleasures. The trick is to do it respectfully, so when said person sees me again, we can re-hash the moment as an inside joke—that let’s them know that I am fairly cerebral, agile, and fit enough to run circles around them on the field and in the boardroom.
3. “Kitchen’s that way!”
Context & Commentary: Small story. I will give the longer story later; just stay tuned. While I may not agree with some school events and fundraisers, I still enjoy going, especially when students personally invite me. During a fashion show event (I know, so many questions), I came to chaperone students to make sure they were safe and respectful to the parent volunteers. I arrived early that morning as I was instructed, and my first stop was my classroom, to put my things down. As soon as I went to put my key into the door to unlock my classroom, the place I had taught for the past few months, the place that white people authorize me to be, a wrinkly, pale white hand with freshly-painted red nails grabbed my right hand. Confused and a bit startled, I looked up to find a mother, one of the parent volunteers, giving me that you’re in deep trouble, buddy look. Out of her mouth, came this very statement: “Kitchen’s that way.” At that moment, I was glad that my hood instincts and reflexes didn’t kick in; I grew up slap-boxing and playing “protect ya chest” as a kid in a house of boys. If I had moved a single pinky to thwart that small hand, I would have been in handcuffs; no exaggeration. And here is the kicker, after introducing myself, calmly and respectfully, the parent realized that I was her daughter’s English teacher. I mean, I was her daughter’s only black teacher, so I wonder what gave it away in her head? The lesson here is try to remain calm and confident and remember that students are a teacher’s most important advocates, champions, and spokespersons. When a teacher is doing their job very well or very poorly, parents will hear about it through their young person.
4. “Just keep ya head down and work hard. Don’t ruffle any feathers.”
Context & Commentary: Let’s be honest, my mere presence ruffles feathers. Just the sound of my voice ruffles feathers. And just the sight of my facial expressions during some faculty meetings ruffles feathers. Since my first few weeks in private school as a student, I have had to learn from my parents how to keep my head high, work hard, and serve with integrity. As my momma and dad would say: “Don’t let these White folks change you. Don’t let these White folks tell you who you are. Boy, you better act like you got some sense and some home training.” Again, these types of statements about being quiet and blindly obedient contribute to cultural and institutional codes of silence and also perpetuate the norm—that is, white is right. When I am told this, I hear: “keep ya head down if you want to stick around.” If I were to keep my head down low enough and long enough, then I would be easing myself into the "sunken place" or into a state of uncertainty, resignation, and sycophancy.
5. “Our curriculum is mad white!”
Context & Commentary: As a teacher of color knowingly walking into a predominantly white school, I have had and continue to have daily talks in the mirror not because white people are inherently evil, or that every white person wants to see my downfall. That’s my point; it’s not always about white people or centering whiteness. It is more so about grounding myself, loving myself, and preparing myself to be masterfully tactful, genuine, critical, and invitational in the name of justice, service, and care for our young people. Even the white kids think the curriculum is stale, boring, and homogenous. And that is not to say that White people are stale, boring, and homogenous. Some of you want me to say that, so I can be dismissed and cancelled. If anything, my students all enjoy story-telling from different students, authors, and community members, hence I do not mind if faculty and staff stop by my classes and if students bring a friend to class, as long as that guest engages. We cannot forget that education is social and hopefully community-oriented. And if this wasn’t clear, this statement is frequently made by people who look like me or people who are placed in the margins like me. "From the other side of the tracks," as my former white teachers and current white colleagues would say. The lesson here is that we, young, old, veteran or new teachers, should not be afraid or threatened by hearing different voices, from different cultures, from different times and having those voices be centered and not integrated simply as supplements, side-roles, or secondary pieces to the classic curriculum, dominant narratives, or the canon.
6. “Man, wow, times sure have changed. I didn’t expect you to be a teacher here. I mean you’re young and, you know, different from most people here.”
Context & Commentary: Yes, times have changed. I can read. I can vote. I can be in these schools; of course, we can't have too many of us black and brown folks teaching and leading in these elite private schools, according to the unwritten and unspoken code. If I am exaggerating, count how many black and brown administrators and teachers are in your school, relative to their white counterparts. And then ask yourself how much decision-making power do they really have? So yes, times have changed; maybe not the mindsets. And I expected you to think this and say it aloud, proudly, especially to me in my face, probably because I am seen as non-threatening and approachable. And most important of all, don’t forget, we are black, we are excellent, and we are a part of the school community, like it or not!
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