A teacher in Minnesota recently wrote a blog post publicly shaming his white male students and sadly, many people have applauded it. Even though he claims to be working to end the practice of treating groups differently based on their race, it is clear that he has made one exception to the rule: White boys. It’s hard to know the intended audience for the piece—if it is those who already think like he does, then the piece certainly checks all the right boxes. But if it is written with the goal of persuading folks outside of his echo chamber to consider what he has to say, then it falls really flat. If nothing else, the opinions expressed in the piece certainly do serve as an important reminder that all parents deserve to have an escape hatch when a teacher expresses contempt for their children—or at least their children’s immutable characteristics.
Tom Rademacher, former Teacher of the Year in the state of Minnesota, subscribes to a particular ideology of wokeness and believes that part of his responsibility to his White male students is to “interrupt them inheriting the power and permission to pursue their worst instincts.” When his students disengage, he interprets that not as a referendum on his teaching, but proof of their “entitlement.” In short, he sees it as his responsibility to impose his wokeness upon the White boys in his care. They must feel the guilt that he feels and then, when they do, rely on him, their teacher, to help them work through it:
I went through that same guilty resistance, and I did it when I was in my 20s and didn’t have nearly the ability my student has to name and express those feelings. So, good on you, dude, let’s talk about White guilt next week, acknowledge and talk about how to move past it.
Regardless of the intent—and I suspect it comes from a good place— he is deliberately causing his students to feel shame. He makes sweeping generalizations about all the White boys in his class, claims for which he provides zero evidence. For example, he claims that his White male students—and all White boys in general—”see Black Lives Matter and Black Panther as evidence that White boys are the enemy, simply because they are slightly less likely to be shown as the hero. There are White Boys who feel like even learning about different people is somehow an attack against them.”
Did all of his White students confess during a class discussion that the film “Black Panther” made them feel like the enemy? Do box office stats show that White boys and White men steered clear of seeing the film because the hero didn’t look like them? Was Black Panther not the top selling costume online for Walmart this past Halloween? And if Rademacher is correct and the White boys actually do feel like learning about “different people is an attack against them,” maybe it’s because they feel attacked in his classroom. And if they didn’t feel that way before he made his thoughts about them public, some likely do now if they have seen these words written by their teacher:
I’m trying. I am. But you know how the saying goes: You can lead a White male to anti-racism, but you can’t make him think.
It is inevitable that some will ascribe my visceral reaction here to my own status as a white suburban mother of boys, however that would be misguided and leave no chance for reflection or thoughtful debate. Issues of race, equity, and white privilege absolutely do belong in classrooms—and I’ve seen them navigated artfully, and not so artfully, during my years as an educator and also throughout my own children’s education. But while the conversations and texts have at times been challenging, controversial and even uncomfortable, the teachers did not feel the need to shame one subset of students or make insulting and broad-brush generalizations about them in a very public way.
Let’s imagine for a second that this same teacher—or any teacher—wrote a piece about his current students and made sweeping and insulting statements about all the Black boys. Or all the Jewish boys. Or all the Hispanic boys. Or any other group of students based on their race and gender. Twitter and Facebook would be ablaze with outrage and calls for the teacher’s head.
And Rademacher isn’t speaking generally about all the white boys he has taught over the course of his career—he is calling out the thirteen and fourteen year old ones that he teaches right now. He is currently an authority figure in their lives who has chosen to publicly objectify them out of what appears to be a sincere sense of obligation to help create a more “woke” world, a world in which white men, like him, stop being so god awful.
Colleen Dippel of Texas is a white suburban mother of a white son and a brown daughter—she is also the founder and executive director of the education nonprofit, Families Empowered. Her reaction on Twitter to this piece was swift as she rightly asserted that it is not this teacher’s job to make any kid uncomfortable.
His ideology of helping my white son become “woke” through shame is outrageous and it seems like this dude is still working out his own issues of guilt on the backs of his students.
