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White Educators Ask Questions About What Happens When White Women Cry in Schools

In November, I wrote the article Black Educators Share Their Thoughts on What Happens When White Women Cry in Schools. Then, in January I shared a 2nd article in which Black education leaders shared DIFFERENT views on white tears.

In my conversations with educators, I am learning that in order to change the way we lead, coach, mentor, and manage in schools and education organizations it is important to note some of the possible root causes of white tears and how schools commonly respond to them.

  • Fear: The white woman may be afraid of a certain outcome or of a person.  “I feel intimidated by my coach.  She keeps telling me what to do.”
  • Frustration:  The white woman may not know what to do and may expect someone to solve her problem.  “I am so overwhelmed.  I just need help.”
  • Manipulation: The white woman may want her way and recognize from previous experience that her tears move people to act. “I’ll just go above my boss’ head.”
  • Habit: The white woman may have been raised in an environment in which she commonly saw other white women cry or may have been encouraged to cry.  She may have been told growing up to “just let it out.”

None of these reasons excuse schools from the practice of elevating a white woman’s tears above the needs of Black and Brown children.  Yes, let’s show human compassion to people in pain.  But empathizing should not change the ultimate purpose of education, which as Dr. King noted, is “to teach one to think intensively and to think critically…to sift and weigh evidence…to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his/her life.”  The message is, “Work through the tears.  When you go back into the classroom, how will you be better for your students?”

Since the first article, several white educators have made comments and asked questions on the topic.  In this article, I share a number of comments and my corresponding response. My intention is to explore some of the root causes of white tears, and the ways in which people respond, so that we can identify solutions that facilitate more powerful experiences for Black and Brown students who have white female teachers. 

I also just really appreciate the dialogue and wanted to share.  🙂

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Comment: An interesting topic for research and reflection!  Also interesting to find that…tear scenarios can be related to power struggles: Making someone cry can be an effort by powerless students to feel they have control in a situation.

My response: I do not believe anyone can “make” someone else cry.  Years ago I subscribed to this theory until I started to realize that it is more that we give a particular stimuli power; then, when that stimuli is enacted, we may cry.  So in essence, people may give us reason to cry, but they don’t make us cry.  The opportunity here is for us to consider how we respond to varying stimuli.  In the case of urban school settings, because white tears can be so distracting, the white female teacher has an opportunity and responsibility to reframe how she sees certain student behaviors and reactions from managers.  One way to do this is to ask what the function of the student behavior is and to respond accordingly.  If students are bored, attempt to me more engaging. If students are confused, teach the material in a way that connects more with the student. 

The added responsibility is that when a white teacher disagrees with a decision from a school leader, but that decision is in the best interest of the child, rather than distract with tears, it serves children better when the white female lays her personal interests aside.  I also believe that students are very powerful.  Quite frankly, all human beings are. The unfortunate reality is that schools often see children from urban environments as powerless because of the way society has minimized certain groups in this country.  Just as a muscle gains strength due to repeatedly carrying a heavy weight, so does the human being who bears the weightiest oppression.  As such, one might imagine that Black and Brown children from lower income environments are likely some of the strongest individuals in America.  It is the educator’s responsibility to facilitate opportunities for students to exercise and acknowledge their power.

Comment: If a teacher’s goals for students are narrowly focused on helping students with learning in subject areas, but students’ goals are different—to compete for power—then of course there will be a problem.

My response: An unfortunate misnomer is that one can teach Black and Brown child content without teaching the child.  No matter what, we are teaching content to human beings.  We are not just teaching content.  In addiiton, there are certainly times when students and teachers compete for power with one another.  In my experience, students often are responding to a teacher’s persona.   And as a former school leader, I sincerely believe it is the teacher’s presentation of her/his self and the subsequent interaction with students “that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

Comment: If the teacher is a white woman in a 50% or greater Black school, it’s good to ask, do administrators respond to her tears differently than to Black tears? Do students respond differently?

