Growing Beyond the White Savior

A viral video recently circulated showing a black male teacher greeting each student in his elementary school class with a different handshake. It was praised as a teacher engaging with his students on their own terms.

Shortly after, a second video emerged. I will discuss the second video, but my comments on it require some context and commentary.

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African-American culture is known for its complex, distinct, and often individualized hand greetings. This contrasts to the standard handshake, known as a European tradition by dating back to at least Babylon. And while the handshake is rooted in simply demonstrating peaceful intentions, African-American hand greetings are a deeper way of bonding.

I know this from my own experiences as an urban teacher. Often, when I’m standing in the hallway, a student and I will fist bump or dap each other without any other greeting. I might not even interrupt the conversation I’m having with another student. There is a fluid choreography to it that is missing from a hand shake.

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When I was training to be a teacher, I was told by a black male teacher that he didn’t engage in the behavior with his students because he wanted to teach them how to act in the professional world.

I followed this advice. It didn’t work. When I refused to engage in fist bumps and daps, even with an explanation, it built up the wall between me and my students. While black teachers often have credibility among their students, white teachers risk alienating students of color by rejecting their cultural traditions.

At the same time, it’s crucial that those traditions be approached with sensitivity and respect. Having been raised in Missouri for the first year of my life, I have a Southern accent that only comes out when I’m around people speaking in certain ways. A few times early in my teaching, it would come out when talking to students who were speaking AAVE, and students got irritated because they thought I was making fun of them. I have since learned to monitor that accent.

Acknowledging teen cultural patterns in a way that respects and doesn’t mock must be done with authenticity. The purpose must be to help students feel safe and respected, not out of the goal of “saving” them from their own situation.

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The trope of the White Savior is far too common in stories about education. The movies “Up the Down Staircase,” “Dangerous Minds,” and “Freedom Writers,” all based on memoirs, rely on it. So do TV shows like “The White Shadow” and “Welcome Back, Kotter,” Meanwhile, the upcoming film “Fist Fight” appears to go one step further; the message in the trailer is that a white man is out of place in the quagmire that is the modern urban school, where even the white female teachers are insane.

The White Savior model in education is based on two flawed notions: (1) There’s something inherently wrong with urban/POC culture and (2) white people are well suited to fixing those problems. It is generally well-intentioned, but at its extreme, it supports White Supremacy: Rather than challenging whether Western European culture ought to be the model of success, it tacitly accepts that this is the case.

Richard Spencer, a White Nationalist, argues that everything of cultural value was done by whites and so blacks should go away. A liberal White Savior, whose goal is to use their whiteness to fix the lives of POC, is unintentionally reinforcing this position by implying that “white culture” is a model which people of color should be trained to embrace.

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I entered teaching five years ago with that model in my mind. I was entering in urban schools, not having reflected well on my white privilege and the impact it had on my worldview. My early syllabi, lectures, and presentation were based on showing my African-American students how a “successful” (that is, “white-presenting”) person acts in the United States.

My first semester, I taught English. I was given the job of teaching African-American Literature to groups of tenth graders in Detroit Public Schools. Every hour, I was the only white person in the room.

It did not go well. Most of my students rejected me, and rightly so. They also largely rejected the content, for two reasons: That it was a white man presenting it to them, and because the message was that being poor and black was something to feel hopeless over. We read the play “A Raisin in the Sun,” which students took to be about black people being redlined, and about a reckless black man squandering money. We read the YA novel “The Friends,” which talks about the hopelessness of urban life for black students and includes police brutality and indifference from a white teacher. We read Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use,” which discusses the complexity of heritage for people who have been forcibly stripped of it.

One of my students asked me, “Why can’t we read something that gives us hope?”

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Shortly after the video mentioned in the first paragraph went viral, a video of a white female teacher doing the same thing, also went viral.

The controversy over the second video depends on what the teacher’s intentions are. One criticism of the video is that it’s from the same angle, which suggests that the white teacher was looking for a cookie. This concern drives the feeling that she’s co-opting black culture for her personal gain.

At the same time, though, her actions are respecting and valuing the cultural tradition of African-American hand greetings. She’s telling her students that their culture matters to her.

The cynical response to this would dwell on her whiteness and point out that it’s the wrong message that their cultural traditions are only valuable if they matter to white people.

The generous response to this would dwell on her adultness and point out that it’s important for children to feel that their cultural traditions are valuable to their elders.

Not knowing this teacher or these students, I don’t personally know which response best applies to this situation. If that had been me five years ago, as a White Savior, the cynical response would have applied. Now, as I’ve changed my view on what my role as a white male teacher in an urban setting ought to be, I’d like to think I’ve earned the authenticity for the second response.

It is important for white people to continue to reflect on these issues, and how privilege impacts our interactions.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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