Despite the fact that classrooms are growing more diverse, with students of color making up more than 40 percent of the student population in the U.S., just 18 percent of teachers are people of color.
The lack of diversity in the classroom becomes magnified when we have bigger national conversations about how society thinks teachers should look and behave in the classroom and what they should teach.
For instance, a young paraprofessional educator of color, Patrice Brown, recently became the center of an internet controversy over wardrobe choices for teachers after she put photos of herself in the classroom on Instagram and was criticized for dressing inappropriately — a reaction that speaks to bigger issues about how black women are portrayed as hypersexual.
ThinkProgress spoke to Valencia Clay, who is a humanities teacher in Harlem and author of the book Soundless Cries Don’t Lead to Healing, about the challenges of being a young black female teacher dealing with racial biases in the classroom.
ThinkProgress: When you saw these images of a young black teacher go viral, what were you thinking? Some people said her taking photos in the classroom was inappropriate.
Valencia Clay: I mean, as far as taking pictures in the classroom, people of color have to do that. That is our service to glorify the profession with there only being such a small amount of us — only 20 percent. That is the only way we can show people that this is something that needs to happen, that this is something that is fun.
As far as her outfit, that is something that varies by school. I personally don’t have a comment on what she was wearing, but the [staff at the] school…they saw when she walked through the door what she was wearing.
“We’re supposed to look like, Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus.”
The memes that I saw of her were disheartening, with champagne bottles in her hand. I lived in Washington Heights and I am Dominican, so on so many levels, I feel like I am her — I could easily wear something that might be too tight one day and then what’s going to happen? I’m not saying she shouldn’t be taking pictures. I just don’t know who has a right to say what she can wear.
A lot of people were also responding by saying her body type, not just her choice of clothing, led to the criticism of her photos. Do you think that had anything to do with people’s reactions or do you disagree?
Yeah, I feel like we can’t really help the way we are born. And I feel there is a stereotype that teachers are supposed to look a certain way and dress a certain way — or just in the public eye, that we’re supposed to look like, Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus or something, or Mr. Feeny [from Boy Meets World]. Most schools, they don’t have a dress code.
— Fallon DeMornay 👠 (@FallonDemornay) September 6, 2016
— Nathania Chua (@PilosopoTanya) September 15, 2016
Women don’t look the way that teachers may have looked in a certain era, whatever that may be. That’s how she looks and if she feels comfortable in what she’s wearing, why does anyone have a problem with it? Certainly a parent or administrator may want to say something but to say that because she has a certain shape, she can’t wear a dress is just absurd.
Speaking in terms of broader issues you’re encountering as a female teacher of color, do you find yourself contending with any specific biases?
I’m the total opposite of this teacher — so I’m tiny, I’m only 5 feet 2 inches. I’m 112 pounds. I don’t have even half of the shape she has, but I’ve had the experience of I feeling like I wasn’t taken as seriously because of my stature, as a woman, as a woman of color, and as petite as I am.
And this school year, I’ve had experiences where I have to stick up for myself. In those instances I’ve learned I just have to teach. I can’t personalize anyone’s view of me. I remember why I am there — and I’m not there for anyone but the kids.
I have a very tough skin. There are people who run from the classroom because of those same exact feelings, especially being a teacher of color. There are so few of us that we’re not supported in our role as a teacher of color. My expertise is demeaned. That is something we all have felt at one time or another and this doesn’t stem from appearance, it stems from their own fixed mindset around whom who should be educating whom.
How do you incorporate current events into your teaching, and do you ever discuss issues like police brutality or teach literature that has a greater diversity of authors than typical classroom texts?
I do my best to move away from the labels, so saying “police brutality” would put an emphasis on my belief that police are doing something wrong or seem brutal. I want to remove all the bias from that, so I’ll use a phrase like “abuse of power” and look at it from the lens of “Who is abusing power here?” So the kids can come up with their own judgments without feeling like I’m saying it. I try to take myself out of the situation. It’s the same thing if I’m teaching black history versus world history versus traditional American history, that doesn’t really tell the truth about the world, and I keep it general as possible and keep it as broad as I can, so students can come up with their own opinions.
“Kids can come up with their own judgments.”
At this point, we have the internet to allow kids to say or to ask questions on their own. I can easily show a video to them or pull an article from the internet and they continue to ask and continue to research. And then they become more informed before they tell someone else. They are empowered as they can possibly be. That is my goal in teaching anything.
I do find it important to teach black history in the middle school age because at this point they don’t really know who they are, so identity plays such a big role in all of my curricula for the entire year. If that means a lesson on black history, it becomes that.
I know the national numbers show there are still few teachers of color in the classroom. I’m not sure of the makeup of your current school. If there are few teachers of color, do you ever feel isolated?
In this school, no, we actually have a great population of black and brown teachers. This is one of the first schools where there are so many people of color who aren’t just in the role of behavior management. Schools where I felt like the token black teacher, as frustrating as that may sound, you realize that you’re there for a reason beyond yourself. And it’s very necessary that when we find ourselves as so-called tokens, we have to look beyond that school and see it as opportunity to recruit other people in the right way.
That’s why I use my blog, social media, even the book I just wrote to say, “Hey, we need more of us.” At the same time, I don’t think white teachers are going anywhere anytime soon. So I think we can’t just say we need to teach our own. We need to teach other people how to teach our own effectively and I think that’s what we have to do when we find ourselves in a building so alone and full of white teachers who are there for many different reasons.
Because at the end of the day, we can use that energy to say, “Can I have a frank conversation with you? Can I be candid? Can you use this literature and tell you how to use it when you teach or can I watch you teach and offer you some advice?”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.