Seeing Color

White Teacher
By Vivian Gussin Paley

Harvard University Press
160 pages $7.95

As a brand-new teacher, I was delivering my first reading lesson to first grade students in inner-city Philadelphia. I had practically memorized the publisher-provided lesson dialogue while practicing in front of a mirror the night before.

“Good morning, boys and girls. Today we’re going to read a story about where we live, in the city.” A small brown hand was raised. “Yes, Marti.” Marti had been a kindergartner in the informal classroom where I completed student teaching.

“Teacher, how come you talkin’ like a white person? You talkin’ just like my momma talk when she get on the phone!”

Needless to say, the practiced lesson was put aside, as we relaxed into my more typical informal and culturally familiar interaction patterns. And I was once again struck by the brilliant perception of six-year olds.

This and other vignettes of my teaching career surfaced as I reread Vivian Gussin Paley’s fascinating White Teacher. There was no stopping the flood of scenes of children, parents, and teachers, for Paley’s writing is so vivid, so classroom-centered, so immediate that anyone who has ever taught — or ever thought about teaching — cannot help being drawn into the daily dramas she describes perfectly. White Teacher, originally published in 1979, was reissued last year, probably because Paley was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1989. She was the first classroom teacher so honored.

The book details Paley’s development as she struggled to learn to teach diverse-particularly African-American-children in her kindergarten classrooms. Her first teaching jobs were in the segregated schools of the South, where she became the school radical by telling everyone that she wanted an integrated class, that society forced her to teach only white children. When she moved back North, she found herself teaching white children in a white suburb. She had an occasional black student-one the child of the live-in maid of a prominent family, two others when the school board attempted some minor integration. And her encounters with these children caused Paley concern. One avoided looking at her and only responded to her questions with

“Yesm.” Another, Fred, joined an aggressive group of six white kids. When the teachers came into Paley’s room under various pretenses to, as Paley says, “Check out the two black children,” they all singled out Fred. “You’ve got your hands full with him.” “Shouldn’t he be in a special class?”


At the first meeting Paley raised the issue that even though all the children in Fred’s small group behaved as he did, teachers singled out Fred because of his color. After vigorous discussion, the faculty reached a consensus: “More than ever we must take care to ignore color. We must only look at behavior, and since a black child will be more prominent in a white classroom, we must bend over backward to see no color, hear no color, speak no color.” Paley found herself confused by such directives when children themselves raised issues of color. In one instance a little white child told a little black girl that she looked like chocolate pudding. Was that an insult? Should Paley reprimand the white child?

She found herself trapped not only by the school’s position but by her own liberal upbringing: “We showed respect by completely ignoring black people as black people. Color blindness was the essence of the creed.”

Insight came when Paley moved to a midwestern city and took a job at an integrated private school. Although most of the faculty and professional staff were white, about a third of the students were children of color. Early on she had a meeting with a black parent. “Mrs. Hawkins told me that in her children’s previous school the teacher had said, ‘There is no color difference in my classroom. All my children look alike to me.’ ‘What rot,’ said Mrs. Hawkins. ‘My children are black. They know they’re black, and we want it recognized. It’s a comfortable natural difference. At least it could be so, if you teachers learned to value differences more. What you value, you talk about.’”

Thus began the journey toward acknowledging and valuing differences. When Michelle, black and vivacious, pointed to a picture in a book and said she wished she looked like the pink-cheeked blond girl on the page, Paley recalls, “I could have easily ignored this. Maybe Juli Ann, white and plain, wished she looked like the girl in the book too…But Michelle had a special, obvious reason. I knew I must say something. ‘Michelle, I know how you feel. When I was little I also would have like to look like this little girl. She doesn’t look like anyone in my family, so I couldn’t have looked like her. Sometimes, I wish I had smooth brown skin like yours. Then I could always be dark and pretty.’ Michelle looked down at her skin. So did everyone else. I don’t know what she was thinking. But I knew the feelings I had expressed were t ue, though I did not know it until I spoke.”

In Paley’s chronicle of her development of learning from and with her students over five years, she encounters Steven’s angry “DON’T TALK TO ME. I don’t have to listen to no white lady…Don’t nobody white look at me. Don’t talk to me. You stink. Fuckers!” Kenny didn’t want to tak off his jacket because the teacher might not like what his T-shirt said: “SUPERNIGGER, guardian of the oppressed.” Clare, from a West Indian family, was in such unfamiliar cultural territory that she was almost diagnosed as retarded. Another Kenny, whose physical prowess and bravado were amazing as long as he was outside tumbling with his brothers, was so timid during school activities that he became speechless if required to perform some small task in front of the whole class.

It is important that this book has been reissued now. Never has there been so must talk about “restructuring” schools. While legislators, governors, and various “experts” debate the virtues of “site-based management,” “merit pay,” “choice,” or “accountability schemes,” there is little talk about the kind of “restructuring” that must ha pen before we can make any headway with teachers will be teaching African-American children.