Dippel also pointed out that the teacher seems to be assuming a lot about the experiences of children from what she called “modern families.” She raised the question of “how her own Brown daughter would feel about her White brother and mother based on this teacher’s world view?”
Shawnta Barnes is an African-American mother of twin boys in Indiana and also an experienced educator. She is no stranger to racism in the classroom and has spoken out publicly about her sons’ personal experiences as well as the larger issue of race in schools. When I asked her for her thoughts, she said “there were a lot of assumptions about white children in this piece.” It was her professional opinion that “if the teacher had written about how he is helping helping white children see other perspectives, that would have been better than to suggest that white children are not capable of seeing other perspectives or viewpoints. She went on to say that “shaming students isn’t the answer.”
Rhode Island principal and former state teacher of the year, Jessica Waters, who is also a mother of four, expressed compassion for the students saying “it’s as if white male students are not supposed to feel pain, like it’s ok to disparage them publicly simply because of their race and gender. Waters, who works with mostly pregnant and parenting teens and has never shied away from conversations about race and equity, added that “while I think the teacher’s energy is in the right place, his approach is totally counterproductive.”
The piece did get plenty of support, including from other teachers of the year. Nate Bowling, a 2016 National Teacher of the Year Finalist from Washington weighed in on Twitter saying that he felt compelled to send those of us taking issue with the piece a copy of the book “White Fragility” and he provided a photo of the book. There was condescension in the assumption that we—moms in this case—had not read the book simply because we do not happen to hold an opinion that he thinks we should.
Sydney Chaffee, 2017 National Teacher of the Year from Massachusetts, wrote a series of tweets in support of the piece and of the teacher. She opined that the outrage folks are expressing “misses the point” and said that her reading of the piece is that her friend Rademacher, “a former white boy, thinks a lot about the harm that students’ white privilege can do.” She went on to ask “how can we help our kids recognize their own white fragility in action? And how do we have these discussions as teachers in a way that feels generative and student-centered?” She added that Rademacher is one of the most honest and vulnerable teachers she knows and that she appreciates “his willingness expose his own messiness in the service of getting better for kids.”
White privilege exists. I have benefited from it personally every time I’ve ever been pulled over in my car, free to reach into my glove box or under my seat and then sent off with a warning. I experience it as a mother—and so do my boys— because of the confidence we have in knowing that if they were playing with a real looking toy gun in the yard and someone called the police, they would not be shot on the spot, as Tamir Rice was. My children are not zoned to unsafe schools that, for generations, have graduated legions of children who are neither literate nor numerate but are still handed diplomas and sent off into the world with a false sense of what they are prepared to do. I do not have to worry or fight in the same way that Black mothers do. That is undeniable.
But privilege is also complicated and not everything can be explained or understood through a racial lens. Children experience some form of privilege if they have college-educated parents, or two parents at home, or a reliable ride to school, or live in a safe neighborhood. And White boys don’t automatically feel threatened because of a box office hit about a Black superhero. Would Rademacher have written this piece about the white boys from Appalachia and attributed their lack of engagement to their entitlement? Would he work hard to bring out their white guilt and flippantly quip that “you can lead a white male to anti-racism but you can’t make him think”?
Teachers must be able to teach and discuss issues of race and civil rights without shaming any of the students assigned to their classroom, including the white male ones. And defining and discussing White privilege as a societal reality is part of the job in some academic disciplines. But teaching and talking about white privilege is not the same as beating children over the head with it and making them feel guilty for who they are—based on their race and their sex. There is no justification for a teacher publishing a piece of writing that demeans and caricatures one group of students currently enrolled in his classes—and one does have to wonder where the school administration and school board are when it happens to occur.
But Rademacher’s writings do serve as a powerful reminder that we should never force children to attend schools where the teacher at the front of the room feels and expresses utter disdain for them based solely on their immutable characteristics. While some parents may embrace Rademacher’s version of “sufficiently woke,” there are plenty who will not. And they shouldn’t have to. All parents, regardless of race or income or religion or class, deserve to have the freedom to choose a school where their children will not be shamed, mocked, or caricatured because of the color of their skin.