‘Only white people can be racist’: Union officials call for purge of teacher workforce
August 4, 2021
Would-be school teachers at the Oklahoma Aspiring Educators Association’s recent Racial and Social Justice Symposium were told that both public schools and many of the teachers within them are tools of white supremacy.
But featured speakers at the online event offered a solution: Purge the teaching profession of many of its current members, who are majority white.
“Really, I want to be an agent of discomfort for white folks,” said Terry Jess, a National Education Association Social Justice Activist finalist in 2017. “I want to get folks to either commit to the work or get out of the profession. And I know that sounds harsh, but we cannot have schools apart from antiracism. We cannot have schools that continue to perpetuate white supremacy and inflict harm on students of color.”
“Antiracism” refers to the theories of Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist, who has expressly written that “racial discrimination is not inherently racist” and that the “only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.”
“The majority of educators across the nation are white women, middle-aged white women, even a little bit older, right?” said Chelsie Joy Acosta, another NEA Social Justice Activist finalist in 2017. “Our institution of education that we’re speaking of, and the institutions around us, have embedded this deep layer of implicit bias, right, in every different space.”
“We have to be able to fight back,” said Erika Chavarria, a third NEA Social Justice Activist finalist for 2017 who spoke at the event. “And, so, there’s this powerful quote by Malcolm X. He says, ‘Only a fool would let his enemy teach his children.’ And we as educators have to understand that there are a lot of enemies teaching our children and that if you are going to be aspiring—if you are aspiring to be in this profession, to be an educator—it is our duty and obligation to make sure that we don’t have enemies teaching our children who are ending up doing more harm than good, who are ending up traumatizing and retraumatizing our students both within the classroom, in the hallways, in how their own biases manifest in the classroom and in discipline. We have a responsibility to make sure that that does not happen and continue to happen because our students’ lives are at stake. Our communities’ lives are at stake. It is not a game.”
The Oklahoma Aspiring Educators Association (OAEA) is an affiliate of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the state’s largest teacher union and the state affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA).
Across several sessions, attendees at the OAEA’s Racial and Social Justice Symposium were told that “white supremacy culture practices” include “worship of the written word,” “individualism,” and “objectivity.” They were told that the “characteristics of white privilege” include “playing the colorblind card,” and that the “pillars of white fragility” include being “taught to see themselves as individuals rather than as part of a racially socializing group.”
Attendees were told one reason that “white people get defensive about the suggestion that they benefit from, or are complicit in, a racist system” is that they are under the “delusion that they are objective individuals.”
Presenters also equated capitalism to slavery and declared it a pillar upholding white supremacy and the “mythologies of white womanhood.” One slide presented at the symposium informed aspiring teachers that “only white people can be racist in our society, because only white people as a group have that power.”
Aspiring teachers were told to “engage, don’t avoid” racial discussions in the classroom and that being “‘colorblind’ often serves as a pretense to downplay the significance of race, deny the existence of racism, and erase the experiences of students of color.”
Attendees were told that “harmful racial discourse practices” include “individualizing racism” and “portraying government as overreaching.”
“We work in an institution that is inherently racist from its beginnings and foundation,” Chavarria said. “And so, as practitioners and as educators, we cannot be neutral. And if you feel like you would like to be neutral, then it’s not the right profession for you.”
She said there is “not one aspect of education that is not affected by injustice, racism, inequality, inequity,” and that teachers should dive into racial discussions “no matter what your school system says in terms of what you are allowed and not allowed to teach.”
Presenters told Oklahoma Aspiring Educators Association members that not only are public schools and public-school teachers racist, but so is the National Education Association.
“Racism does exist in our own organization as well, right?” said Andrew Montoya, an organizational specialist with the NEA. “Just because we consider ourself a progressive organization in most spaces doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist.”
Presenters also stressed that teachers’ primary focus should not be on the conveyance of academic knowledge to students.
“We are teaching human beings who have experiences,” Chavarria said. “We are not teaching content or subjects.”
“The work in education is not curriculum,” Acosta said. “It’s not teaching to a test. The work is to love and see our students—especially our black, indigenous, queer youth, our youth that has disabilities. That is our job. That is our profession.”
She said teachers should see students “as intersectional, marginalized human beings that their families have been victims of racism, sexism, heterosexism, for generations in the U.S. on the stolen land on which we stand.”
One speaker said the union’s goal in focusing on racial issues includes altering the outcome of elections.
“We are creating generations of educators who will go the next step to change the lives of our students, the communities we live in, the actual educations that our students receive and deserve, and the leaders who are voted in to lead our country,” said Cameo Kendrick, chair of the NEA’s Aspiring Educator Program.