Zachary Wright is the 12th-grade world literature and AP Literature teacher at Mastery Charter School Shoemaker Campus where he has been for the last eight years. Over his more than 10 years in Philadelphia classrooms, he was named Philadelphia’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2013 and has participated in the fight for equal education funding. Zach wrote this piece shortly after the April 12th incident at a Philly Starbucks; it was originally published at Education Post.
Last week, two Black men were arrested for sitting in a Starbucks here in Philadelphia. They were waiting for a friend who arrived shortly after his friends had been handcuffed. The men were supposedly “causing a disturbance” and “refused to buy anything.”
It is easy for supposedly non-racist White people like myself to read stories like this and feel disgusted by such blatantly racist behavior. But before we get too proud of our post-racial selves, I’d like to challenge us to truly investigate our own implicit racial biases.
Would we have called the cops on the Black men in Starbucks? Probably not.
Does that mean we are free of bias and racism? Absolutely not.
A few years ago, I sat with my colleagues for the first of many cultural context professional development sessions. I was aggressively disengaged and reflexively defensive. I felt I was being told how, as a White man, I was automatically biased, and probably even racist.
I felt I was being told that my life had been so privileged, my life’s road so smoothly paved, that any accomplishments I had made were not due to my own hard work, but due to the head start I had supposedly enjoyed due to my White skin.
I felt that despite much of my family arriving in America in the early 20th century, I was being implicated in centuries of American slavery. I felt that after years of service to a school filled with students who did not look like me, I was now being told that my very existence was an indictment against the students I had just finished teaching.
By the next cultural context session, I had reached my limit. I was not a racist person. I was a progressive liberal who always voted Democrat and never said the “N word.” Why did I need to sit through these sessions, especially when I had so much other work to do? If we wanted to stop race being a factor in our society, why did we keep insisting on talking about it? In short, I felt what most White people feel when they have to talk about their place in America’s racial narrative.
As our session began, we sat in a circle while the facilitator passed around a simple conduct referral, a statement written by a teacher describing the actions of a student that had warranted disciplinary action.
The teacher claimed to have felt fearful due to the threatening approach of the student who “talked back” and “challenged” their “authority.” The student’s action were described as “aggressive behavior,” as he “hulkingly stood up from his seat.” The student was 12 years old.
This teacher likely would never refer to him or herself as a racist, yet to refer to a 12-year-old child as “hulking, aggressive, and threatening” speaks to the internalization of equating Black bodies with violence, much the same way our society uses “thug” and “criminal” to denote an aggressive, terrifying Black male. I saw that in no way would a teacher write this referral for my two White sons. And that’s when it clicked.
What I now know is that these emotions were emblematic of how much work I needed to do as a White educator to to understand my own racial identity, and how I interact with my students of color.
As a White man in America, I may not be a racist, but I am racist. I may not be a bigot, but I am biased. I may love and honor and serve my students of color, but I will never be able to fully comprehend their experiences, nor they mine. I may fight for my students and work for the access to high-quality education that is their birthright, but I am also complicit in the perpetuation of systems of racial oppression by enjoying and benefiting from the systems that give me and my two sons a head start in the race for wealth and prosperity.
To me, being a teacher means being on the front lines of the fight for social justice. But the work cannot simply be external. To be the best teacher I can be, to be the best advocate and ally I can be, I need to first do my own work and face the racism within.
In the wake of the news that Starbucks is closing thousands of stores to participate in racial education training, it is perhaps worth noting that such training, while useful and a step in the right direction, also falls prey to another common misconception: The tearing down of implicit racial bias is not a one-off exercise, but rather something to be worked on day after day.
The question is not what is Starbucks doing to learn from this incident, but what about the rest of us? Are we ready to do the work necessary to dismantle our deeply entrenched biases?