Saturday, June 28, 2014

For White Guys

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.


  1. I know that. as "white guys" (a socially constructed classification) we are being brainwashed into thinking that we are incredibly privileged and that we owe our successes to our "whiteness" and all that. But this blog post is horrible.

    "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."

    Neither can "Asian" or "Polynesian" children, by this logic. They seem to do pretty well. Yes, we can say that their situations are different and indeed they are. But the Americans of African and "Latino" descent aren't failing because they have 7 "white" teachers on their schedule, they are failing because society tells them that is what is normal. They do need confidence pumped into their psyche, but they do not need their teachers to be "black" or "latino." They simply need teachers that are skilled at what they do, care, and are willing to highlight their strengths and improve their weaknesses.

    We dont NEED more minority teachers, but it sure is welcomed.

    1. This is always the challenge of writing about these topics-- none of the things you're objecting to are things that I actually said. But people are so touchy about this stuff that they tend to see the ideas they most object to in any sort of statement that's even in the neighborhood.

  2. Peter, I'm just not seeing where the white guys are mansplaining to everyone else. There's just not enough of us to do that. I would actually argue that, as far as my experience goes, the problem is the exact opposite. By that, I don't mean that there should be more "mansplaining" on the agenda; rather, the problem that I see is that most men, white men in particular, won't say much of anything for fear of saying the wrong thing. And when I say "most men," we're still talking about a very small sample. In the past 16 years, the elementary school I work at has had exactly zero male (white or otherwise) male regular ed teachers. For those keeping score, that would be 34 female teachers, 0 male teachers. During those same 16 years, we've had exactly one male ESE teacher. Me. During that time span, we've had 6 principals (we don't just churn teachers). Would the plot be too predictable in this story if I told you that all of them were female? There are 45 elementary schools in our district. They are all much of a muchness in this regard. Out of those 45, eight have a male at the helm. My wife teaches in a school in the even more populated district south of us; her school has one male 5th grade teacher. All this to stay that out of that very small sample size, most of the male teachers go out of their way to say very little of anything other than the usual pleasantries. And at this point I'm just rambling. Have a good night.

    1. "The problem that I see is that most men, white men in particular, won't say much of anything for fear of saying the wrong thing."

      Yep. And of course, to some people, "the wrong thing" is pretty much anything other than: "You are right -- I am a privileged bastard! How can I ever gain absolution for the sin of my race and sex?"

      But hey, if we're going to talk about white privilege -- and if we're going to be honest -- we also have to talk about the "uncomfortable" facts on the other side. EarendilStarsailor exposed the tip of it with his mentioning of how well Asians do, despite a history of discrimination against them. When kids are raised with the idea that they are victims, that nothing they do will ever be good enough, that "the man" will hold them back no matter what, it's pretty tough to turn them into grab-the-bull-by-the-horns problem-solvers. Unfortunately, that is the culture in much of the black community these days.

      Oh, and Peter -- a corrective for your definition of "feminist" these days. A feminist in this age is the kind of neurotic whiner who insists on "trigger warnings" before entering an English lit class for fear that her sensibilities might be offended. The fact that modern feminists seem to most closely resemble prim Victorians in their ability to be so easily offended is one of the great ironies of our generation.

  3. I appreciate this blog post. (Female former high-school teacher.) Just wading into these waters opens you up to criticism, and I'm sure whatever I say will do the same for me.

    I have been wondering why there isn't as much local outcry from teachers as I would expect about the consequences and injustices from the fake corporate education reforms, excessive testing, punitive assessments, etc. in place in my state. I don't think it is so much psychological or sociological as practical. Women who are K-12 teachers often are the primary caregivers of minor children. Yes, a modern enlightened spouse may be an equitable partner, but still in a majority of families I know a larger portion of caregiving falls to the teacher mother. Both classroom teaching and child-rearing are full-time jobs.

    This would apply to male teachers who are parents of minor children too. The issue may be practical - time and energy available for activism and community leadership?

    Lastly, I definitely think you are on to something about learning to accept conflict - it is learned. You need to get into the mix and learn to deal with the risk-taking, stress and negativity.