My response: First, I do not remember a time when I have seen a Black staff member cry in the workplace. This is an important distinction.  In general, crying is not a routine practice in the Black community.  In contrast, crying is a more routine practice in white communities.  In the article, 4 Ways White People Can Process Their Emotions Without Bringing the White Tears, the author writes:

If you’re a white person who has been in many activist spaces [urban schools are activist spaces], then you’ve probably experienced a specific, often unspoken ground rule: There’s no room for white tears in this space.  This sort of rule is instilled because oftentimes, in other spaces, your emotions, and the emotions of other white people, are constantly centerednurtured, and coddled when it comes to conversations about race.

Furthermore, because racism is a smog that impacts us all, it is very likely that one’s race impacts the way we perceive ourselves and others.   The difference in the student and staff demographic further exacerbates the ways that racism play out in schools.  In the article Black Educators Share Their Thoughts on What Happens When White Women Cry in Schools, a Black female Education Director working in a school-based non-profit summarizes why white female tears are regarded differently than the tears of others.

People take pity on [white women]. They are seen as fragile. Woe is the White woman. What can we do to make life better? Black women are received differently. I don’t think people look to rectify the situation if it is a Black woman that is crying. I think that White women’s tears are seen as more valuable. Think about movies that teach us about White fragility. The White woman is seen as a damsel in distress. They are told that they are important and that people need to tend to them all the time. The impact on children is that because their tears are valued much more than Black children, what’s better for White women takes precedence over the needs of Black children. So, things that need to be done for Black children won’t happen because of the White woman’s concerns. Children are pushed aside.

Comment: But it’s also good to ask about the source of the tears, at least as perceived by the person shedding them (bearing in mind that we are in some ways a mystery to ourselves, and the reasons we admit might not be the full reasons). ~ Is the teacher crying because she is a privileged white woman who thought  she would grace students in an inter-racial school with her help, but her efforts were rejected?   I think it is important to note that if someone is white, they have racial privilege.

My response: I absolutely agree that if someone is white, they have racial privilege.  In some cases yes the white female may feel as if her efforts are rejected.  Viewing the phenomenon in this way may be the root of the problem.  If we define rejection as dismissing something as unwanted or inadequate, we are saying that the student is not valuing the teacher and/or what is being presented.  Consider this example: Starbucks is aware that many folks during the autumn and winter months prefer pumpkin products; therefore, it is common to see a pumpkin spiced latte on the menu is November.  Why is this?  Starbucks sees it as its responsibility to understand what will garner the attention of the customer and adjusts it products and marketing accordingly.  Such is the role of the teacher. 

If the student is not receptive for whatever reason, the teacher has the responsibility to adjust.  (My message to students would be to ensure they learn what they need for their future, but for this article, I am speaking specifically to/about the white female teacher.)  In my experience, all human beings desire to be successful in whatever they do.  As such, if the white woman, or any educator, believes that a student is rejecting her efforts, the educator has the responsibility to reflect on the root cause.  When students feel respected, affirmed, and valued by their teachers, it is rare for them to reject a teacher’s efforts.  So the question becomes to what degree is the teacher, the white female in particular, demonstrating respect, affirmation, and value with all students, all of the time.  Is this a challenging ask? Absolutely.  But that doesn’t change the goal: 100% of students being affirmed, respected and valued 100% of the time, which will result in higher and higher achievement outcomes and therefore access to more expansive opportunities.  That is true social justice.

Comment: Does the white woman perceive herself as the target of a disproportionate number of power struggles with students, more than her male or Black colleagues have to deal with?

My response: The answer for some white women may be yes.  But the answer could also be no. The charge, however, is that when any of us enter into urban school environments, we do so as guests in a child’s school.  We do so with the focus on achieving social justice.  As such, the hope is that the guest—in this case, the white woman– considers the history of the student, of the community, of the school, of the classroom, and adjusts her approach to meet the needs of the students thereby potentially decreasing her struggles.  The irony is that in many charter schools, because the leadership is often predominately white, the white female often experiences a disproportionate advantage with school and network leadership as compared to Black and Brown colleagues and is not held accountable to serve as deeply as she could because of the sympathy white leadership (and even leaders of color) feel for the white female teacher.

