How Can White Teachers Do Better by Urban Kids of Color?

By Christopher Emdin Mar 22, 2016

Ralph Ellison’s "Invisible Man" describes the complexities of [B]lackness in America and captures the ways that the segregated South and its ugly history of racism had inscribed itself so indelibly into the nation’s collective psyche that it rendered African Americans invisible. The book’s unnamed protagonist is so shaped by the conditions of his time that he becomes a distorted version of himself, his “true self” rendered invisible. The haunting and powerful story resonates with the experiences of urban youth in today’s urban classrooms. The Poet Adrienne Rich affirmed this sense of negation when she observed that “when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing.”

Consider a common scenario in urban schools, and one I have witnessed often, where the teacher and student have different conceptions about what it means to be on time and prepared for class. For many students, being on time and prepared means being in or around the physical space of the classroom at the appointed hour and being able to access whatever materials are necessary for the day’s instruction. This runs counter to a more narrowly defined, traditional perception of being prepared for learning, and can result in students being made invisible to the teacher. I experienced a perfect example of this “making invisible” process during a pre-suspension meeting for a student whose science teacher had accused her of being disruptive, unprepared for class, and habitually tardy. As the teacher began to describe the reasons for the suspension, the student stood up and said, “That’s not true, that’s just not true.” Calmly, the principal asked the student to stop being disrespectful. The student looked bewildered and sat down with tears streaming down her face, biting at her thumb, her knee shaking so forcefully I thought she might knock the principal’s desk over. At the end of the meeting, she snatched the pink sheet of paper that described the procedures for her two-day suspension and stormed out of the office. Her teacher seemed frozen to her seat as the scenario played out, unsure of what to do next.

A few minutes later, having heard the teacher’s litany of complaints that had led to the student’s suspension, I walked through the school building and spotted the student in the middle of a crowd of friends. They had rallied around her and seemed to be consoling her. When I asked her if we could talk, she looked up reluctantly and slowly walked toward me. As she did so, a bell rang signaling the change of classroom periods. The students who had gathered around their friend quickly dispersed, heading to their respective classrooms. I noticed that a significant number of them stood at the doors of the classrooms or lingered between the doorways, shouting greetings to their friends who were passing by. As we walked the hallway, she pointed to a friend who pointed back at her, then asked me, “Is he late? Is he unprepared for class?” She then motioned to another friend who was straddling the doorway to a class and asked, “Is she late? Is she distracting the class?” I didn’t quite know how to respond and so I didn’t. She took that to mean that I understood her. “Exactly,” she said. “I’m always ready for that lady’s class and she gets me suspended because she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She sees what she wants to see.” As we talked more, I mentioned that the teacher said she never had her books with her for class. She responded that a friend shares her books with her and lends her something to write with whenever she needs it. For her, that made it obvious that she was prepared to learn. She then mentioned that she was always on time for class. “I’m always at the door when that bell rings. I’m always there.” The student saw herself as prepared and on time, but the teacher did not see the student the way she saw herself.

The point here is not to debate whether the teacher or the student was right or wrong; there isn’t a clear answer to that question. What’s important to note is that the teacher in this scenario had rendered the student’s self-image as “prepared and on time” invisible. That image had been replaced with one in which the student was seen as disruptive, chronically late, and unprepared, a distortion of the student’s self-image. This was the case even though the student mentioned that she liked the subject being taught and was excited about what she was learning in her science class. This teacher, who struggled to get her students engaged in science, had alienated one of the few students who liked the class, because she did not fithe mold the school and the teacher had cast for what a good student looks and acts like.

The reality is that we privilege people who look and act like us, and perceive those who don’t as different and, frequently, inferior. In urban schools, and especially for those who haven’t had previous experience in urban contexts or with youth of color, educators learn “best practices” from “experts” in the field, deemed as such because they have degrees, write articles, and meet other criteria that do not have anything to do with their work within urban communities. In fact, many of us who think about the education of youth of color have developed our ideas about the field from specialists who can describe the broad landscape of urban education but are often far removed, both geographically and psychologically, from the schools and students that they speak and write about so eloquently.

Urban education experts typically don’t live in urban communities. They don’t look like the students they discuss in meetings and conferences, and when they do, they often make class distinctions that separate them from students. Most importantly, they don’t consider their distance from these communities as an impediment to their ability to engage in the work within them. The leaders within the field of urban education can’t fathom the day-to-day experiences of urban students who see themselves as ready to learn despite not being perceived that way. They don’t see the deep connections that exist between urban experience and school performance; many more have come to view school as a discrete space, as if what happens outside school has little to no impact on what happens inside school. This discourse among “experts” (politicians, professors, media pundits) has made it [OK] for teachers to work within urban communities they either refuse to live in or are afraid to live in. The nature of how we view urban-education expertise has created a context that dismisses students’ lives and experiences while concurrently speaking about, and advocating for, equity and improving schools. Consider, for example, the growing number of new charter schools in urban communities with words like successreform, and equity in their names and mission statements, but which engage in teaching practices that focus on making the school and the students within it as separate from the community as possible.

