I don’t know where I first heard the term “interchangeable white lady”. It might have been in a text I read in graduate school or maybe one of my colleagues let it drop during a discussion on cultural competency. Regardless, I remember nodding and laughing as I pictured a smiling, 20-something in her Target cardigan standing in front of a Smartboard. Subsequently, I shook my head thinking about being a young Black or Brown boy who went throughout his day staring at the “same” face over and over and over again.
I was a little surprised to later learn that this term left some of my teaching peers with a bad taste in their mouths. It held a negative connotation, was weighted with unspoken questions, and bred a sense of resentment.
I’m not a robot. I’m not like all those other women. I’m unique. Why am I being judged by my skin color? Why am I being dismissed because of how I look? Shouldn’t we be treated as individuals? I’ve struggled too! Isn’t it racist to think we all look the same? Isn’t it prejudice to hate me and my class even before I’ve started teaching?
WELCOME TO BEING A PERSON OF COLOR IN AMERICA--ENJOY YOUR BRIEF STAY.
Seriously though, if you’ve ever had those thoughts, I’d like to challenge you to reconsider that this phrase “interchangeable white lady” isn’t offensive, it captures a reality.
It captures the day in and day out grind that many students of color experience moving from English to History to Science and throughout their school day. This reality should shape the way that we teach and the way that we prepare new young, white, and female teachers coming into the profession. It also has the potential to shape how we approach hiring qualified and diversified staff.
For me, the term “interchangeable white lady” identifies what I see in the eyes of many of my students at the start of the school year. It is a name they will likely never call me directly but I can see it in that dull stare...and I hope to change their perspective over the course of the year.
I became an interchangeable white lady back in ‘06. A recent Master in Teaching graduate, at 24 with an endorsement in Language Arts, I was one of many on the market, looking for a teaching job. On the outside I appeared to be the same as anyone else. Young. Middle Class. And White. I shopped at the typical white lady teacher stores (you know--Target, Kohls, and Banana Republic). That first day of teaching I was scared--was I prepared? Did I have a strong lesson? Would students respect me? Would students like me (yeah, we all say that doesn’t matter but sometimes it does)? My 9th graders were equally afraid--but for each of them, my presence represented something different. I was both loved and hated by my students. I was too mean. I was too soft. I wore ugly Danskos.
The most significant part of realizing that I was an interchangeable white lady was realizing that student perception drives everything. It didn’t really matter if their perceptions are true. It’s their truth and it shapes whether or not they will learn from you.
New teachers, especially those who are white and female, must come to grips with the fact that they will be perceived as the literal shining face of a system that marginalizes many students, particularly students of color. Effective teacher prep programs or relevant new teacher induction programs should help these teachers explore their own racial and cultural identities so that they are starting from a place of empathy for the experiences of their students before establishing their classroom expectations and routines.
I was fortunate to learn from some of the best in teacher prep at The Evergreen State College (SHOUT OUT!). This program is rooted in understanding the history of American public education. I spent hours and hours reading and writing about identity formation, and specifically explored my own social, cultural, and historical identities. This prepared me to table my own values around education and work ethic, and to focus on building relationships with my students.
When we--interchangeable white women--enter the teaching profession, particularly if we plan to teach to an ever Brown-er student population, we must seek to understand at least some of the complicated dynamics of our teaching context. And that means, wrapping our heads around the fact that we will be perceived as “them”. That means letting go of the “right” to be perceived as original, unique, or individual. That means facing the unflattering ways we may be perceived by our students...and then doing something about it.
Being an “interchangeable white lady” is a beautiful challenge.
It’s a challenge to teach in a culturally responsive way based on the students before us.
My girl Emily highlights her identity as an athlete-scholar, using the Oregon Ducks to teach Geometry. Sara sings her way through quadratic equations and derivatives in order to get students to think like mathematicians. Through vocabulary competitions, Cheryl creates a common nerd culture that students buy into. Mary transforms her library into a space where students of all cultures, races, and languages can find a book that reflects their uniques selves.
It’s a challenge to view our instruction through the lens of traditionally marginalized youth.
Kim devours book after book after book to help her better identify with her students. Monique has students complete perception surveys, sharing how they feel about the class and giving suggestions for what they want to study--and then she goes out and finds readings based on these interests. Jenny uses her Southern charm and resolute determination to win over the most reluctant learner to the magic of Physics. Alissa applies for grant after grant in order to fund special field trips, buy cultural foods or invite guest speakers to make her Spanish class come alive.
It’s a challenge to distinguish ourselves as allies in the fight against institutional racism as we equip young men and women through the power of education.
Sarah loudly demands that her most needy ELL students be scheduled with the most effective teachers. Paige sweats over curriculum to ensure that students are getting the best instructional moves possible and that their voices are a prominent part of each lesson. Cat defended an African-American, special education student who was being physically and verbally abused by a police officer on school grounds.
Being confused for any one of those women is a compliment. If a young man or young woman of color sees me as interchangeable with a less proficient teacher, that’s fine too. I take that as a challenge to step up my game.
And that’s why I’m okay with being an “interchangeable white lady”.