As a teacher educator, I have worked with white students who will be tomorrow’s teachers, and I have many African-American friends who have done the same. The attitude that Paley brought to her first black students-that to acknowledge their color would be to insult them-is prevalent among our young white people about to join the teaching profession. One of my teacher-education colleagues told me that Paley’s book was the only book she had found that helped her students understand that to say you don’t see color is to say you don’t see children. Her students were then able to understand that people could be proud of their color and their differences a d that the teacher could help this process.

The Qualities of a Good Teacher

Paley exhibits other behavior and attitudes that I try to instill in future teachers. First and foremost, she is an observer of children. When something goes wrong with a child, she does not assume that the cause necessarily lies within the child. She looks to her own teaching and to her own lack of knowledge. She realizes that she probably misses much of the intelligence of the children who are from another culture. She points out that when a child who shares her own Jewish background makes comments about meat and dairy dishes, she receives instant messages about his or her intelligence. But when several black children tell her that “black people don’t eat pig. Only white people eat pig,” she is honest enough to say, “I think I am missing part of the picture presented by many black children by not being familiar with the context within which certain simple statements are made.”

She also seeks to learn from adults who look like the children she teachers. Many white teachers, with the best of intentions, believe that they know what is best for all children. And because they view themselves as liberals, they believe that their behavior is above reproach. In Paley’s words, “My luggage had ‘liberal’ ostentatiously plastered all over it, and I thought it unnecessary to see what was locked inside.” Believing in their “rightness,” some liberal white teachers do not seek the opinions of parents or teachers of color, and they even subtly discredit those opinions if offered. Paley, on the other hand, often sought the insights of the parents of her black students, and she worked with them to find solutions to problems. When teachers are teaching children who are different from themselves, they must call upon parents in a collaborative fashion if they are to learn who their students really are.

Paley also learned from an African-American woman who worked with her as a student teacher one year. Janet was an older woman and an exceptional teacher with lots of experience teaching in pre-school. Paley watched how she handled situations and asked questions about her own performance. That Paley was different from most teachers can be verified by Janet’s reaction to the rest of the staff, with whom she was withdrawn and silent. When Paley asked her about it, Janet said she didn’t feel comfortable with most white teachers because “they either avoid talking about race like it was a plague, or else they look at me only when black kids are discussed as if the ghetto is the only thing I know anything about.” White teachers can utilize culturally diverse colleagues as learning resources only if they respect them and their opinions-not a typical scenario in today’s schools.

Remaining Questions

Paley’s book and her approach to children have many strengths, and I could not hope for a more sensitive white teacher of African-American children.

Yet I worry. Paley asks, “How much does it matter if a child cannot identify ethnically or racially with a teacher? Does it matter at all? If the teacher accepts him and likes him as he really is, isn’t that enough?” I suspect she and I might differ.

I wonder whether so many of the African-American children in her classes would have expressed a desire to be white if their teacher had been black. I feel for Ayana when she and Rena were helping Paley put away blocks and Rena said, “White people tell lies.” I surmise from other conversations in the book that several of Paley’s black students have been exposed to the philosophies of the Nation of Islam and carried some of those discussions from home into the classroom. “That’s right, they do tell lies,” Ayana agreed. Paley asked, “Do all white people tell lies?” Paley continues: “Ayana read my face. ‘Uh…no. Not all white people.’ She looked guiltily at Rena ”

Clearly Ayana must have been expending energy in this classroom determining what she could and could not say to this white teacher whom she loved and trusted. And this is an instance that Paley was aware of. In how may other situations in this class did Ayana and other black children have to spend time and energy working out the complexities of what was appropriate for a non-black audience?

By contrast, I recall the easiness with which Marti, in my opening vignette, could bring up race with me and the ease with which I could slip into our comfortable way of interacting. I also recall my understanding, appreciation, and suppressed laughterand my white co-teacher’s shock and hurt until we discussed the incident—when Doris, in perfect imitation of older black women, put her hands on her hips as my co-teacher was leading her to the “time-out” chair: Doris said, “You better take your hands off my clothes. People’s mamas have to pay for their clothes!”

My own daughter is not yet two years old, but of course I have begun to think about what kind of school environment I want for her. After spending hours searching for black-oriented books and taking a brown felt-tip pen to white toy figures, I do not want her to come home, like many of my friends’ children who have attended predominantly white preschools and kindergartens, and say that she’s ugly because she’s brown or that she wants long blond hair and blue eyes. I don’t want her to spend much of her thinking power trying to figure out what she should or shouldn’t say to a white teacher. In other words, when she is five years old, I want her to be nourished and nurtured as she would be at home. I don’t want her to feel alien or different. I want her to believe that she and people who look like her are gorgeous, smart, and in charge of things. I strongly want her to be in an African-American environment. There will be time later to learn about differences, to learn to struggle in a sometimes hostile environment. But when she’s five, I don’t want her too far from home.

Paley praises the integrated kindergarten environment. But she does not have to worry about being a minority of color. In fact, she declined an offer to teach in an inner-city school because she didn’t think she could handle being in the minority again, as she felt she had been in the South. Should we inflict such difficult status on our five-year-olds?

Lisa D. Delpit is a senior associate in the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University. This year she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship.

“Seeing Color” originally appeared in the September/October 1990 issue of the Hungry Mind Review.