I engaged in a Twitter debate with one of these educators recently and was astounded by the fervor with which he defended his school’s practice of “cleaning these kids up and giving them a better life.” With that statement, he described everything that is wrong with the culture of urban education and the biggest hindrance to [W]hite folks who teach in the [‘hood]. First, the belief that students are in need of “cleaning up” presumes that they are dirty. Second, the aim of “giving them a better life” indicates that their present life has little or no value. The idea that one individual or school can give students “a life” emanates from a problematic savior complex that results in making students, their varied experiences, their emotions, and the good in their communities invisible. So invisible, in fact, that the chief way to teach urban youth of color more effectively—that is, to truly be in and in touch with their communities—is not seen as a viable option.

Physical Place and Emotional Space

To be in touch with the community, one has to enter into the physical places where the students live, and work to be invited into the emotion-laden spaces the youth inhabit. The places may be housing projects or overcrowded apartment buildings, but the spaces are what philosopher Kelly Oliver describes as psychic. They are filled with emotions like fear, anger, and a shared alienation from the norms of school, birthed from experiences both within and outside the school building. The places transcend geography and are more about what is felt by being in a particular location.

The urban youth who inhabit these complex psychic spaces, and for whom imagination is the chief escape from harsh realities, walk through life wrapped in a shroud of emotions whose fibers are their varied daily experiences. The gunshot that rang past an apartment window (the experience) and the fear and anxiety that resulted from it (the emotion) creates a reality that is almost impossible for an outsider to fully comprehend. I remember being a tenth-grade student who attended a large comprehensive “specialized” urban public school. I took the train for an hour each day because the school I attended was better than the local ones in my neighborhood. One evening after a long day and what seemed like an equally long train ride home, I walked into my apartment building, and just as the large metal door closed behind me gunshots rang out just outside the door. I froze for a second, not knowing where the shots were coming from, when my younger sister, tugging at my arm, pulled me through the interior door of our apartment building as the shots continued to ring behind me. When I got into my family’s apartment that night, and my sister described what had happened to my mother, she told me that I couldn’t afford to freeze up in moments like that. I was told to be alert and drop to the floor at the sound of gunfire.

About a week later, I sat in my mathematics class as the teacher droned on about how to solve an equation. The class was silent except for the scratching of chalk against the blackboard as the teacher worked on the problem. A chair held the door open to let air into the classroom, but it wasn’t enough to alleviate the stifling atmosphere in the boring class. As the teacher continued to write, a loud noise suddenly erupted from out in the hallway. Before I could even think, I jumped out of my seat and underneath my desk. I cowered on the floor for what seemed like forever until I heard my entire class break out in roaring laughter. I emerged from underneath the desk to find my teacher standing in the aisle and another student admonishing me for trying to be the class clown. The teacher’s left hand hit my desk with a light thud and his right one pointed toward the door as the words “Principal’s office, now” rolled from his lips. The class continued laughing as I grabbed my books and headed toward the door. In that moment, I couldn’t find the words to explain that the loud sound I had heard reminded me of the shootout that I had barely missed getting caught in a week ago. There was no way to describe that the trauma of my experience the previous week was what caused me to jump under the desk in fear for my life. There was no way that the teacher or the principal could ever understand what I was feeling in that moment unless they had experienced it, and so I coolly grabbed my jacket and books, put on a smile for my friends, winked at the teacher, and walked out of the classroom.

Much research has been done on post-traumatic stress disorder and its impact on those afflicted. We tend to associate PTSD with combat veterans, but too often we fail to recognize that young people experience trauma regularly in ways that go unnoticed or unrecognized. For example, a study I conducted with [B]lack males who had either attended or were presently enrolled in urban public schools revealed symptoms of PTSD among participants. My co-researcher on the project, PTSD specialist and psychologist Napoleon Wells, identified the students’ avoidance of certain discussions and reactions to others as similar to the ways that veterans respond after exposure to trauma. In fact, the students’ symptoms of fear, anger, and powerlessness led to what Dr. Wells calls post-racial tension stress disorder, which derives from youth seeing themselves as powerless in a world that conveys to them the message that race doesn’t matter, at the same time it subjects them to physical and symbolic violence (at the hands of police and schools) because of their race.

In schools, urban youth are expected to leave their day-to-day experiences and emotions at the door and assimilate into the culture of schools. This process of personal repression is in itself traumatic and directly impacts what happens in the classroom. Students exist in a space within the classroom while the teacher limits their understanding to what is happening in the classroom place. Failure to prepare teachers to appreciate the psychic spaces students occupy inevitably limits their effectiveness. Some teachers understand that students come from places beyond the classroom and can acknowledge that these places have an effect on students and the spaces they occupy. However, many teachers cannot see beyond their immediate location (the school) and therefore have a very limited understanding of space. Many more are taught to ignore psychic space altogether, and therefore cannot fathom what it must be like for students to whom the classroom is a breeding ground for traumatic experiences. Once again, these students are unseen by teachers, mere reflections of teachers’ perceptions of who they are. This is what Ellison described as people not seeing him but “surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”

The work to become truly effective educators in urban schools requires a new approach to teaching that embraces the complexity of place, space, and their collective impact on the psyche of urban youth. This approach is necessary whether we are talking about preservice educators about to embark on their first year of teaching, those who have been in the field for a while, or the millions of people who have been drawn into the dysfunctional web of urban education as a parent, policymaker, or concerned citizen. Addressing the issues that plague urban education requires a true vision that begins with seeing students in the same way they see themselves.

