Growing Beyond the White Savior (part 2)

I am a white. I am a high school teacher. I am about to enter my eighth year in the classroom.

Several years ago, I wrote about the White Savior complex, and I briefly touched on my personal growth. But I don’t feel like I said enough then.

I believe that white people who are genuinely struggling with overcoming their racism can benefit from hearing stories of other white people who have confronted their baggage and, in so doing, made progress.

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One of my first memories as a professional teacher was shortly after I got hired at my first school. I was standing in the parking lot, by myself, about to get into my car. It was during the school day, and there were students looking out the window.

I thought that some of them were jeering at me, the weird white dude looking wistfully at the school. That particular school was virtually 100% black, including the majority of the teachers and administrators.

It’s possible the students were just being noisy. It was near the end of the day. They may not have even noticed me.

Regardless, I recall standing up straight, and muttering to myself, “Don’t worry, I’m coming, I’ll be here in September.”

That was the White Savior talking. That was my arrogance and entitlement, thinking that I, a first-year teacher, would be able to provide the solution to the woes of Detroit’s educational crisis. Decades of the best educator minds had struggled and largely failed, but here I was, come to save the day.

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By the end of the first semester, I was done at that school.

I failed my first test on the very first day. One of the classes told me to call them “bosses,” which I did because my Saviorism told me that it would buy me leverage to appease their self-esteem. One of the students did try to warn me, did try to guide me away from that, but it was already too late. That class refused to respect me for the rest of the semester.

Many teachers seem to find their groove right away, and then settle in. Others, like me, struggle for a while before settling in. One of the reasons for the teacher shortage is because of the number of teachers who aren’t prepared for the demands of teaching.

Sure, education programs tell us about the first day of school, about “not smiling until Christmas,” about having a firm hand in classroom management. But there are aspects of handling a room full of teenagers that can’t be learned in a textbook; they can only be learned from experience.

For me, the most important of these was humility.

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I got a different job in my second semester, in a different school. In my first four years as a teacher, I worked in six different schools. Had I not had a teaching fellowship that required me to work three full years, I don’t think I would have stayed in teaching.

It took me a while to understand that I wasn’t the hero I thought I was, that the Youth of Detroit weren’t just waiting around for me to fix everything.

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The inherent beliefs for the White Savior are that white culture is proper culture, and that black people communally aspire to that culture. In this flawed vision, everything wrong with blacks living in poverty can be solved by a white person with golden intentions in their heart.

In education school, I was provided with models for educating students in poverty, particularly black and brown students. These models were created by Eric Jensen and Ruby Payne, both of whom are white. Both of the models have been criticized for their elements of saviorism, but I was not exposed to any others.

One of the most controversial discussions on social media teacher groups is whether to continue to teach Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a classic of its time that is currently criticized for its white gaze, or to replace it with a book from a black author (Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is a common suggestion). So many white English teachers seem committed to keeping Lee’s book despite its flaws.

And one of the biggest negative effects of school desegregation after Brown v Board of Education was a significant drop in the percentage of educators who were black. Former whites-only schools resisted hiring black educators, presumably catering to their white parents who didn’t want their children educated by a black person.

The message is consistent: If you want to be successful in the United States, you have to embrace white attitudes, which are best taught by white people. We know what’s best for everyone.

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In addition to my day job as a teacher, I also worked for a time in a weekend program for middle school students trying to get into private prep schools. One day I handed a paper back to a student who counted the red marks and announced, “Seventeen mistakes needing to be corrected.”

That phrasing hit home. I thought about how students are shown in White Savior movies like “Freedom Writers” and “Dangerous Minds”: Mistakes needing to be corrected.

I thought about how I’d seen my first students: Mistakes needing to be corrected.

The second semester of my first year, I worked in a juvenile detention facility for girls. If there is an educational environment that would breed the mindset that students are mistakes needing to be corrected, that’s it: Most of my students had done something of a criminal enough nature to warrant their presence there (some were part of the foster care system instead of the JDF system).

But by the end of that semester, I didn’t see my students that way. They were humans. They were teenagers. They’d made some poor choices, but I’m not sure I would have made different choices in their situation.

No student is a mistake that needs to be corrected, and I am not a hero come to correct them.

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I am someone who knows stuff. I don’t know everything.

I am also someone who has a way with words, or so I’m told.

There’s a wall in Detroit, about a mile from my house. It was built in 1941 to separate a proposed white community from a redlined black community. It was painted in 2006 by black residents to bring beauty and healing to its ugliness.

One portion of it reads, “Judge him not until u walk the block in his flip flops.”

As a white savior, early in my teaching, my perspective was focused on me and what I had to contribute. Growing out of the White Savior model meant focusing on what my students need. Not white culture, but a safe place. Not indoctrination, but respect.

Some days I look back at the road that has brought me to where I am and marvel at who I was and how I’ve changed.

And ahead of me: More road yet to travel.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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