Comment: You make a lot of hopefully untrue assumptions here. What I gather from this statement is that you assume that somehow (consciously or unconsciously) Black parents teach their children that they have to respect their parents (or Black people in general? But in any case their parents) but not white people/ women. Why otherwise would the (young!) first-graders not have the same or at least a similar respect for “a privileged white woman” as for their parents? True, the feeling and respect children have for parents will never equal that which they have for teachers (where, in my experience, the respect for teachers, i.e. strangers at first, is slightly higher rather than lower). But why would these kids come to school with a lesser respect for a white (female) teacher? If that is the case, something in their upbringing or experiences must have taught them that this is justified or okay.

My response: I don’t know that I am suggesting that any race or ethnic group all teach their children the same thing.   I think it is more about what we are seeing play out in many classrooms with young, white female teachers.  A Black educator said,

White women need to go to a training about their privilege. Give them tools to combat their perceptions of disrespect. Respect seems to be a big deal. Teachers send students out of the room all the time for disrespect. White teachers need to give respect to get it and understand what respect means for the community the teacher is serving.

It could also be that racism is at the root, given that Americans have been exposed to countless images suggesting that Black people and people of color are inferior.  Since this is the case, teachers have the responsibility to reflect on their biases about their students and the degree to which these biases are obstacles to building deep relationships that translate into learning outcomes.   (It is important to ask “the degree to which” because we all have biases.  So instead of asking someone if they have a bias, consider asking them the degree to which their biases are impacting their work.)  An additional consideration is that often, a child does not struggle with ALL adults in a school.  As such, the teacher (for the sake of this conversation, the white female teacher) has a responsibility to notice when the child is being successful, what that adult is doing to facilitate that success, and to attempt to replicate those mindsets/actions.

Comment: The other assumption (or generalization based on your experience?) you make is that the (white, female) teacher is not professional (!) enough to distance herself from disrespectful words (or maybe even insults) from both her STUDENTS and SMALL children. If so, that teacher would have a serious issue that might call into question her (!) ability to work with small children at all! Also: White FEMALE teacher. So: This problem does not occur with white male teachers? Female teachers from other races? Would Black children respect the Asian female, white male or Hispanic female or male teacher? Would their respect for a Black male teacher differ from that for a Black female teacher? This might be academically interesting and ultimately helpful for teaching (children of all races) if there is a correlation between respect for a teacher, the teacher’s gender and race.

My response: I imagine that all people regardless of race, class, gender, and religion can be disrespectful and can be disrespected. Given that the vast majority of teachers in urban areas are white and female, there is a significant opportunity and responsibility for schools and school personnel to systematically examine how schools, school systems, and school leaders manage, coach, lead and mentor white female teachers (as compared to others), particularly when that regard is detrimental to children who already have less opportunities than their white, affluent peers.   I also am not sure that the term “professionalism” captures the sentiment I am attempting to convey.  Certainly being disrespectful can fall under the category of professionalism.  But the larger issue is that schools and school systems are not often labeling white tears as unprofessional.  Actually, I’ve seen Black anger labeled as unprofessional and white tears labeled as a coaching opportunity.  (The bigger question may be that IF anger rather than tears is a more common response from African Americans, and Black students follow this same pattern, how can we learn from the Black staff member’s anger as a way to empathize with the Black child and Black parent who may also be angry?)

Comment: Another problem your statement brings up in my opinion: Teachers do have to earn some respect from their students. But usually, I would assume that students, above all first graders, arrive with some basic respect for all adults. If you assume that this is not the case, should all teachers take this possibility into account and assume that their students might be – mistrustful of them? If so, what would be the right way to approach the students to build trust which ultimately leads to respect? And would that not be some kind of misanthropic view of children – that they respect potentially no adult outside their immediate family?

