Why the Handshakes Matter: The Violence of Whiteness in the Classroom

There are a couple videos circulating right now of teachers greetings their students as they come in the door. One is of a Black male teacher, Barry White, in Charlotte, North Carolina greeting his nearly exclusively Black students. The other is of a white female teacher, Jerusha Willenborg in Wichita, Kansas doing the same with her class of nearly exclusively Black students.  One of these is much more positive than the other! One is the expression of a shared experience and a shared culture. One is not. One is, probably, a well-intentioned attempt at building relationships that ends up doing what so many other white teachers do, perpetuate whiteness through appropriation and only serves to further entrench white supremacy in our schools. .

So let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first. Nobody. Let me say that again, NOBODY is mad that Ms. Willenborg is trying to build with her students. That is, undoubtedly, a good thing. But that is not all that is going on here. Willenborg is doing more than greeting her students, she is sending messages—not just to her students, but now all of us– about race, whether she likes it or not.

First, the handshakes she is doing come from Black urban culture. That is not to say she can’t do them, but it is to say that doing them comes with a certain responsibility: unlearn whiteness. I can’t say this enough, those of us perceived as white need to be doing a massive amount of self-reflection and work around unlearning the ways we internalize and manifest whiteness therefore perpetuating white supremacy. Willenborg probably isn’t thinking about that though. barrywhitejr_1485864722832_7979681_ver1-0She just wants to make the kids feel good so she can teach them, I get that. Here is the thing though: Those smiles are coming with a message that all anybody has to do be like me, i.e. to relate to Blackness is shake up. They shake up, give her a forced and awkward hug and now trust me to teach you. The reality is  That is not how it works. Genuine relationships come from genuine self-reflection. It is impossible to have the type of meaningful relationships that teachers like Willenborg are trying to foster while remaining ignorant of the corrosive effects of whiteness.Without the understanding that whiteness is the equivalent of a Grand Canyon sized chasm between student and teacher. The reason that the kids in Mr. White’s class are way more geeked and way less awkward (besides the fact they don’t got to hug him) is because he is Black. That means no matter what there is shared experience. There may be difference too, he is a male who teaches females, that’s a difference, but there is a shared experience that Willenborg could never have.  That is why her handshakes come off as disingenuous and superificial. They are simply a facsimilie of a culture she is wearing as a costume for the moment.

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe her classroom is full of anti-racist lessons and she is building up knowledge of self. That may be the case, I don’t know for sure. What I do know is that in response to the video of Mr. White she asked her Facebook followers to share her video. She claimed she has been doing this for 3 years and in one true-colonizer fell swoop erases Mr. White and the hundreds and thousands of Black educators who been bulding relationships with kids long before she sat in the PD that taught her to greet her kids at the door and “relate” to them. captureWhat I do know is there is not a single picture on her Facebook with her and a person of color. It is hard to believe she is building authentic relationships with her kids if she doesn’t have meanigful relationships with Black people outside the school building. Say I’m wrong though, here is what else I know: if decolonization and justice was her pedagogy there is no way she would let a news station coverage to focus so narrowly on how she greeted her students. Furthermore, when we have unlearned whiteness we understand and resist the ways our skin color positions us to be a proxy for the system. Her attempted erasure of Mr. White and the work that he is doing is reprehensible. There is no reason to believe the handshakes are not a Trojan Horse smuggling into her classroom the violence of white supremacy.

Beyond that,  Willenborg is being used as an example of the benevolence of white people, the white savior archetype: Michelle Pfeifer in Dangerous Minds, Erin Gruwel in Freedom Writers and now Willenborg. It doesn’t matter her intentions. And that is the insidiousness of whiteness: Even with the best intentions we can commit acts of violence. We must do better.

Us, those with white skin and whiteness prescribed on us, must resist the temptation of warm fuzzy feelings, that savior shit is for the birds. If we truly want to be trusted. If we truly want to deserve to be in front of classrooms then we need to be courageous truth-telllers. Our curriculum should be rebellion 101. At every turn we need to be pointing out and speaking up. We need to be accomplices. We need to do way more than handshakes.


