Setting the Stage
Mr. Treller was a soft-spoken man who showed his disapproval through piercing glares and pursed lips. During 7th and 8th grade, I was the object of his scrutiny because I chose to stay buried in my favorite reading books instead of paying attention in his middle school history classes. Although he wasn’t aware of it, he was one of the few people who acted as a key influence in my life. His classes sharply contrasted with the method of learning I received from my parents at home. A majority of lessons with my parents involved sitting in a warm kitchen, or on a brightly patterned carpet in the living area. Mr. Treller’s classroom was starkly bleak and devoid of life in comparison. Within a 900 square foot room, 5 rows of student desks were lined in neat columns to face the front wall. His desk sat slightly left to the center of the room facing the back wall.
After the students filed into the room in two lines and into assigned seats, Mr. Treller would stand and teach a lesson that never deviated far from the government approved textbook and assign a series of tasks afterwards. He was one of five teachers assigned the task of educating highly gifted students, yet his pedagogical approach to teaching 37 black and brown children within the Charles Drew Medical Program suggested otherwise. One of the particular history lessons he taught centered around what he deemed dominant figures in society. This particular lesson revolved around a man named Eli Whitney. Mr. Treller proudly coined him as the figure who “spearheaded” the agricultural boom in the United States. After seeing our puzzled expressions to why we should know him, Mr Treller approached the blackboard with a flattened unlit pipe clenched in his teeth and drew a large circle with small spikes surrounding it. He explained how Eli Whitney’s creation of the cotton gin allowed for the seeds to be removed much quicker which ultimately increased the rate in which landowners could produce cotton.
Many of Mr. Treller’s lessons on prominent figures such as Eli Whitney that were often quoted verbatim from the assigned textbook seemed oddly inappropriate to my identity as a young Black teen. This memory of Eli Whitney and what he invented is largely due to the onslaught of feelings the instructor caused me to feel with his depiction of Whitney. The excited gleam in his eyes and what he considered innovative and valuable in this particular moment of United States history seemed unjust. There was no mention of the population of enslaved people that were forced into laboring for landowners and families during that time. Furthermore, his praise of the growth of the US economy seemed insincere in comparison to my parents constant reminders at home that our black and brown ancestors suffered due to slavery yet ultimately prevailed during one of this horrendous time in history.
His lecture paled in comparison to the animated conversations I would have with my parents and siblings about Imhotep, Ra, The Haitian Revolution, and the continual rise of prominent black figures in the United States. This naturally resulted in my search to be intellectually stimulated. During his lectures, I escaped the physical confines of the room by reading the work of Octavia Butler, N. K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Nisi Shawl and other gifted writers.
Ironically, Mr. Treller mistook my craving for intellectual stimulation as a lack of engagement within his classroom. Instead of inquiring about my lack of participation he questioned my ability to keep up with the rigorous curriculum. Unlike my parents, who measured my comprehension level through conversation and probing questions, Mr. Treller issued a weekly exam, which required students to write short responses to each topic that was discussed throughout the week. I didn’t prioritize his exams because as a student who had a passion for reading, writing, and learning, his exams were a representation of him flexing his privilege as an instructor upon a classroom that I personally felt was not benefiting from learning from his particular perspective.
Whiteness consists of three main components: racial privilege, racial identity and racial bias (Omi and Winant, 1989). Citizenship, Whiteness and the notion of who is considered deserving to live and thrive as Americans in the US has expanded over multiple decades. According to Omi and Winant, the grounding assumption within the United States that occurred in the 19th century was that whiteness was linked synonymously with being an American citizen. Over the course of the 20th century there was a shift to whiteness being a perceptual identity versus a racial identity. This shift occurred when immigrants of Irish descent migrated to the Americas. The third shift in the definition of whiteness occurred at the end of the 20th century, with WWII, the great depression and the New Deal. This movement created a space for people to be identified as Americans who also could easily fit into the aesthetic of whiteness (Omi and Winant, 1989).
