Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 19 2012

What would it take to make Teach For America anti-racist?

“The issues of racism in education explained to me how I could get kicked out of school in the eighth grade. How it was that a bright Latina kid could sit in front of a guidance counselor, tell her that I wanted to be placed on a college track because I’m going to go to UCLA to become a doctor, only to be told, “If you apply yourself you might be able to get a good job at the post office.” There I sat outraged, defiant, knowing I had been at the top of every class in elementary school, I had made all As in my first year of junior high, and all she saw was a Latina kid, and all the connotations that held, sitting in front of her. But I did not have a name for what was happening to me, or a framework on racism to understand what was happening. So I did what any self-preserving student might do. I told the guidance counselor to “fuck off.” That was the last straw, after getting caught smoking, hitting a teacher back, fighting with the black kids (why the hell was I fighting with the black kids, and why were they calling me a spic? We were all in the same free lunch line), I was officially kicked out.” — Margaret Zamudio, Critical Race Theory Matters: Education and Ideology

I get to read this. For school.

If I weren’t a little timid about saying I’m “on fire” about something, I would say I’m on fire about what I’m learning about critical race theory.

What would it take to make TFA an anti-racist organization? The most prolific teacher-factory in the country… the biggest and most prestigious service organization… the place to find “the best and the brightest”… we’re learning lately that (gasp) all TFA alumni do not think the same way—but what if they DID? Or at least, what if they all had at least two years’ worth of intentionally building a critical race consciousness?

But really. Which people would need to become deeply anti-racist in order to make TFA and its corps members anti-racist? How could those people be educated? Or who could take their place? Would TFA lose its credibility? Would hard-balling on race and racism alienate us from donors who like to think comfortably about Saving The Children? Would teaching kids to find and name their own oppression make us too radical for Fortune magazine?

Late-night epiphanies always used to make me cautious, but I’m over that. I don’t even care to make the concession I used to make about maybe not feeling this way tomorrow morning. I think this is the direction I want to go.

10 Responses

  1. aea107

    I was a critical race theory major in college (I’ll just say right off the bat I am white and not trying to represent the opinions of any people of color in this post), and I’m pretty sure TFA would need to do way more vetting and gather more background information on its applicants from the get-go in order to get ANY kind of a real picture of what the people it is recruiting/hiring are actually like, and what kind of ideology they hold. TFA could start with increasing its diversity initiatives to begin with. I think most people didn’t take the DCA sessions seriously at all, which is a real shame in my opinion because they were the most important sessions. My friends and I at institute and after would sit and talk for hours about the racist–whether or overt or not–garbage and ignorance and lack of sensitivity that would come out of people’s mouths during our sessions and while we were teaching or just hanging out in the dining hall. But how could TFA address that? Maybe by not hiring people like that to begin with, but a lot of it is genuinely just bread out of ignorance or poor understanding of how to talk about or frame certain topics like poverty.

    I complained to my MTLD about this frequently throughout the year. She, a black woman, was very sympathetic and interested in hearing what I had to say. She told me that, this year, TFA was trying to fix some of these problems by encouraging new CMs to go into the communities they would be working in and really trying to get to know them, and that the DCA sessions would be different and there would be more meaningful readings (like the one you posted above).

    Sadly, no amount of reading in the world, or even real-world experience, will change the opinions of some people.

    • Wess

      True, but if I can begin to feel stirrings from reading “why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria,” which I think is sort of a gentle race primer (and which was required reading for TFA), then surely there’s an opportunity to take that further.

      Readings are just readings, but I think TFA’s sloooowwwly moving in that direction. There’s a lot of “low-hanging-fruit” improvement to be made — improvements that don’t necessarily involve just changing the people.

  2. Libra

    Critical race theory is a lot like veganism, in that the main purpose of both seems to be letting the individual feel entitled to their self-righteousness. I use to be like this at 19. I’m so glad I grew up. I’m white and grew up immersed in African-American culture. I didn’t read about black people in a book. I slept over at their houses and shared meals with them in my home. I gave them home relaxers and they gave me twists and cornrows. I have almost no white friends. I have many friends of color who are deeply offended by white liberals who preach about racism all the time. As one of my friends said, “They take two sociology classes and feel qualified to speak about me and my experience better than I could do myself.”

    • Wess

      I think you’re right–there’s definitely a tendency for white liberals to act as if we know oppression better than those who are actually oppressed. I continue to learn the importance of listening to real people and their real experiences rather than assuming I understand everything. Most of that learning lately has been because of critical race theory, however.

      I’d argue that the main purpose of critical race theory is to challenge and combat dominant racist narratives. What would you say of the many people of color who are critical race theorists? Are they merely trying to justify their self-righteousness, too? And what would you have white people from white backgrounds do, if not learn about and act against racism? I know from speaking with many other TFA alum that living and working in communities with people of color alone are not enough to stop them from saying and doing some pretty racist things. I think it’s imperative to couple this experience with knowledge of a history of oppression and silencing that you don’t get just from being exposed to twists and cornrows.

      The excerpt I quoted is written by a person of color who did not understand and could not name her own oppression until she was formally educated in theory. Until that point, she bought into our myths of color-blindness and meritocracy and figured, as the rest of the country does, that it was her own fault she wasn’t succeeding. Critical race theory is about amplifying counter-narratives that help our kids see their oppression is not their fault, either–and help teachers see that their job is not about imposing their own ideals, or speaking for students or their communities, or tacitly allowing their kids to internalize racism, but about partnering with and empowering their students to have their own voice and actively criticizing the structures that prevent them from doing so.

  3. @Libra… But what if we (speaking as a white female) don’t have many opportunities for cornrows and sharing meals until we get to TFA and are doing it with our students and community members? How can we respond intelligently without being written off by minorities for sounding like we’re trying to articulate someone else’s history or current life?

    I think about this a lot, too, and how TFA is recruiting a diverse corps (which, according to latest news articles, IS happening with increasing %s each year). My biggest question goes back to DCA, too, because in my experience those sessions were a whole lot of white guilt and a whole lot of uncomfortable-looking, quiet people of color. How can we approach this so it’s authentic for EVERYONE and so it actually gets us somewhere? Auc a touchy topic to facilitate and present as a “requirement” but so, so necessary as a requirement for what we do!

    And, Wess, CMs did go into communitites much more this year, with mixed results tangibly and emotionally from both sides.

  4. G

    I could also throw ageism into the mix, but that’s a whole other story…

  5. Eastern North Carolina

    Places like enc are still deeply rooted in their foundation of old southern ways of thinking. So racism will prevail until that fades out.

  6. Bill

    TFA discourse of transformational teaching, supports and repeats a racialized power arrangement. An overwhelmingly white institution that serves (has power over) a population that is overwhelmingly of color linguistically positions teachers as agents, and students as patients. I am sure the intent of TFA isn’t racist or oppressive, but by failing to acknowledge the agency of students and families, and the cultural differences between school systems and homes (which may map onto color, but are also class-based), TFA may not be best serving students or teachers.

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