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NEA News

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

Social studies teacher Terry Jess is determined to spread the message of social justice, equity, and racial justice.
Published: 11/20/2017

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.

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.