Each school year, at least one male student shares with me a version of this story: While walking — sometimes to school, sometimes to or from work — the student is stopped by police. The police officer turns out the student’s pockets, empties his book bag if he has one, demands ID, sits him on the curb and makes him wait while they check him for priors or outstanding warrants. All of this happens absent probable cause.
I’ve heard a version of this unnerving story so many times during the two decades that I’ve been teaching in Baltimore that I’m no longer surprised by it. It’s also an experience that I’ve never had and a reminder of the unfair advantages white privilege still confers in 21st century America.
I applaud Baltimore City Schools’ recent push to attract and retain more black teachers. Students benefit when they see, first-hand, models of black success. Learning from black educators who’ve confronted injustices — micro and macro — similar to the ones students have faced, or may face yet, empowers young people. It also helps students visualize their own career possibilities. I see this dynamic at my own school where black colleagues exert a powerful, positive and nurturing influence on students.
But, as a white male, does my whiteness ensure that I will always fall short of truly connecting with, motivating or inspiring students in Baltimore? Will I always be the kind of teacher students can’t relate to?
It’s true my whiteness does create barriers that have to be negotiated in the classroom — around race, class, privilege, trust and the kind of faith that has nothing to do with one’s religious affiliation. If I wasn’t a teacher, these barriers would likely prevent me from getting to know kids like the students in my school. But a classroom, out of necessity and design, melts many of these barriers away. It's one of the wonders of the job.
Over the years, I’ve advocated for students in court, visited former students in prisons as far away as Hagerstown, played football or basketball with students during lunch, conducted home visits, cried at funerals, danced at proms, shared many laughs, and, as a coach with the Baltimore Urban Debate League, chaperoned a debate team to Slovakia for an international tournament. (In a train station in Bratislava I watched our team — four gifted, razor sharp thinkers — silently put on their hard faces and stare down a group of white skinheads looking to intimidate us, until these shiny-domed misfits looked away and moved on.)
The connections I’ve formed with kids over the years have been rich and rewarding. Along the way, students have schooled me on the latest idioms, deepened my understanding of what it means to be a person of color in America and inspired me. Because, regardless of one’s race, watching kids strive for better — sometimes in the midst of catastrophic challenges — can leave one awed.
And, despite my whiteness, I still feel like I understand the concerns many Baltimore teens have on their minds. Kids in Baltimore worry about trivial disagreements turning deadly; they worry about losing family or friends to violence; they worry about interactions with a police force that keeps black men and boys on edge with frequent investigatory stops; they worry about feeling unwelcome when they venture across the borders of a city still mired in de-facto segregation; they worry about finding jobs and the ever-present specter of a discrimination that could make all of their striving for not.
Although these are worries I’ve never had to reckon with, I can still listen, empathize and steer young people toward making good decisions that are in their best, long-term interests.
I also recognize that as Baltimore teens hurtle toward adulthood, they won’t get the myriad second chances I got and needed during a drifty, reckless adolescence. Most of the kids at my school don’t enjoy the benefit of soft landings. Their margin for error is precariously thin.
I’m no superhero, and I have no illusions that I’m saving the world, but of all the competing priorities teachers are expected to meet, getting to know the students in my classroom remains far and away the best part of the job.
And while my whiteness undoubtedly affords me unjust advantages in our society, I assume my whiteness does not preclude me from building meaningful connections with students of color.