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. She 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. What 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.