Critical Lessons & Educational Change

To White Teachers Who Look Like Me

Theresa Neddo

May 2012

To white teachers who look like me,

I want to share with you my journey toward an understanding of inequities that exist in our society that I was not even aware of. Perhaps you, like I, have been living in ignorance of the white privilege we are given whether we are aware of it or not and of the opportunity gap that those who are not white have faced throughout American history and continue to face.  Certainly, there are issues beyond race that are also inequitable that include class, gender and sexual orientation but this letter deals with my personal growing awareness of what goes on in our society in regards to race.

It doesn’t matter how liberal you may think you are or if you look at your beliefs as being color blind.  The reality is that by being white, we are part of the dominant ideology that shapes policy and practice in our society.  We will never understand what it’s like to be followed in a store or deal with unwarranted traffic stops because of the color of our skin.  We can’t understand what it’s like to risk ostracism for “acting white” by getting good grades and being in honor classes.  We can’t understand what it’s like to be denied entry to AP classes because of the color of our skin.  We can walk into any store, any museum, any public place without worry of suspicion based on the color of our skins.  Look through history books, college admissions, high school graduation rates, mortgage loan rates, and a wide array of other measures and the dominance/preference of being white is clear.

I used to sit on the fence on the issue of affirmative action and say I saw both sides of the issue.  Now I emphatically feel there needs to be more opportunities, more avenues to the full equity that our society says in the words “All men are created equal” but does not follow through in action for people of color.

We are a product of our own autobiography (Nieto, 2008) and if you are like me, my world, not in any way intentionally, is almost all white, except when I go to work where still my colleagues are mostly white, although our students are over 70% Asian, Black and Latino.  Nieto suggests that we need to educate ourselves and Giroux (2008) further suggests that teachers need to understand class, cultural, ideological, and gender dimensions that inform classroom life as well as the sociocultural dimensions of schooling.  Do we educate ourselves so that we truly do understand such things?  Do we even clearly realize how significant these issues are?

Being white gives us an experiential background of privilege and belonging whether we want it to be that way or not.  We are so used to being the dominant culture, we don’t even recognize its negative implications to those who aren’t white because it’s all we’ve ever known.  It’s important that we consider doing race differently (Moya and Markus, 2010) and be more aware of how race in America is “done” differently than in other countries and just because the ideas and practices of how we have done race are pretty much the same as we have done for years doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t change.  Perhaps the way we have done race up to now has been fair to those of us who are white but it is dramatically unfair to those who are not white and costing our nation untold millions of dollars in lost potential.

When we look at the alarming achievement gap that exists in our schools today, for some it may be easy to blame the gap on lack of motivation, poor parenting or other explanations that place the blame on the victim.  The rationale that in America, anyone who works hard can be successful is not always true.  There is a much larger problem that has caused the achievement gap and that can be conceptualized as an educational debt that Ladson Billings suggests that includes the economic debt we owe for the underfunding of urban schools for many years, a historical debt for the years of segregated schools, a sociopolitical debt for the resources we should have and could have invested and perhaps the most alarming debt, a moral debt for not addressing these debts long ago and allowing them to continue to this day.  It is that moral debt that I find myself contemplating again and again as a teacher and as a citizen.

Desmond Tutu said “If you are neutral on situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.  I believe that for so many of us who are white, it may not be that we don’t care but that we are ignorant of what the experience is of others and have assumed or perhaps never even thought that the privileges we enjoy as being white are not available to those who are not.  Many believe that anyone can be successful through hard work and perseverance.  However when there is cultural disconnect, lowered expectations, subliminal negative messages about not being white, devaluing the life experiences and funds of knowledge of others, the statistics are clear.  Whether children are in urban, rural or suburban settings, in lower, middle or upper income levels, if they are not white, they do not achieve as well in school on any measure such as graduation rates, standardized tests, or AP classes.

However one looks at our society, there are huge systemic issues that must be dealt with.  Whether one calls the inequity people of color face the achievement gap, the opportunity gap or educational debt, there is no doubt that now is the time to right wrongs that have been perpetuated for far too many years.  For white people, particularly those of us who have chosen to dedicate ourselves to the education of our nation’s most precious commodity, our children, it is not morally or ethically acceptable to be neutral, ignorant or uncaring one more day.  If you need to educate yourself, read what has been written by H.A. Giroux, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Sandra Nieto,  L.C. Moll,  Linda Darling-Hammond and many others.  Take advantage of opportunities to participate in interracial group interactions like Courageous Conversations or Intergroup Dialogues.  Then it is up to each of us to help make change happen, to become politically active, to continue to educate ourselves, to help shape policies and change practices to end the gaps and debt.  To be silent or neutral is to be on the side of the oppressor and that is not the side I , and I hope you, want to be on.   Let us choose instead to come together and use our collective genius to overhaul the systemic inequities that are so hurtful to those who are not white.

With great hopes for a better tomorrow,

Theresa Neddo

Author’s Statement

I have been an urban classroom teacher for over 30 years and feel an almost daily onslaught against teachers who look like me; white, female, middle class with many years of experience. We are stereotyped as burnt out, biased, reluctant to change, only teaching for the summers off, unworthy of our “hefty” paychecks and benefits, just waiting out time until we can collect our pensions, dead weight, keeping out younger, more up to date, more passionate teachers and a slew of other negative labels.  Although I think many of those are unfair and frequently inaccurate, I do think that being white, whether a first year teacher or well into one’s career, puts one in a position to be unaware and ignorant of white privilege and the inequities others face because it is not in our experience.  Thus, I write this letter to help teachers who look like me open their minds to the experience of others and a call to action to end the inequities that sabotage our education system.  I still feel I am as passionate and committed to wanting to be the very best I can be for the students I teach as I was in my first year and find the stereotypes of those like me very hurtful and often untrue.  Though I wish I knew then what I know now and now that I know, I want to know more and then put my knowledge into action to help make things better.  This is why I have chosen to work toward my doctorate and why I have found this class so very beneficial to my personal and professional growth.  Thank you to Reba Hodge for the idea of teachers white like me from her letter to children who look like her.


Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The flat world and education: How America’s      commitment will determine our future. New York, NY :Teachers College Press.

Giroux, H.A. (2008). Teacher education and democratic schooling. In A. Darder, M.P. Baltodano, & R. Torres (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader (2nd ed., pp. 438-459). New York, NY: Routledge.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher,35, 3-12.

Moll, L.C. (2010). Mobilizing culture, language, and educational practices: Fulfilling the promises of Mendez and Brown. Educational Researcher, 39, 451-460.

Moya, P.M.L. & Markus, H.R. (2010). Doing race: An introduction. In H.R. Markus & P.M.L. Moya (Eds.) Doing race: 21 essays for the 21st century (pp.1-102) New York, NY:Norton.

Nieto, S. (2008), Bringing bilingual education out of the basement and other imperatives for teacher education. In A, Darder, M.P. Baltodano, & R. Torres (Eds.), The critical pedagogy reader (2nd ed., pp, 469-482). New York, NY: Routledge.