I need to offer up an opening caveat here; as a middle-aged white male who grew up and spent his entire life living north of the Mason-Dixon Line, I write the following coming from a certain life experience that is light-years removed from those of my students and their families, and most of my colleagues, let alone the random people I meet in New Orleans. The anecdote at the end of this post might offend some people, but it’s the way it happened.
Since moving to New Orleans in 2008 to help rebuild its wasteland of a public education system by becoming a teacher, I have had first-hand experience with many of the more esoteric issues that plague the educational system – and the community as a whole – with frightening regularity. What I have come to understand (at least on some levels) is that most of the issues stem from attitudes and stereotypes long entrenched. This is no great surprise, I suppose, from a sociological perspective, but its one thing to read about racism and negativity, and its root causes and ultimate effects, it’s another thing entirely to live it day after day.
(SEE: ‘A Teacher in New Orleans’ in the ‘Categories’ section of this blog, 26 posts, scroll up and to your right.)
What does continue to surprise me is that some of the worst practitioners of racist, outdated attitudes are African-American, and most of those that I have encountered are educators working in the system we are trying to reform. Key among those destructive attitudes is; my expectations for students are too high because of the backgrounds of most of our students, and the children here cannot do what they are being asked to do simply because they are black.
Call me a northern, bleeding-heart liberal if you like, but I believe both of those statements are highly offensive as well as being absolutely false. And no, these are not implied or imagined ideas and attitudes I am talking about; these are actual statements that have been made to me by both black and white residents of New Orleans, parents of my students, and black educators here. Interestingly, while to date no white educator I have worked with has made such direct statements to me, there are some that I have worked with that I feel believe them – but are more savvy in their racism than to say such things aloud. Subtle racism is not just a ‘northern thing’.
An incident last week outside the classroom really had me shaking my head, as in less than two minutes it summed up a whole bunch of my key frustrations about teaching in New Orleans.
The Friday before a week-long Thanksgiving break found me at home, still on the mend from recent surgery, but again able to drive, so when the other family in our car pool was leaving town early, I said it would be no problem for me to drive my high school freshman son to school for one day…until my car wouldn’t start. This was problematic, as my son not only had some key projects due, but he also attends a high-performing, nationally recognized school that actually has and enforces rules and expectations. I also knew I couldn’t just get him a ride there, because students arriving late need to be signed in by a parent. ‘Plan B’ was quickly obvious: call a cab for the 15 minute roundtrip. Phone book located, call made, taxi summoned.
The cab arrived quickly, and my son would end up only being ten minutes late – but an educational ten minute ride it was.
Our cabdriver was an African-American gentleman of about sixty. He greeted us warmly as we got into the backseat of his hack, he confirmed where we were going, and that I would be coming back to the house, and pulled away from the curb. We made some quick small talk; nice weather, traffic was light, car wouldn’t start, thanks for the quick response, etc.
Not a minute into the trip, totally out of the blue, our driver launched into a fascinating, disturbing, but not unprecedented (for me) monologue. “So you go to (school name)? Oh, man that’s a good school.” We nodded, as he continued with an opening phrase that I have heard more here in two years than in the rest of my life combined, and that always jars me; ‘you white folks’.
“You white folks do a good job with that. You work with your students at night with their lessons. See, black folks – we don’t do that. You know why? Because black folks think we know everything and we don’t listen to nobody. We don’t take advice. Even black folks we elect don’t listen to nothin’. Every time we have a black mayor, they always get into trouble because they don’t listen to nobody, won’t take no advice. Think they know it all. Some of them black mayors even went to jail – because they don’t listen. Like that last one, Nagin – he didn’t listen to nobody. Look at the mess he made! Now you take that Mr. Landreiu, the new mayor, he listens to folks…listens to advice and doesn’t think he knows everything. He’s a smart man, that Mr. Landrieu. White folks is different; you help your kids and that’s good. Black folks don’t do that.” The driver shook his head sadly, while my 15 year old, stared straight ahead, wide-eyed, as the cabbie added, “You got something good; that (name) is a good school.” (Interestingly, they also boast one of the most diverse student bodies in the city.)
“Yes, sir” replied my son, diplomatically.
“Yep. It’s a good school – he works hard. They don’t mess around there.” I added.
“Now see, that’s something else we black folks don’t do” continued the cab driver, “We always got to be messing around instead of doing what’s important.”
I didn’t know what to do or say, so I asked my son a few reminder questions about his school day, to which he responded affirmatively. As we pulled up to the school, I reminded the driver that I had to go sign in, but that I would be right back for the trip home. As I returned to the cab, I asked the driver if he was expecting a busy weekend, coming up on Thanksgiving. “Yep, Friday’s are always busy, holidays busier. You going anywhere on business or anything?”
“Nope” I replied, “I’m a teacher, got some time off because of some surgery, then off all next week.”
“Teacher? Really? Where at?”
“(Name) school – out in New Orleans East.”
“Well then” he chuckled, “Then you know exactly what I was talking about, ‘cause you see it every day with those kids.”
Unfortunately, I did know exactly what he was talking about (I think) but from a very different perspective than what he had intended. I said something about facing ‘daily challenges’ with my students and we rode the rest of the way in silence, save a radio call from his dispatcher with his next pick up. I paid him, he dropped me off at home, we exchanged pleasantries, he drove off.
Less than 20 minutes, round trip. Quite the lesson. My education here continues.