‘White Privilege Permeates Education’: Q&A With Anti-Racist White Educator

Terry JessTerry Jess is a social studies teacher at Bellevue High School in Washington State. He’s also an equity leader within his school and district, and a founder and board member of Educators for Justice, a non-profit organization that works with teachers and education support professionals to create safe and supportive educational experiences for all students. He considers himself an anti-racist white educator, who’s determined to spread the message of social justice, equity, and racial justice in white spaces. 

How does white privilege manifest in public education today?

Terry Jess: White privilege permeates education. The legacy and systems that have been put in place over the last 100 years continues into the modern day: the way we train teachers, how we interact with students, the factory mindset of compliance and obedience—all are centered in whiteness. As students of color try to navigate this system, their voices aren’t heard because they’re being seen as contrary to education rather than being seen as a strength of their diversity.

Are more of your colleagues seeing this “legacy” and wanting to get involved to change it?

TJ: More of my colleagues are becoming aware the role race continues to play in students’ lives. A lot of that is due to the courage of students speaking up about the experiences they have in our schools and in our classrooms. For a lot of people that’s changed them. In the past eight to ten years, people have come to grips that we’re not a color blind society and being color blind as an educator causes further harm and trauma to our students of colors and families of color.

How do we get to a point where people can accept that everyone is racist because we live in a racialized society?

TJ: The first step is to get rid of this idea of the false binary. Since the civil rights movement, people were taught—then believed and assumed—that if you’re racist, you’re bad. When somebody says “All (or) white lives matter,” and an African American person responds with, “that’s because you’re a racist.” The person experiences such discomfort because they’re seeing it as either-or. “Either I’m a good, non-racist person or I’m a bad, racist person, and you just put me in the bad racist box.” We need to understand that racism is a spectrum of actions and beliefs. All of us fall on that spectrum at different points in our life. It’s not about who is more or less racist. It’s understanding we are all impacted by a racialized society. We have been conditioned to believe and behave in certain ways. It’s not your fault you grew up in the system, but it is your responsibility to challenge that system and overcome that implicit bias yourself.

You call yourself an anti-racist white educator. What’s the difference between “not a racist” and “anti-racist?”

TJ: The “not racist” is coming from a binary perspective: “I’m not going to use the n-word.” If you’re more in tune with social justice, then it’s “I’m not going to use the word ‘illegal.’ I’m going to wear a black lives matters T-shirt. I’m going to make sure I’m not perceived as doing something outlandishly racist.” Even if you do all this, you can still perpetuate stereotypes and systems of oppression. How do you conduct your classroom and enforce late work and homework policies? Is your content supporting systems of white oppression and supremacy? Anti-racism is to engage in owning the privilege that you have, dismantling it when you see it, and where you’re exposed to it. An anti-racist is someone who puts some skin in the game. Are you willing, for example, to lose your job in order to achieve justice for everybody?

While some educators may care about equity and justice, they’re overwhelmed with teaching and other responsibilities. How do you manage?

TJ: That’s a very real thing: being asked to do too much. I’ve had to fight for our district and school to value this work and start having some compensation for it. It doesn’t make you have less things to do, but at least it’s starting to feel valued. Get the administration and parents invested so you’re not the only one to bear the burden. I empathize with educators who say they “don’t have the space to do this work,” but as an educator, I don’t accept it either. This work needs to be done. We’re in the next wave of the civil rights movement. We have a chance to rectify centuries of systemic oppression in education. Anyone who believes in this work needs to put in the effort.

Are white educators some of the best allies in this fight?

TJ: I don’t know if they’re the best allies. I certainly think they’re a necessary ally because they make up over 80 percent of the teaching population. I’ve gotten audiences with people that staff of color have been trying to do for a while, a byproduct of privilege and oppression: people are willing to listen to white educators more. So how can you amplify the stories of people of color? If we can get involved and overwhelmingly say “this needs to change,” then that would create a critical mass—and we can change our system.

“The Profound Impact One Teacher, In One Moment, Can Have on the Life of a Child is Beyond Measure”

by Michael Simanga, PhD – activist, artist, author, and lecturer

From infancy to what was then Jr. High school, I grew up in an all-black neighborhood on Detroit’s west side. I went to an elementary school named after a notorious U.S. Calvary general, George Armstrong Custer. Inside those walls were teachers we revered. They had college degrees and some of them told us tales of their travel to other countries. They seemed more sophisticated and worldly than the factory laborers and domestic workers or telephone operators and other working class folk whose children we went to school with. They had large vocabularies and used language in a way that was uncommon but not at all haughty.

Most of them lived in our community and we’d see them in the store or library or church. But more than any other reason, we revered them because it was clear they loved us and wanted the best for us. Not one time can I recall one of those teachers saying something to us that punched a hole in our humanity or demeaned us while damning us to some lower place in society. They lifted us up and demanded we rise to a high standard of learning and personhood.