My response: In any new relationship (e.g., online dating, meeting a colleague, joining a religious center), individuals must build trust with one another in order for the union to be healthy.  This practice is a common part of the human experience.  In urban schools, somehow we forget that Black and Brown children from lower income backgrounds are human as well.  When individuals from outside of a child’s community come into their school, particularly in neighborhoods where the history of that school is that children and parents are underserved, there is an additional responsibility for the educator to build relationships with the families for the sake of the relationship but also because urban education is social justice work, not simply the work of teaching content.  In other words, urban education work is the work of redistributing privilege from those who unjustly have it to those who justly deserve it. 

Consider this: in affluent areas, teachers are expected to know their students and families deeply, but it is rare that we question that expectation because the parents have a “right” to being served and to being served the way they want to be served.  Unfortunately, with the most oppressed groups, educators may be prone to believe that it is the children that are privileged to have a particular teacher and therefore not invest in building trust with students and parents.  It is imperative that educators deem it a privilege to serve in Black and Brown schools and communities IF we want Black and Brown children to thrive.  This is mindset work.  This shift in thinking may transform into educators assuming the best of ALL children, affirming them, thereby garnering the trust of even the most disenfranchised students and parents alike.

Comment: Does  she cry because she feels herself unable to deal with the challenges the job presents her?

My response: Possibly so.  All staff members come to a job with varying levels of skill, will, and mindset.  The responsibility of the employee is to maintain their strengths and improve in areas where they need to grow.  For example, if the skill is how to create an aligned exit assessment, the teacher can examine common core artifacts, the phrases used on state tests, examples of colleagues’ work that could give her ideas.  These efforts may help her to improve in this area thereby getting better results with her children and reducing the potential for her to cry.  If it is will that is the issue, the teacher might consider what it will take for her to be inspired and motivated and to stay that way.  It could be identifying child that she has a great relationship with and remaining focused for him or her.  If it is mindset, the teacher could examine what she believes about Black and Brown children. If the teacher does not believe that Black and Brown children are inherently gifted, beautiful, and worthy, then no amount of skill development will yield the highest result.

Comment: In other words, how administrators respond to her tears, and whether the response embodies discrimination, are important questions, yes.  But this is not the only question:  If you explore that question independent of the cause of the tears, your methodology may fall apart: Some tears from specific causes, from *any* teacher, given the specifics of cause, history and context, might more fairly elicit certain kinds of responses, even in the eyes of Dr. King.

My response: Tears from different people likely will yield varying responses.  Tears from white women generally yield more sympathy than for people or color. This proclivity to empathize with white women ABOVE Black and Brown children undermines the very purpose of education. If the purpose of education is, as Dr. King noted, “to teach one to think intensively and to think critically…to sift and weigh evidence…to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his/her life.”  Dr. King would likely empathize with tears but not at the cost of educating Black and Brown children.  Currently, many schools are sacrificing the child because of white tears.  Empathize, but push all educators to still act on behalf of the child.

Comment: If the tears are from a teacher without tenure who is not working out, how do people respond?

My response: Often times, even when the white female teacher is underperforming and not working out, her tears tend to illicit a response of sympathetic action from leadership and colleagues. 

Comment: If  the tears are from an effective and respected tenured teacher who tends to show emotion freely, might we expect a different response in any way? 

My response: If the white female teacher is effective and respected, which means she is getting laudable outcomes with students, then the response from leadership may be even more supportive because she is not only valued as a white woman but also as a contributor in the school.

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Thank you for reading the part 3 of the series focused on the impact of white tears in urban schools.  I am a leadership and teacher coach, consultant, and trainer with a particular passion for urban schools. 

For bookings and inquiries, send an email to [email protected]  I’m more than happy to confer about ways we can partner in achieving meaningful outcomes for students, particularly the ones below, outcomes that align with cultural responsiveness and social justice.

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