“Ms. Connell! Ms. Connell!” Makani was doing all he could to get his teacher’s attention. “Is this the same like what Colin Kaepernick is doing?”
Ms. Connell, a middle-aged white teacher, was teaching her fifth grade public school students all about Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement in the fall of 2017. Her classroom, like the rest of the school, served predominately poor Black, Latino, Asian, and immigrant students.
Ms. Connell was visibly annoyed by Makani’s question.
“Rosa Parks … ” she answered while turning down her lips and furrowing her eyebrows, “ … didn’t disrespect our country.” Makani shrugged his shoulders, and the lesson continued on, with Ms. Connell turning to a discussion of the Ku Klux Klan, completely dismissing Makani’s astute observation about the parallels between historical and contemporary acts of resistance.
Teachers like Ms. Connell have recently been the targets of right-wing attacks for teaching a curriculum on America’s history of racial oppression, colloquially referred to as critical race theory. Many have come to these teachers’ defense, pointing out the necessity of including basic American history in school curricula. In these debates, people across the political spectrum tend to assume that white teachers—who make up 79 percent of the public school teaching force—are comfortably, and truthfully, teaching about America’s history and the present realities of racial oppression. However, my research reveals something different: a disturbing picture of what is actually happening.
I spent three years, from 2017–20, observing classrooms and talking with teachers and administrators in one of the largest metropolitan public school districts in our country. Like most of the other large U.S. public school districts, the schools within this one served primarily racially minority students. As an ethnographer, I set out with no specific research questions when I embarked on my project, other than an interest in following a cohort of students as they moved from fourth to sixth grade. Building on my earlier work that focused on high school students as they transitioned to college, I was interested in learning about the experiences of marginalized students early in their academic trajectory. (I should note that I have changed the names of all the students and teachers in this piece.)
What I discovered was rampant racism, cruelty, and indifference from teachers working inside public schools. Most of the teachers I observed were not, in fact, teaching about America’s racist history but instead were perpetuating everyday racial violence against their students inside the classroom. While the idea is not prominent in public discourse, I am not alone in finding teacher racism to be an everyday presence in the American classroom. One recent study, for example, found that teachers hold as much implicit and explicit pro-white racial bias as nonteachers do. Education scholar Michael Dumas has written about teacher racism and Black suffering inside the classroom, showing that these attitudes have concrete outcomes. And students themselves know this. Social media is replete with students talking about teacher racism, and they have often taken to the streets to protest it.
The curriculum I witnessed in action at the elementary and middle schools I studied was certainly multicultural, as it is in many urban school districts. Teachers lectured extensively about the civil rights movement, and students read books about Black families, such as The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, to learn about it. Teachers also received extensive anti-racist and cultural sensitivity trainings through the district and within the schools.
But what I observed in the classrooms didn’t reflect any of that. Just as Ms. Connell readily divorced past from present, another white teacher, Ms. Trevor, minimized racial oppression by suggesting it was similar to discrimination based on height. The effects of segregation, she explained in this way: “It’s like if we don’t allow short people to teach.” I sat quietly next to the students, waiting to see where she was going with this example, when she continued: “It’s like, if the principal asked me to go get a masters’ [degree, to be able to teach] that is fine, because that is something we can do, but if you’re [prohibited from teaching for being] short, you can’t do anything. You can’t discriminate against people based on things they can’t change.” As all of these 9- and 10-year-old Black and brown kids started to bring in examples of various types of discriminated-against categories, such as height, weight, and age, I sat there documenting how Ms. Trevor’s lesson about the civil rights movement and segregation ended up having absolutely nothing to do with the matter at hand: racism.
It has been well documented that children of color learn about race and racism early. The children in Ms. Connell’s and Ms. Trevor’s classes had their own takes on Colin Kaepernick’s protest method, the police killings of Black people, Donald Trump, and border politics. So, their teachers’ reluctance to teach truthfully about racial oppression and anti-Blackness in America only worked to diminish their own experiences of racism in this country. For example, Makani—whose observation regarding the connection between Colin Kaepernick and Rosa Parks was dismissed by Ms. Connell—later argued with his friends that perhaps they should “not buy Nike [since the company stood behind Colin Kaepernick] … because [Kaepernick] didn’t respect the anthem and Pledge of Allegiance.”
