When I was in high school, nearly all my teachers were white. And now that I think about it, I can’t think of any nonwhite teachers at my school. They were mostly middle class women, though there were a few men as well.
I grew up in a city that was created by white flight, and still had sundown laws on the books.
But I wasn’t white.
I’ve written about my ethnic background before, and I’m always trying to unpack my identity. It’s one that’s fraught with questions. My dad is from Iran. My mom is Mexican and Citizen Potawatomi Nation — her father came from Mexico to the U.S., and her mother five generations removed from an ancestor that signed a tribal roll.
I’m not sure how I identify, but I am trying my best to connect with the cultures I come from.
Growing up, I was the brown kid in the friend group, with classmates calling it out every single time they had a chance.
It wasn’t uncommon for someone to walk up to the group of us in the cafeteria and say, “Hey white people. Hey Marisa.”
I existed in two spaces at once. I belonged to cultures I would never experience firsthand, and I ate Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and danced to Mariah Carrey songs while wearing JNCOs at the school dance.
But all that was palatable, because I soon went to college.
As many smart kids do, I appeased my anxiety and feeling of not belonging with the notion that things would change once I went to college. It didn’t matter what happened in middle and high school, because I would leave that all behind and finally get to be me.
I got to choose a path of study. I got to make friends who were interested in what I liked. I got to study with students from all over the world.
For the first time in my life, my teachers weren’t all white. I had black professors from the U.S., Jamaica, and Barbados. I had professors from Mexico and Puerto Rico.
I loved the books I was reading. And for the first time, we got to really dig into race. I had always loved English classes in high school because I was a reader, and the only place I saw the sort of internal discord I was experiencing was in books. Whether it was Faulkner, Kesey, or Woolf, I was exposed to some fantastic writing as a kid.
But the classroom discussions weren’t always as strong as they could’ve been. They weren’t always as meaningful. And there were times when it felt like the teacher wasn’t comfortable speaking on racial issues.
There were times when teachers looked at me, as if wanting me to share my experience. And I couldn’t because I was already singled out. It just didn’t feel safe to say anything in the classroom when I just wanted people to see me as one of them.
This isn’t to say that the teachers weren’t educated. If they went to college for English, surely they were exposed to the same ideas that I was being exposed to.
But what’s different is that my black college professors confronted ideas head-on. They shared their personal experiences and how they mirrored the experiences writers were sharing in the work we were analyzing.
We looked at historical context. We looked at critical theory.
And for the very first time in my life, racist comments from students were shut down.
That isn’t to say that the classroom was a place where the professors were telling us to shut up in favor of sharing one ideology. Rather, these professors were able to use that context and critical theory to show students, with compassion, how they were raised in a racist system and how the work we were doing was confronting that racism.
I’m sure that my high school teachers did confront that. After all, we read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man my senior year.
But there are some things that just sound hollow when said by the wrong person. Racism is a systemic issue, but it’s one that is experienced by individuals. So it never felt right to have a person without that experience teach me about it.
That’s not to say that white teachers shouldn’t confront racism in their classroom. It is to say that having teachers of color in the classroom is immensely important to help frame these discussions with context that often white teachers can’t.
I had taken a few creative writing classes before I got to college. All were taught by white, older women.
When I got to college, all my creative writing professors were black. All of them.
The things they pulled from my writing were things I didn’t know I had in me. We talked about cultural influences and cognitive dissonance. For the first time in my life, I wrote about Mexican characters, something I had been too ashamed to do until then.
I had professors who were “the other.” They knew what it was like to write about a life and a world that others claimed wasn’t universal. (How many brown and black kids have heard teachers and critique partners says “I just don’t think this story about _______ people will resonate with many people?”)
(Side note: Am I allowed to say that like 98% of western literary canon doesn’t resonate with me? Like, if I have to read another book about a rich white man who is grumpy about the boringness of life, I will die.)
Without these professors, I would probably still be writing fantasy novels with an all white cast of characters.
There’s nothing wrong with fantasy novels with all white characters. I still read those too.
But I’ve been empowered to write other things, and I know now that these stories are more powerful and personally cathartic than the things I had been writing before.
So all of this begs the question: What message to schools send by hiring all white teachers?
Because for me, the message was that I was the other. The message was that I was the token example. The message was that I had to imitate stories that didn’t mirror the life I was actually leading.
I am where I am today because I received a fantastic education in a district with a property tax embarrassment of riches. But I often wonder if I would be further if just one of my teachers in that district wasn’t white, and if I would’ve started writing the work I was meant to write sooner.