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The Elephant in the Room

April 18, 2009

Teacher Musings
Last year I had an experience that was a wake-up call for me. I had been laid off from one position and was attempting to get a different position in the same school I was currently working in. It is important to note that I was not laid off by the principal of the school, but by the higher-ups in the district due to budget concerns. However, when speaking to one of the administrators in a school about the possibility of becoming a teacher at that school, the “d” word came up. One of the administrators concerns (which I agree with) was that the majority of the teachers in the school were white (like me) and most of the students were not. The way I remember it was told that, while they would like to hire me, the reality was that “diversity was an issue.” I reacted as I often do in uncomfortable situations – I tried to make light of it and said something along the lines of “yeah, the last thing you need is another white woman teaching English.” The strange thing is, I wasn’t being bitter – I actually believe this. I have always struggled with the tension between my belief that there is a huge gap between the number of students of color and the numbers of teachers of color. But I also don’t agree with some people who think that only people of color can teach students color. I think that in the ideal world there would be racial diversity of teachers in all schools, no matter what the racial make-up of the student body is (although in my ideal world students would not be segregated by race as they are now). However, I also tire of the “we should all be color-blind” argument, because that’s not helpful to us or our students – we not only need to be aware of the role race plays in all our lives (especially with the “invisible” privilege of whiteness) but I believe it is important to incorporate that nuanced awareness in our work with students.

For all these reasons, I agree, wholeheartedly, with a school that attempts to recruit and retain teachers of color, and doesn’t hide that fact. I really respect the administrator was frank with me about why I might not be the first considered for the position. It turns out they not only hired a teacher that was a person of color, but that that teacher was more highly qualified for the position than I was – there is no question that this teacher was the better person for the job regardless of race. Yet knowing all of this, it still stung when I found out that at least one of the reasons why I might not get the job (or not be one of the finalists considered for it) was because I was white. And it bothered me to be bothered by it because I wanted to just agree with the decision and move on. As I sorted through my feelings over the next few days I realized that part of me feared that the fact that this exchange bothered me meant that I was, at heart, not as anti-racist (or worse, was more racist) than I thought I was. This reflection also led me to really stop and wonder how many jobs, interviews, and other opportunities I had gotten at least in part because I was white, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. By the time I came to terms with the whole thing, I realized wasn’t be treated unfairly, even though the gut emotional reaction that bothered me so much was “this isn’t fair!” Instead, I was being told, honestly, about my prospects (which I fully respected and appreciated) and I was simply made even more aware of a problem in schools that I knew existed but, up until then, had not seemed to be directly effected by.

I’m writing about this touchy subject (even when I worry about doing so) for one simple reason – I have been thinking about the fact that, being another white woman teacher in some ways makes me part of the problem. But I have no intention of changing my career or teaching in a predominantly white school because of this. I still think I have something to offer, even though it may not be as valuable as what someone else has to offer simply because there are a fair number of people in my field who bring a cultural understanding similar to mine to the table. What I have learned over time is how important it is for me to stop and think about my reactions and assumptions and to consider the fact that, as a teacher, I am often surrounded by people who have a similar cultural background and social experience as me and that makes us susceptible to “group think,” especially where there is a significant lack of voices from outside that (unfortunately) dominant cultural experience.

I’m sure that some people who read this post will feel I have said something wrong, or have some problematic ideas, or am just clueless about some important issue. And they would be right, because I’m still trying to figure this issue of race in education out – especially my place in both the discourse and the action. Like most of my thinking, this is just a snapshot of a moment in thinking where developing my ideas is always a work in progress.

Yummy Stuff:
Its been a busy few weeks of house-buying, term papers and, oh yeah, working. However, last weekend the hubby and I celebrated the signing of our big housing contract with a celebration dinner of vegan lasagna (its the closest I’ve ever gotten to my mom’s!!), foccacia (a la bread machine) and a spinach and mixed-greens salad. One of these days (possibly in summer) I want to take some pictures of some of my favorite dinners, but for now you’ll have to do with using your visualizing skills!

Vegan Lasagna (from Vegetarian Times):

Ingredients:
Filling
2 tsp. olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped (2 cups)
3 cloves garlic, minced (1 Tbs.)
1 10-oz. bag fresh baby spinach
2 12-oz. pkgs. firm tofu, drained
1 8-oz. pkg. vegan cream cheese (I use tofutti)
½ cup chopped fresh basil
¼ cup nutritional yeast (The G-man and I aren’t big nooch fans, so I just put in 2 TB)

LASAGNA
5 ½ cups Speedy Red Sauce (or you can used canned sauce – I make my mom’s marinera, which I’m sure I will post the recipie for at some point!)
12 uncooked whole-wheat lasagna noodles (the reciepie says you don’t need to pre-cook them – I swear you don’t!!)
12oz. vegan Italian sausage links, cut into thin rounds, or soy sausage crumbles, broken apart (I grew up with vegetarian lasagna, and so we just leave out the fake meat – but if you like it, go for it!)
1 cup shredded mozzarella flavor rice or soy cheese (3 oz.) (I love “Follow your Heart”)

Directions

1. To make Filling: Preheat oven to 375°F. Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté onions and garlic in oil 4 to 5 minutes, or until golden. Add spinach, and cook 2 to 3 minutes, or until wilted. Transfer spinach mixture to bowl of food processor. Add tofu, cream cheese, basil, and nutritional yeast, and purée until mixture is thick and smooth. Season with salt and pepper, if desired.

2. Spread one-quarter of Speedy Red Sauce recipe on bottom of 13- x 9-inch baking dish. Cover with one-third of noodles (4 or 5 noodles), then half of Filling, and ladle on another one-quarter of sauce. Repeat layer of noodles and remaining Filling. Spread sausage evenly over top, and top with one-quarter of sauce. Finish with final layer of noodles and remaining sauce. Sprinkle with shredded cheese.

3. Cover lasagna with foil, and bake 30 minutes, or until bubbling hot. Uncover, and bake 15 to 20 minutes more, or until noodles are tender and topping is melted. Remove from oven, and let stand 10 minutes before serving.

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3 Comments
  1. >It may not be perfect, but I’m sure your understanding of the role of race in schools is far better than most people’s.I don’t know how I feel about the vegan lasagna. There is too much fake cheese involved. Of course, I view any fake cheese (or meat) as too much. I’ve found in our (very slow) shift toward vegandom, that I prefer original vegan meals to recreations of dairy and meat based meals. I vastly prefer tofu to textured protein replacer and Gardenburgers (or grilled portabella caps) to fake beef patties. I wonder if that would change if I completely denied myself the possibility of having, for example, a real lasagna again.You’ll have to attempt to sell me on the vegan lasagna sometime.

  2. >Haha! I love VT. I’m really enjoying reading your blog. Do you bake the focaccia in the bread machine??? Or do you just transfer it to the oven? If the former, I’d love to learn your secret. Love the bread machine.I’m really looking forward to meeting up and hearing all about your new house, teaching, life, and being a ‘joyful’ vegan. (I was a vegan for several years, but I would never have called myself ‘joyful’.)

  3. >Thanks for the comments – they are always exciting to read 🙂 I also have become less and less of a fan of fake cheese and meat, although I think it is because I find myself having so many other exciting meals that don’t seem to lend themselves to those types of foods. But every once in a while that type of “faux” recipe helps combat nostalgia for food I ate growing up. And I have to say – tasting this lasagna, vegan mozzarella and all, made me so happy because it reminded me of my mom’s. Yet I could see someone liking it a lot less because there was no such connection. Either way, I will definitely make it for you sometime 🙂

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