I Saw Myself in the Racism of Atticus Finch: A Teacher Reflects
The challenging journey toward being an "anti-racist teacher"
By DJ Cashmere
October 26, 2017
I remember the first time a book ever made me cry: I was curled up in bed, 19 years old, rereading Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The famous trial scene had just drawn to a close, and Atticus Finch was making "his lonely walk down the aisle." Atticus' daughter, Jean Louise, better known as Scout, looked down from her hiding place in the "Colored balcony." She heard her name and realized someone was trying to get her attention, so she looked up. "All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet." Reverend Sykes, the town's black minister, instructed her, "Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passin'."
The scene was steeped in deep sadness and doomed innocence. It was a moment of gratitude for someone taking a stand on behalf of the voiceless—the kind of stand I sought to take three years later when I joined Teach For America. And it embodied the misguided vision of heroism that would harm my students and me for years, even long after I completed my two-year service commitment with TFA.
I began teaching in Chicago when I was 22: a middle-class white male who'd grown up in suburban Virginia teaching students who were black and brown. In year one, my classroom was chaos, but I improved as a teacher in fits and starts. Over the next five years, I increased my effort to understand my own identity and that of my students, and I tried to build a curriculum that reflected their lived experiences.
This effort eventually led me to a race and pedagogy conference at the University of Puget Sound. Political activist Angela Davis, speaking on the subject of police violence against African-Americans shortly after the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., admonished the crowd: "We are all implicated by our shock." In other words, if violent, systemic racism was news to you, you weren't paying attention—and you were part of the problem.
A year later, I was curled up in bed again, this time with Lee's newly released (and somewhat controversial) novel Go Set a Watchman. Jean Louise, now a young adult, had again snuck up to the courthouse's "Colored balcony." This time, she was observing a meeting of the town's Citizens' Council—a white supremacist group that spewed vile rhetoric and sought to uphold segregation. And when she looked down, she saw that Atticus Finch, her hero and mine, was part of the meeting. Neither of us could believe it.
And then Angela Davis' words came charging back: I was implicated by my shock.
“If Atticus was racist, then I was racist.”
I would later learn that many teachers of color experienced no shock as they read Watchman, because they'd already recognized the problematic racial politics in Mockingbird and had been teaching that text critically for years. But I was only just beginning to wake up. The trial scene that had once made me cry offered a prime example. I wasn't crying for Tom Robinson, the innocent black man who is an afterthought on the scene's final page. I was crying for Atticus, the white savior, in all his tragic glory.
And I was holding on to this white savior now because if Atticus was part of the problem, then I was, too. Which is to say: If Atticus was racist, then I was racist. I wasn't actively racist in the white-supremacist sense of Watchman-era Atticus. I was racist in the more passive sense of Mockingbird's Atticus: well-intentioned in my work with people who experience oppression, but blind to my own biases and not directly working against the parts of the system that privileged me. In my teaching life, this manifested in subtle ways. I did not take into account the trauma that was at the root of some of my students' misbehaviors. I assumed I knew what was best for my students without engaging in conversations with their families, and took it for granted when I earned promotions and trust at a rate that may have surpassed that of my co-workers of color.
It was time to do the hard work of becoming an anti-racist teacher. This meant explicitly owning my privilege in conversations with my students. I learned to engage in more trauma-responsive discipline. I started to directly teach about oppressive systems and strategies for pursuing social justice. With humility, I sought to mend fences and build alliances with colleagues of color who had written me off as privileged and arrogant. Perhaps most important, I made a personal mindset shift from savior to ally, coming to see my students as partners in our collective work toward a more just world.
While this transformation was difficult and imperfect, it allowed me to build the best student relationships of my career, and my students' academic results, as measured by the ACT reading test, skyrocketed.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian philosopher Paolo Freire explains that members of the oppressor class like myself may talk about helping oppressed people, but they do not trust them. "And trusting the people," he writes, "is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change."
Freire is correct. In six years of "helping," I had never trusted.
So I began, in my seventh year of teaching, to say to my students, "I love you, I trust you, and I believe in you." I repeated this multiple times a week, every week, as a reminder to them and to myself.
A few months into the year, my class was engaged in silent reading. I was monitoring the room when I noticed one student several desks over who was writing a note instead of reading. In years prior, I would have given her a demerit right then and moved on. But I had been saying I trusted her, so instead, I made my way over to her desk with no disturbance. What she was writing turned out to be a deep and powerful set of notes and reflections on the book she was reading: Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me.
I kept walking, proud of her, but also remembering all the times in the past six years when similar situations had played out differently.
DJ Cashmere taught in public and public charter schools in Chicago from 2009 to 2017, the first two years of which were with Teach For America. He is a John K. Martin Fellow at New York University's Carter School of Journalism.