43 thoughts on “Why the Handshakes Matter: The Violence of Whiteness in the Classroom

  1. Wow. So I assume you’ve sat in on some of her classes and talked to a few of her students to come up with that very detailed description of how a third grade teacher is “perpetuating whiteness through appropriation and only serves to further entrench white supremacy in our schools.” I believe is how you put it …. Or no?

    1. You’re missing the point she is explicitly appropriating culture, and forcing her students of color to awkwardly participate. Then she is going on social media, trying to fish for attention and notoriety, at the expense of a black teacher doing the same thing. Claiming she did it first, that is the very essence of cultural appropriation. As the article states, if she as genuine, she would not need recognition, and she would have more examples of supporting blackness in her life.

  2. It doesn’t matter if she teaches self-acceptance or not what matters is these handshakes are indigenous to the black culture. Her doing them says she knows and understands that culture. Whether she or Mr.White did them first is not important; these handshakes don’t belong to either one of them to claim as their own. They come from a culture of black men and women (but men more specifically) that greet each other with a recognition of sameness and safety. In the urban culture, one does not give these exaggerated handshakes, daps(bump fists), or other hand greeting to enemies, people they don’t know or regard as trustworthy. No matter her intentions, her call to action to share the video is seen as a claim that she somehow made those handshakes up; which in any case is an untruth. So, even if she had been doing these handshakes for three years they did not begin with her. Also, her need to call attention to her videos and include the number of years instead congratulating a fellow teacher on his attempt to create a place of safety with his students reveals her intentions for fame. I love and can make sushi, chimchungas, and teriyaki but none of that makes me Japanese, Mexican or Hispanic. Nor does my ability to do so well make me the originator.

    1. Sincerity matters. No one has the right to try to specify how one person should relate to another as long as any such relationship is based in respect and love. We are all human beings, and we all deserve respect and love, regardless of our ancestry, our “race (whatever that is), our sex, our religion, our ethnicity, our birthplace, or whatever. To condemn other people because they want to greet others in a way that we believe proprietary to ourselves is selfish and flatly wrong. To elaborate.

      Nobody owns particular chunks of culture solely because they share race with the folks who, as far as we know, created that chunk of culture. Every one of us has inherited mountains of culture. It is divisive and it builds barriers between people for anyone to claim any sort of cultural exclusivity or to demand acknowledgement of a specific cultural meaning because of the race or sex or religion or ethnicity or social class of those who we believe “originated” how we nod to acknowledge the presence of another human, or shake hands, or embrace, or sing, or pronounce particular words, or speak, or prepare particular foods, or play particular types of music. Everyone alive today “owns” the culture bequeathed by previous generations, as modified by people of the current generation. Accusations of “cultural appropriation” or similar claims of property rights to particular behaviors are morally reprehensible, and wrong.

      1. if you wanted to genuinely connect with students, you would not actively try to share this “genuine” connection just to get attention and praise, that is exploitation. Not only that, you think you created the idea of greeting block people with their regular handshakes is insulting, and YES cultural appropriation. Your last statement is a bold, Ill-informed opinion that reflects exclusively a white point of view, whether you’re white or not

    2. Word Up!!!
      Been in education for 22 years. Think your spot on. Its fine to connect as a white teacher “learning your students through their culture” just know certain things are not yours. Don’t claim it like you have started something. Learn and be aware of your students cultures. That’s it, that’s what good teachers do to try to connect. PLEASE don’t try to claim it though. Recognize that’s privilege rearing its ugly head. “Share my video” smh.
      That hug, was definitely hers. I have no problem with that. I think she was trying to add a piece of her, but
      With learning your student culture you should be proactive and learn a little bit about the history of what’s in their culture. I have been doing the “black hand shake” since I was 4……. I’m 42.

  3. This is a great piece, and shows the importance of investigating even (or especially) those small moments where we think we’re doing something good, where, as a white person, I feel like, “yeah, I’m totally showing these kids how down I am” can often be violent and damaging.

    Seriously, well done. I read it twice and will share it widely.

    1. Investigating? This article is has nothing to do with the actual story because there was apparently no “investigating” done into the truth. It’s nothing more than ignorant assumptions accompanied by some obvious self-loathing. The idea came from her student.

