A few days back, I reported on a study that noted seven trends in the teacher workforce. Two of those trends noted were 1) the teacher workforce is getting more female and 2) the teacher workforce is getting less white. Whether it is synchronicity, or just heightened awareness, I've seen both of those topics flare up in various discussions about the interwebs.
While very aware of these topics, I have avoided addressing them because I am a white guy. And when it comes to issues of gender and race, I've always assumed two things.
1) There are things that I really don't get.
2) I have no idea what all the items under #1 are.
I am also painfully aware of the tendency that white guys have to turn discussions of gender in race into conversations about being a white guy.
But I am going to take some of my own advice and venture outside of my comfort zone. I will try not to presume to speak people of other races or genders about what they should know or do about being female or black or brown. Instead, I'm going to try to speak to my people-- white guys.
Guys, there are many things we don't get about being a woman. And I don't mean in a ha-ha women are so wacky with their crazy mysterious thinky parts. I mean like the degree to what it must be challenging to have to always associate intimacy and love with making yourself physically vulnerable to someone who is usually larger and stronger than you, and who, in the early stages of a relationship, you don't know if you can trust.
What do we guys do when we find ourselves in a situation where we're around people who can physically dominate us? We make nice. We even have a special pseudo-psychological term for little guys who insist on being aggressive instead of sensibly making nice (Napoleon complex). Women are in that situation pretty much all the time. Being nice isn't just the socially acceptable thing to do-- it's a survival skill.
At the same time, niceness is socially preferred in women. Society tells them constantly to play nice, be nice. If you are going to deal with women, particularly in a work situation, you need to check yourself. If you are going to ding a woman for being too nice and not sticking up for herself, you also cannot ding her for being uppity and pushy.
Keep that double ding in mind, because as I mentioned above, teaching is a mostly-female profession, and in some areas, that means we male teachers are being approached as if we are women-- play nice, don't talk out of turn. On top of that, we are going to find ourselves surrounded by lots of women who are not necessarily ready to step out of that mold and fight beside you. You can't fix that by yelling, "What the hell is the matter with you!" and you can't fix it by saying, "That's okay honey. You sit down and I'll take care of it."
If you're of my generation (high school class of '75), you grew up with some confusing and ultimately incomplete messages. You will also encounter young women who act like what we would have called feminists who insist they aren't feminists (as near as I can tell, the current definition of "feminist" is "woman who demands unreasonable things." women who advocate things like equal pay are just using common sense, and aren't feminists at all). But my experience is that if you treat them like individual human beings-- listen to them, hear what they want, help them see how to get it, offer advice when they want it and shut the hell up when they don't-- that all seems to work.
We guys are supposed to approach conflict like it's no big deal. Just whale the tar out of each other, then get a drink. Everybody's buds. No blood, no foul. But for women conflict is a more threatening thing. The good news is that that is mostly trained into them, not hardwired, and they can learn to leave it behind. Just not the same way we do. Be a coach, but not a mansplainer, and recognize when to step back and get out of the way.
And (and this is huge) if you are in a mostly-female building, recognize that you need to adjust to the culture of the building, and not insist that it get all manned up. In teaching, we are more likely to find ourselves in that position in the years ahead.
I've heard the complaints. How are little boys supposed to grow up when they are surrounded by women in school all day? Won't they get all infected with the womenny stuff? Shouldn't there be more men around so they have male role models?
Well, hold that thought.
My ignorance runs deep here. I'm a really white guy who lives in a small town setting where most of out black population belongs to one of the same five families that have lived here for generations.
Teaching is becoming blacker and browner, but-- and this is huge-- minority teachers are also leaving the profession at a higher rate than white teachers. So there's something wrong there, and I honestly have no idea what. Somebody really needs to figure it out, and soon. Because we need more minority teachers.
We need more minority teachers because we are going to have increasingly more minority students. Why? Remember a few graphs ago when you were worried about little boys not seeing anybody they could identify with at school? Same thing. Same. Thing.
Look, I know we were raised to think of ourselves as colorblind. There's a place for that, but there's also a way in which it can go horribly wrong.
As I try to explain to my students, racism is not just "Black people are all stupid and inferior." Racism is also, "Normal people are just like me. Everybody else is abnormal to whatever degree they are not like me."
"Black folks are just like me," sounds generous, but it's not, because it implies, "Like me. You know, normal. Oh, I know they look or act like they're not normal, but I'm willing to overlook those abnormalities, so they're really just a white guy like me." One of the privileges we enjoy as white guys is that we never have to explain any part of ourselves away. Even a term like "non-white" reinforces that-- we're defining race by whether it's normal whiteness or not. We are "normal" by default.
With that in mind, teaching needs to be a place where being black or brown is normal, and that is doubly, triply true in schools with predominantly minority populations. Yes, we white guys can do great work in those schools, be great teachers, even be great models of what it means to be a man. But we will never be somebody that a black seven year old can look at and imagine growing up to be. That's a valuable quality, and we will never have it.
I'm a big believer in individual situations. The chances of something working can be one in a million, but if you're the one, it doesn't matter. General rules of thumb, general tendencies, general ways to be and understand-- none of those matter in the face of particular specific situation. But you know what makes it easy for me to think that? I'm a white guy, and the general circumstances of being a white guy rarely ever get in the way of anything for us.
It would be enormously useful for us, when dealing with our female and minority colleagues, if we listen, and listen particularly with an understanding that other people on this planet navigate a series of barriers and obstacles that we pretty much never see. The fact that we don't see doesn't mean they aren't there, and -- hardest for us to accept -- the fact that we don't see them also doesn't mean that we don't have a hand in keeping them in place.
But if we are ever going to see them or understand them, we are going to have to listen and try to understand. And then, I think there's a question we are actually well-placed to help answer-- "If you didn't have to deal with obstacle X, what would you do?" Because if we could help remove the obstacles, people could do for themselves, and living in a world without those obstacles is a subject we're actually well-qualified to talk about-- not why you shouldn't be held back or why you shouldn't care about the obstacle or how we can do for you, but how much you could enjoy that world, if we could help make it.
Look, this is a hugely complicated set of issues, and that's before we throw in delineators such as socio-economics and sexual orientation. But I'm beginning to think that we white guys need to spend less time mansplaining to everyone else, start actually listening, and start talking to each other about what part we can play in making a better world for everyone.