A conversation I had with fourth grade teachers during lunch revealed to me how teachers were interpreting their own race education, and how many teachers resented centering the histories and realities of Black and brown students. These feelings of resentment likely shaped how they approached lessons inside the classroom. Ms. Mack, a young white teacher who always had a smile on her face and blond hair tied in a loose ponytail, complained to me and her fourth grade colleagues one day over lunch, “I didn’t sleep at all last night. I was so mad. Dan [her boyfriend] came home and I was like, wide awake. He was like, What can I do, babe?” We all sat there intently listening. I thought she was going to tell us about an argument over housework or money, but I was wrong.
“Well,” Ms. Mack said, “[I told him he] could fire my [university] teacher.” Wondering what her professor did, I asked, “What happened?”
According to Ms. Mack, professor Gomez—a woman of color who was the instructor of the multicultural graduate seminar in the College of Education that Ms. Mack was taking at the local university—didn’t understand or care about white people.
Ms. Mack shared with us that one of her classmates was shot down in class after asking professor Gomez why there wasn’t a “white history month.” The professor explained that 11 months of the year are “white history months.” When Gomez underlined to her class of educators the importance of correctly pronouncing their students’ names, Ms. Mack interjected, explaining that her first name, Andrea, was always mispronounced so she understood what mispronunciation felt like. But professor Gomez highlighted that the experiences of students of color cannot always be equated with those of white people. “It just makes me so mad,” Ms. Mack shared, “that I can’t sleep at night.”
This resentment didn’t end here. Again and again, across 15 different classrooms and multiple special courses—such as computers, music, and physical education—and over three years, I witnessed the cruelty and indifference with which white teachers treated students of color. When one Black boy gave a gentle hug to his white fourth grade teacher before leaving for lunch, she spoke loudly, “Oh my god, don’t touch me [rubbing her fingers up and down the arm he had hugged]. You touch too much, Michael.” As Michael walked away, still within earshot, the teacher said to me, “He touches too much. Constantly hugging. Probably doesn’t get love at home. But it’s weird and scary sometimes.” Michael lowered his eyes and sprinted out of the classroom.
No child should be treated like Michael. But no amount of academic stardom spared Black and brown students from cruelty—not even Nazli, a Black girl in the fourth grade whom teachers and friends referred to as a “math genius.” Calculations came easy to Nazli, and her classmates envied her skills. However, that all changed after her baby sister’s sudden death. Nazli wasn’t interested in math anymore, and her grades dropped as she grieved her sister. While grading one of her assignments in class, her white fourth grade teacher said to me: “She really hasn’t been doing well. I get it. Life can be hard. But it’s grit we need. Not sure you’ve seen that TED Talk? No matter how much I teach, grit is key.”
This wasn’t the only time that I heard about “grit” in the schools. Teachers underlined how hard work and “grit” can get students “anywhere you want.” When Marianna’s father was deported, she was asked to summon grit to continue doing her schoolwork. While the classrooms had posters all over with Spanish language text to make sure “students feel seen” and sense that the school “values their culture,” as one teacher told me, teachers didn’t shy away from using words like illegals and said nothing about the cruelty of deportation and borders. In talking about the necessity of grit and willpower in school, and equating height discrimination to racial discrimination, teachers signaled to students that racial discrimination is a relic of the past.
It is undeniable that public school teachers in America are confronted daily with sincere issues. Abysmally low pay, classrooms with inadequate resources and poor student-teacher ratios, and hazardous working conditions are only some of the problems they face. But while the constraints teachers face inside classrooms are serious, they should not preclude us from addressing teacher racism. Yet it’s a taboo topic to many, even among those on the left. After learning about my research, I’ve had otherwise progressive white colleagues and friends alike quickly jump to justify teacher racism. One colleague told me, “Urban teachers are overworked … how else can they respond?” Another questioned the prevalence of the patterns I observed over the three years I was doing my research, assuming I had just stumbled upon some “bad teachers.”
But we see news stories about teacher racism often: the white teacher mocking Indigenous culture and practices. The teacher who used the N-word. And, of course, let’s not forget the group of teachers dressed as the “wall” for Halloween. The examples are endless, and we don’t have to go to the news to find more; simply ask the people of color in your lives about their school experiences.
While we should continue to advocate for better pay and workload policies for all teachers, and stand against right-wing attacks on teaching about America’s racist history, we should not minimize or dismiss teacher racism in the process—for it has everlasting effects on Black and brown students. If we truly care about educational inequalities, and want to fully understand the academic experiences of Black and brown students, we need to wrestle with the implications of a majority-white teaching force in our public schools that primarily serve students of color. As racial violence continues to plague America, we need to ask ourselves: Can we have an honest conversation about racism in this country if we leave out the white people who teach our children every day?