Urban youth are typically well aware of the loss, pain, and injustice they experience, but are ill equipped for helping each other through the work of navigating who they truly are and who they are expected to be in a particular place. At [17] years old, Youth Poet Laureate of the City of Oakland, California, Obasi Davis wrote the poem “Bored in 1st Period.” Obasi, who is now a college student in a predominantly [W]hite institution of higher education, wrote this piece as a high school student seeing peers who are rendered invisible by their school and teachers even as he could see their true selves in plain view. In the excerpts of the poem reprinted below, the reader can see his deep analysis of his peers and the difference between who they are in the classroom (place) and who they truly are within a shared emotional space.


Asia comes from repossessed dreams and nightmares that last as

long as the absence of her father

I think that’s the reason her clothes are always so Boa

Constricting any amount of longing she might have felt for him

to me

Daniel spent his childhood running from Richmond bullets and the

ghost of his dad

Daniel is a thug

He brags about seeing grown men ground to dust under heavy

boots for their iPhones and their wallets

He rocks a long gold chain, a grill, and two diamond

earrings with

every outfit

Daniel only cares about money

but I can see genius bursting from his pained skin

It is the deepest black, pure like Earth’s blood

but for some reason, most seem to see it as an


He paints himself a gangster to cover what they call ugly

Jonathan chooses to come to class once a month or whenever we

have a sub

He shoots dice in the back corner of the classroom with Duma

and Daniel

When I ask them why, they tell me money is everything.

It seems they are the products of a broken society and a torn home

My home is not broken

My parents are divorced but they get along

I haven’t known death to come close,

and violence hasn’t found me vulnerable

And then, while sitting in 1st period pretending to read Macbeth,

it clicked for me

My classmates and I are different

In the words of Dr. King our elbows are together yet our

hearts are


I’m not asking for some all holy savior to come and coddle us

into equality

I’m asking for you to understand our struggles and our hardships

To understand that if we have to learn with each other we should also

learn about each other so we can bring each other up

What Obasi describes in this poem is a reality that many who interact with students on a daily basis will never see. He describes students in a classroom (place) who exist in worlds/spaces wholly distinct from the classroom. He shows us that what educators and the world at large see when looking at students is often a distortion of their authentic selves. Furthermore, he alludes to the major premise of this work—that what lies beyond what we see are deep stories, complex connections, and realities that factors like race, class, power, and the beliefs/presuppositions educators hold inhibit them from seeing. Teaching to who students are requires a recognition of their realities


In order to fully understand youth realities, and make some sense of the powerful connection between youth realities, place, and space, I argue that educators need a new lens and vocabulary. This is why I argue for making connections between urban youth, or the neoindigenous, and the indigenous. While the word neoindigeneity may appear to the reader as yet another loaded academic term that has no significance in real urban classrooms, it is far from that. I use this term throughout this work as a way to make sense of the realities of the urban youth experience. Framing urban youth as neoindigenous, and understanding that the urban youth experience is deeply connected to the indigenous experience, provides teachers with a very different worldview when working with youth. From this new vantage point, teachers can see, access, and utilize tools for teaching urban youth. An understanding of neoindigineity allows educators to go beyond what they physically see when working with urban youth, and attend to the relationship between place and space.

For the indigenous, the relationship to emotional space is a constitutive part of their existence. For these populations, when one is hurt, healing requires addressing both physical wounds and the “soul wounds.” Healing the physical wound occurs in a certain place, but healing the soul wound requires being in a space. The psychologist Eduardo Duran states that counseling Native Americans and other indigenous people requires entering into the spaces in which they reside, because as Mark Findlay identifies, there are understandings that cannot be visible within the institutions (places) of the power wielder. This type of healing work is necessary for the neoindigenous as well. Situations such as the suspension of the student who believed she was prepared for class and always on time result in soul-wounds that are bigger than the disciplinary issue itself and could be avoided if the teacher validated the student’s emotion by allowing her to articulate her feelings. Recognizing the neoindigeneity of youth requires acknowledgement of the soul wounds that teaching practices inflict upon them.

If we are truly interested in transforming schools and meeting the needs of urban youth of color who are the most disenfranchised within them, educators must create safe and trusting environments that are respectful of students’ culture. Teaching the neoindigenous requires recognition of the spaces in which they reside, and an understanding of how to see, enter into, and draw from these spaces. 

Christopher Emdin is an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the creator of the #HipHopEd social media movement and Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S.

Piece excerpted from For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education by Christopher Emdin (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press

*Note: Article has been updated to reflect that the protagonist of "Invisible Man" was unnamed.