  4. I hope we can be open enough to wonder if we know enough about her to make an assumption about how and what she teaches in class. I am happy to see someone making connections with her students, and to create a positive relational experience at the beginning of the school day. The sad devastating reality of schools is that we’ve been losing teachers of color, not gaining them. But I can’t make assumptions about this teacher based on her profound attempt to connect with her students with beautiful individualized handshakes and hugs. I hope we can hold more teachers in a positive light to help encourage more of our youth to become teachers. I hope that a few of her students feel such a strong connection with her that they decide to become teachers themselves one day, and are self assured and curious enough to work with and learn from students and families who are culturally, ethnically, and linguistically different from themselves.

  5. The big problem with lots of peoples comments is the use of assumptions. People assume what she is teaching, or not teaching, daily in her classroom. They assume she taught the kids the handshakes instead of the kids teaching her the shake they wanted to do. There’s the assumption that she just offered the information about how many years she has been doing this instead of being asked about her longevity of this activity.

    Talk to the students, they will tell you the truth about EVERYTHING. Ask them if she is a good teacher and if they feel comfortable with her as the person leading the class. Look at test score’s and academic progress for her class. Ask the students if they feel she truly cares about them and their education. If you get the correct answers to these questions, I don’t care what color she is or what handshakes or hugs she does, she is doing what she is supposed to do.

    If people, non educators, disagree with what she is doing or my comments stop your career, change to education and come show us how it’s done. We can talk after your first month, if you last that long.

  6. When I saw the video of Barry White my first thought was that it was what our high school basketball players do when the starting lineup is announced (all races). I didn’t view it as a race issue.

  7. What an unfortunate attack on a teacher. With all that coming down the pike with Trump, this author chose to attack a teacher who has a harmless greeting ritual. And so many assumptions about what and how she teaches.

  8. The people on here talking about the harmlessness of the handshakes, the good intentions, etc clearly need to re-read the article and consider the place of privilege their statements are coming from.

    1. So she should grab each right hand as the students file in, pump twice up and down, say “good morning, Mr. Marshall. Good morning, Miss Smith. Please have a seat and get ready to work.” I mean,that would be the white way to do it, right? Don’t try to build a relationship with the kids, don’t greet them on the level where they are, greet them as a white person greeting white adults instead?

      Is that really what we want?

  9. This article is nonsense. It’s exactly the kind of liberal overreach that gives progressivism a bad name. If this teacher were outlawing the handshake she’d be equally attacked. Get your priorites in order and look for true issues to tackle.

  10. Why must everything a white person does be called racist? Did you talk to this teacher or her students or their parents? Suppose someone judged an African American on a vital post, is that right? I think the point of your post is to encourage racism and for you to be able to say, “Look at me I am not racist like these people”. Try looking for the good in ALL people.

  11. I don’t think you’re overreacting, due in no small part to her attention-seeking Facebook post. I feel like a lot of people commenting missed that- she’s not just doing the handshakesbecause the kids were trying to include her; she’s trying to get on Ellen for it.

  12. So what does pointing out and speaking up look like in a classroom? This is the first post of yours I’ve read, so I don’t know if you’ve addressed this somewhere else.

  13. If you’re going to write “news” stories, you should probably learn how to spell, punctuate, and proof your work. How are you hoping to spread awareness and knowledge if you can’t properly communicate?

  14. This is the stupidest article I’ve ever seen posted by an individual who is clearly an imbecile. You sir, are teaching racism and creating divide. All I see when I watch the video (Black or White teacher, who cares) is a human learning to interact with students (who gives a shit what color they are) in a fun manner. You’re trying to incite a racial divide. Please leave Minneapolis at your earliest convenience, your kind is not welcome.

  15. So does the white teacher want a cookie. Is she mad people are sharing the black teacher’s video and not hers? I bet there are many teachers of all colors doing some type of routine with their students to feel more comfortable in their room. Her main concern should be making sure she is preparing her students for a future where everyone is accepted and treated equality. Who cares if the black teacher’s video went viral and hers did not. As a teacher she should have the satisfaction of being a teacher and not becoming internet famous.

  16. Educating and inspiring students in a contemporary society is not an easy task (just ask a professional educator). Any pedagogical technique that can motivate student success should be appreciated and embraced. The Positive Greetings at the Door (PGD) technique has been around a lot longer than either of these two wonderful teachers. Let’s focus less on castigating motivated teachers and focus more on registering voters who will elect pro-education leaders.