  4. I"ll wade in and give you my two cents. First--why aren't there more males in education. That is very simple--so very simple. It is the exact same reason why there were no male nurses when my mom began her career as a nurse and why now there are about 40%. Teaching was first a female job. It was and still is low paying (one can not raise a family on a single teacher's salary and for many years THAT was considered a man's job--to provide) Fast forward--nursing is now considered to be an elite job with the pay to go with it. Teaching however has not kept pace in pay. Most men that go into teaching do so knowing that they will either be very poor for life, that they will have to be apart of a "both parent working" relationship and pray that nothing happens that requires one of them to stay home or they go into Admin. Said and done. That is it.
    On the subject of race--I am so tired of everything thinking it is so shallow as just color. Color truly has so little to do with why children need people from their own culture in schools--especially when they are K-5--in order to learn so that they may grow and expand in middle and high school. THIS has everything to do with their culture, customs, dialect, idioms, slang and signals. The very essence of communication that these children have known up until that point in life. The deep south has their own way of speaking, their own dialect, customs, signals and more. It is very different from what you will experience out west in Nevada and even more different from what you will experience in Hawaii. When these children walk into a classroom and suddenly someone is speaking to you but you can't figure out what they are saying, what items they are referring to and whether or not they are mad, sad, happy or joking with you how on earth to you expect them to learn from you??I don't care how experienced and effect you are if you cannot connect with these children through their own culture then you can't teach them! I used to think that I could teach anyone--I grew up around the world as an AF Brat and I've experience pretty much everything. It wasn't until a few years ago that I arrived to the conclusion that the principal who told me that her "black babies needed black teachers in order to be able to learn" was right. She was completely right but not because of the color of the teacher-she was right because those children need someone who speaks the same language, idioms and slang. Who understands their culture. Who understands and can give back to them the signals and more. I grew up in the Far East and the South Pacific. I went to military schools and I was full immersion in the country I lived in. I had people around me who helped me acclimate and make sense of what was going on (interactions between people, how to bargin, how to talk), learn what and how to say it. What to wear and how to wear it. How to live daily.

  5. Then at the age of 13 I moved to Charleston, SC. I cried every single day when I came home from school. I could not understand what was being said to me. I could not understand what was being written on the board or even what my test said (yes, even the way they wrote letters was different) and I could not interact with the kids around me because I did not understand their mannerism, slang terms, if what they said was a joke or a threat. I was a stranger in my own country because I did not get the dialect, the customs, the idioms and more. If you don't get the culture then you don't get it. THAT is why we need teachers that are black, that are Native American Indian, the are Hawaiian, Latino and more. Go ahead send a black teacher into a native American Indian school and watch them take down the masks and more. Clueless as to what they mean and how important they are. I get it because my grandfather taught me why he had masks everywhere, why sitting on the council was important and why preserving our language, cultures and customs were so important. They keep trying to import teachers from the mainland to Hawaii and it is a dismal failure because they can't speak the language, pronounce the names, understand the need for being bare foot and they certainly don't understand the signals. They cannot connect to the children--they are speaking in a foreign language, doing things that the kids cannot understand and don't get which leaves you with kids who don't learn because the teacher doesn't know how to teach them to learn. Both are lost. Forget color--this goes so far beyond color. It always has and always will. This has nothing to do with "role models" --it has to do with a connection. A connection has no color but it does have a ton of substance and information. If you don't have it--you don't have it.

  6. A few quick reactions from my own experience:

    1. I teach at a girls school where 100% of my students advocate for equality of all genders (elimination of the gender wage gap, etc.). Yet, while some proudly call themselves feminists, others shy away from the term. Those in the latter group generally say they don't think women should be elevated above men, as if that's what feminism says. Personally, I think media distortion of the ideals of feminism and the true diversity of feminists out there contributes greatly to the problem. I think that dynamic may be similar to what you are trying to describe.

    2. If, by colourblind, you mean giving people the respect and dignity all human beings deserve regardless of the colour of the their skin, I think certainly that should be a given. But in practice, skin colour is in fact an important part of who we are, and in that sense, I believe that to "not see colour" is in effect to not acknowledge every aspect of our identities.

    3. You seem to be assuming a binary view both in gender identity and in gender expression (or gender culture). I acknowledge of course that a binary view of identity/expression works perfectly well for most people, and that many male-identified people are comfortable with masculinity while many female-identified people are comfortable with femininity. However, other people experience life through a greater diversity of gender and expression, and I see no acknowledgement of that fact. I know the post says "for white guys" but it still seems worth mentioning.

    All that said, I think your point that there is a need to "start actually listening" is very well taken. I think part of that, for any person with privilege, is to be alert for the possibility that we may genuinely offend someone despite our good intentions and to simply and sincerely apologize on such occasions and understand why offense was taken. I also think part of that is working to educate ourselves, remembering that historically oppressed people are not personally responsible for teaching every person of privilege who has something to learn. And finally, I think that it's important to keep in mind that the intersections of different aspects of our identities interact in complex ways - you mention, in addition to what you focused on more specifically, effects of socio-economic class and sexuality, and I'd add in age and abledness as well as the broader concept of gender I've already mentioned - and so in a very real sense, everyone's story is unique.

    Does that make sense?