The day Mr. Treller requested to review my records to verify that I was a gifted student and deserved to remain in his class was the day he used his whiteness as a form of privilege. He deliberately cashed in on his whiteness as a form of currency to cross into a space and request access to records that should have only been available to the magnet coordinator and my parents.
He also legitimized his inquiry of my position in an advanced class setting from a patriotic viewpoint in that he felt that it was his job to question who should be granted space in certain spaces of learning. In this situation, he was flexing his power as a white male teacher interacting with a student of color, and as a white male within a primarily black and brown space. Even after seeing my orange folder, which shows documentation of me being gifted, he still suggested that I be put in general ed classes. The perceived superiority and the value of his opinion from a primarily white lens was problematic in that he felt comfortable requesting the removal of a student from an advanced class although administrative records within the school system verified my placement in his classroom. The details of his actions were relayed to me by Mr. Treller himself. After not being granted permission to remove me from his classroom, he informed me that I would benefit more as a student if I were relocated into a remedial course. This one sided conversation parallels to a majority of instances in which whiteness is used as an oppressive tool in United States History. Mr. Treller functioned within the margins of whiteness with his implicit and explicit desires to have me removed from his class. In this specific instance, the removal of prominent people of color from the government approved textbook and United States history paralleled directly with the attempt of my history teacher attempting to remove me from the honors courses at my school. His attempt to determine what information and which students were of value is closely associated with his whiteness and him utilizing it to establish and maintain power.
REwriting History: Eliminating Implicit bias in favor of cultural competency
In response to Mr. Treller’s thinly veiled demands that I leave his classroom, I became spiteful of the educational system as a whole. In an attempt to have him swallow his pride, I decided shortly after our conversation that I would excel within his class according to what he deemed acceptable. I scored nearly all perfect scores on his exams for the remainder of the year and became the recipient of Mr. Treller’s puzzled frowns and raised eyebrows. In comparison, the administrative staff praised me for what seemed like an great improvement. At the end of the semester, Mr. Treller approached me again and demanded to know who was helping me with comprehending the content in his course. He scoffed at my claims that I received no assistance. Mr. Treller ultimately addressed my shift in performance from a deficit based approach (Solorzano, 2001). It contrasts sharply with the positive approach mother did. Through asking “how” he ultimately revealed how he did not believe that I was truly capable of ever being in possession of what he considered intelligence in the first place.
As a scholar, womanist, and aspiring educator I would like to proffer an alternate reality to the unfortunate experience that I had as a adolescent. Within this alternate reality Mr. Treller would be handed a racial equity toolbox in response to his microaggressive claims of my incompetence.
The toolbox would consist of the following: a foundation that would include him (1)Recognizing his implicit Bias, (2) Identifying his internalized racism, and (3) Identifying his White-Male privilege. The foundation of this toolbox will also allow him to create welcoming environment within his classroom. Through using this toolbox Mr. Treller would not only have served as an adequate educator but would not have implicitly and explicitly devalued the history and education of myself and others with backgrounds that deviate from a eurocentric point of view. It is my hope that one day there won’t be a necessity for a creation of an alternate reality or any sort of “toolbox” that needs to be administered to educators to correct their deviant behavior. In the ideal reality inclusivity, competency, and quality teaching methods will be a requirement of all educators with no special exceptions made for those who move within and directly benefit from white supremacy.
Drew, E. M. (2013). Whiteness as Currency: Rethinking the Exchange Rate. In Living with Class (pp. 101-105). Palgrave Macmillan US.
Solorzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2001). From racial stereotyping and deficit discourse toward a critical race theory in teacher education. Multicultural Education, 9(1), 2-8. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.library.arizona.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/216501989?accountid=8360
Solórzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2002). Critical race methodology: Counter-storytelling as an analytical framework for education research. Qualitative inquiry, 8(1), 23-44.
Solorzano, D. (1997). Images and Words that Wound: Critical Race Theory, Racial Stereotyping, and Teacher Education. Teacher Education Quarterly, 24(3), 5-19. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23478088
Solorzano, D., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. (2000). Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students. The Journal of Negro Education, 69(1/2), 60-73. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2696265