  17. You start with this logic, and it will end with Nazi fucks like Yannopoulos arguing that “Blacks shouldn’t play the piano because it’s “white culture””.
    Slippery slope, and typical liberal pseudo-outrage missing the bigger picture.

    1. How is the piano “white culture”, what is white culture. ( and sorry bud, it’s not European culture, ppl didn’t claim themselves white until they came to be Americas)

  18. Good intentions are at the root of most white privilege, particularly modern whiteness and supremacy. That is not the point. White ppl are not authorities on this topic, and their opinions on whether they like what this teacher is doing, dislike the black response to what she is doing, believe assumptions are being made about her teaching are insane. We live our culture daily. Many of us have had teachers and other white ppl in our lives, trying (too hard at times) to relate to our blackness. At times it can be insulting, it can make you feel more uncomfortable, or make you question those “good intentions”. We are not simply making assumptions whether she harbors blackness in her teaching. We are basing this off he context of the situation. Non-people of color do not see the context the same way, bc of privilege. If they did, they would be just as sure as black folk that she is not effectively teaching these black and brown students. If she is treating something a simple as a class greeting, as a tool to enhance her popularity in a pcareer, then her philosophy of teaching is already problematic , and this idea probably roots most her efforts to teach across racial lines.

  19. what does black or white have to do anything? everyone is too concerned about racism and the black way versus the white way, what about the right way to treat another human being with decency and respect? The way I see it is that if someone who accuses someone else for being racist without absolute fact, maybe you should take a look at yourself, it takes racism to accuse someone of racism just because they are of a different color, so you made the decision to act upon that fact to start calling them a racist without being provoked in anyway, hence the expression “You hate me, because I’m Black”. Maybe this teacher should re-evaluate her teaching purpose behind the handshake, but either way somebody took it as racism in some form or fashion and is attacking her with it just as I explained above. I’m sorry if this offends anyone that is not my intention, but the fact remains evident.

  20. This is a lousey op ed piece. Yet another example of poor journalism. We are left with conjecture and speculation. A supreme lack of facts, context, and accuracy. Perhaps people need to be required to take at least a basic journalism primer before posting “articles” on the internet.. Oh how our standards have fallen. There are no direct quotes from sources that would have anything meaningful to say.

  21. Here’s the thing… while these handshakes may be prevelant in the black culture, if any one culture can truly say they have been appropriated, it is sports culture, specifically baseball. We don’t own these handshakes… this isn’t blues, or jazz, or FUBU. Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco (remember the bash brothers forearm bump of the late 80s and early 90s?), they aren’t African American… and even if they were, who are we to say that a white teacher cannot use that to connect with their students.
    Go take a trip to youtube and search for baseball handshakes… there you will see players of every color using them to celebrate. Just because we African Americans may do them doesnt mean these “handshakes” are ours to call appropriated. To do so is nothing short of appropriation in and of itself.

  22. Only racist here is the author. I taught 1 year at a school in DC w/ all black kids (I’m white) we would fist bump every day and they were the ones that initiated it. They would also hug me, high five me, tell me they loved me, curse at me, tell me how horrible I was, laugh, cry, etc. etc. and none of it had to do with race. I also fist bump with adult friends, white, black, doesn’t matter. By trying to claim ‘fist bumping’ as something black people own and white people can’t do without some sort of ‘appropriation’ that is inherently racist.. you are the racist and are the only one engaging in ‘cultural appropriation’ by telling me certain things are appropriate for black people but not white people. I can do anything black people can do, you can do anything I can do. I can listen to rap, I can fist bump, I can watch NBA. You can wear suits and ties, eat mayo, listen to Bob Dylan. If you try to claim rap or NBA as yours or I say suit and ties or Bob Dylan is mine.. that’s a racist claim, not someone experiencing or interacting in a way that is potentially more predominantly exhibited by another race. My 2c… get some vision and go color blind, stop yelling racism every chance you get like the boy who cried wolf. You sound dumb, nobody believes you or takes you seriously, and one day when an actual racist experience happens nobody will lend you their ear.

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