Music was always calling me. My father introduced us to Jazz, my mother took us to see the free performances of the symphony in the park, and Motown was everywhere. I started playing trumpet in the 3rd grade and was exceptional at it. My teacher was a very kind and brilliant Polish man who’d endured the horror of Nazism in World War II.

In 7th grade my family bought a house in Northwest Detroit, a predominantly white neighborhood where black families were just beginning to beginning to move. I told my music teacher we were leaving and he wrote a letter to the music teacher at the new school extolling my musical abilities and advanced technique on the trumpet.

Michael Simanga, PhD

Michael Simanga, PhD

The only black student and the new student, my apprehension was pretty high as I entered class. It was mitigated by the piece of paper in my pocket that would tell this teacher, this white male teacher that I should be in an advanced music class. I extended the letter and told him my teacher sent it for him. He took the envelope from my hand, ripped it in half without opening it, and dropped it in the trash while saying, “You have to start in a ‘beginners’ class.”  He turned back to the white students and left me standing in front of the class full of rage. That day after school I placed my trumpet in the closet and never played music again.

The profound impact one teacher, in one moment, can have on the life of a child is beyond measure. As I was reading the interview with Terry Jess, it reminded me of the power and importance of teachers who consciously confront and wrestle with narratives and practices that clothe black children and girl children, gay children and others in layers of inferiority.

In an endless war with thousands of battles the white teacher who challenges societal, systemic and personal racism has made a decision to live outside the borders of the privilege of being white while still having those privileges bestowed upon them. This is a dilemma that comes through in the Q&A with Terry Jess, which gives us a glimpse of the endless war with thousands of big and small battles for a just society.  It requires us as teachers to ask, “what am I here to learn from my students, their community and history?”

The anti-racist work that Jess describes is essential because racism that black people experience and fight in every aspect of life has to be confronted by white people in order for real alliances for social justice to exist. It is tiresome and it will always be painful.

Challenging racism and sexism requires significant change in our beliefs and behavior. It is an unyielding demand for change that begins in our conception of two interrelated ideas. First, human rights. Who is worthy of them and who gets to decide? How is power used to enforce those decisions and who benefits? Second, civil rights. Who gets to be a citizen of the U.S.? Who decides, based on what? How is power used to enforced the decision and who benefits?

Centering social justice practice on those two questions in our teaching and work against racism, allows us to present a common framework to understand the issues and also for addressing the injustice. Ultimately, the civil rights movement was successful because it exposed the denial of civil rights to the black citizens of the U.S. as unconstitutional and unsustainable. It challenged the core belief held by a majority of white Americans that black people were not deserving of civil rights even though they were citizens.

Centering social justice work on the issues of human rights and civil rights also gives us a set of common ideas to aspire to collectively. It makes it easier elevate the discussion of racism from the practice of some individuals to an understanding of it as a major form of violence in the lives of those who are its target. Racism is a violation of our humanity and human rights. It is a violation of our citizenship and our civil rights. This contextualization creates a framework to teach each other as educators and our students.

As an activist teacher, Terry Jess tackles these issues daily within the walls of the school and in the community. His practice encourages others to do so even if it is not always apparent. The consciousness to be an anti-racist social justice advocate is empowering to others even if that power has not been accessed yet. But there is also no one way or perfect way to make a contribution to the transformation of our education practice. There are endless battles to fight and there is no one way to fight them.

As teachers, we have to take care that what we teach validates the humanity of our students and that our words and practice affirm our students’ right to play their own music.

Racial Justice Resources

Books NEA leaders are reading: 

  • Between the World and Me; Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The New Jim Crow; Michelle Alexander
  • Brown is the New White; Steve Phillips
  • Just Mercy; Bryan Stevenson
  • Waking Up White; Debby Irving

Online Resources

NEA EdJustice. Join NEAEdJustice, your source for social and racial justice activism—see and hear from fellow educator activists, collect resources and have a chance to share your activism learning experiences. Visit NEAEdJustice.org.

Structural Racialization by the Kirwan Institute. Racial inequity can persist without racist intent. The word “racism” is commonly understood to refer to instances in which one individual intentionally or unintentionally targets others for negative treatment because of their skin color or other group-based physical characteristics. Research conducted by the Kirwan Institute. Read Position Paper here: kirwaninstitute.osu.edu

Race Matters: How to talk about Race by The Annie Casey Foundation. Conversations about race are never easy. Here are a few tips on how to keep the conversation productive. This is part of a comprehensive Race Matters toolkit. Visit: aecf.org/resources/racematters

For more resources click Racial Justice in Education Pre-reading/Resource Materials.