Opinionista Dylan Wray 15 June 2020

A letter to the students of colour who were in my History classes

I stood before you saying I was colourblind because it was easier than facing the uncomfortable truth that, because of how I was raised, the society I grew up in and the schooling I received, I might hold unconscious biases that probably impacted on my teaching.

Dear former students,

Sometime between 1997 and 2003 I was your history teacher. Either at Westerford High School, where I learnt how to be a teacher, or at Wynberg Girls’ High School, where I led the History Department. While it has been many years since I taught you history, the past is very much in the present today. 

It is not only current students who are speaking out about the marginalisation and exclusion they are feeling at former Model-C and private schools. It is also you, the former students of colour, who are raising your voices now – something I now recognise would have been extremely difficult to do back then. For some of you, this is not just a testimony from your past. Some of you may be parents, and it is also a call for something better from the schools you might consider for your children to attend.

During those years as your history teacher I had a clear purpose and mission – to build a country that was better than the one I was born into. I taught with a deep belief in human rights and democracy. I believed in equality and that everyone should be treated the same.

If I had been asked then if I saw the race of the children in my classes, I would have said no. I was “colourblind”, and proudly so. It was comforting for me to believe we were all getting along, to assume that the pain, hurt and humiliation of the past was healing and we were all living as equals in this beautiful country. The idea of a rainbow nation is appealing when you are already sitting on the pot of gold.

Looking back, I am sure I taught our country’s history from my perspective as a white man who grew up during apartheid. I don’t remember unpacking my privilege. I don’t remember acknowledging that this history caused pain and trauma within you. In the interests of not making the white children feel guilty, I wonder if I ever invited your voice in.   

Maybe if you were given the choice, you would have preferred a teacher who looked more like you, who spoke your language and who shared some of your family’s history. Instead, you had me.

I left teaching in 2003 to bring a history teaching programme called Facing History and Ourselves into South Africa. Over the past 17 years, I have worked with teachers of all ages and all races from all kinds of schools across the country, helping them to use history to support their students to think critically and deeply about the choices they make today. I have heard of the pain, the guilt and the complications of our history and how it feeds, sometimes unnoticed, into their teaching and relationships with students. 

Since 2016, when the students at Pretoria High School for Girls first raised their voices about racism and exclusion, a focus of my work has been addressing racial bias and building a sense of belonging in schools. This has mostly been in private schools and former Model-C schools, like the ones you attended. It is these schools that proudly hold up a particular model of academic, cultural and sporting success despite the fact that, because of differences in cultural and social backgrounds, not all of their students are treated the same, afforded the same opportunities or find a familiar sense of belonging.  

In writing the book, A School Where I Belong, with Roy Hellenberg and Jonathan Jansen, and in running workshops with schools around this work, I have sat down with students across the country and listened to their stories of humiliation, exclusion, disappointment and hurt. I heard the stories I wasn’t brave enough to hear when I was standing in front of you as your teacher.

I began to think more deeply about you and the time we shared classroom space together. While I brought my idealism, hope and a belief in a better country into the classroom, as a white man who grew up during apartheid, teaching relatively diverse classes, I lacked the courage to admit I still had work to do. 

I stood before you saying I was colourblind because it was easier than facing the uncomfortable truth that, because of how I was raised, the society I grew up in and the schooling I received, I might hold unconscious biases that probably impacted on my teaching.

We all have these unconscious biases against others, and these biases impact the way we treat each other. Research shows that, if left unchecked, these unconscious biases can impact on how I, as a white teacher, would teach a racially diverse group of students. The research says I would have lower expectations of the students of colour in my classroom. It says that I would call on the white students for contributions more than the students of colour, and I would discipline the students of colour more often than their white classmates.

I am sure that the white students found they got more of my attention and my support. I am sure I took more of their questions and invited more of their answers even though your hands were up as well. I likely had lower expectations of you. And when the class was rowdy, there may have been times when I disciplined you more than your white peers. Most of this would be unconscious, but none of it would be without consequence. 

But not only did I lack the courage and humility to confront my own biases and history, I also wasn’t brave enough to sit down and face you. Maybe it was embarrassment and awkwardness that prevented me from talking to you about your experiences of walking down those hallways that, for decades, had excluded you and your families and welcomed me and mine. But I was the adult in the room. And it shouldn’t have been left up to you to raise, just as it shouldn’t be the responsibility of children now. I shouldn’t have interpreted your silence as acceptance. I should have sat in that desk where you sat and looked around at what you saw. I should have seen you.

I am sorry that you weren’t seen and that you didn’t feel you belong.

And I am sorry that, as your teacher, when you needed a voice other than your own, I didn’t amplify yours.

I hope to do that now. DM

Dylan Wray is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Shikaya, which implements Facing History and Ourselves in South Africa. He is the co-author of A School Where I BelongCreating Transformed and Inclusive South African Schools

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