As a white man working in Southern schools, I’ve been called a racist more than once by fired up kids who thought that I’d given them unfair grades or unwarranted consequences for misbehavior in the classroom.  Early in my career, those moments left me angry and confused.

“How could they call me that?” I’d think.  “I would have given a white student the same consequence for the same action.”  Oftentimes, I’d even let those moments turn me against the student.  “See if I’ll help them the next time they need me,” I’d mutter indignantly.

But a boy named Derek* tempered me.

Derek carried a chip on his shoulder from the moment he walked into my classroom.  He was loud and difficult at times, seemingly convinced that pushing his way through life was the only way to get things done.  Over the course of the year, Derek began to let his guard down.  A thousand small interactions — with me, with his peers, with the other teachers on our team — convinced him that school didn’t have to be a fistfight.

Having failed a major test that he’d worked pretty darn hard to prepare for, though, Derek lost it one day in the back of my classroom.  Embarrassed both by his grades and his emotions, he turned over a table and vented his anger in an epic stream of profanity that ended with “I’m so sick of all y’all racist teachers.”

Looking past the detritus of an emotionally charged moment filled with four-letter words and flipped tables, I saw nothing but hurt etched across Derek’s face.  The trust that we’d built was instantly wiped away.  He doubted everything about our school and my class and the governing powers in his life and he was feeling bitter and vulnerable and afraid — wounded.  Calling me a racist wasn’t some cheap attempt to hurt me.  It was an expression of the hurt that he felt from constantly struggling against systems that favored the white and the wealthy.

Need proof that the Dereks in YOUR school have a legitimate beef with the world that they live in?

Then name the last time that an unarmed boy without a criminal record was gunned down by the police in the streets of YOUR neighborhood for anything.  Or the last time that you could shoot a picture of a cop standing over a dead body laying just outside YOUR front window.  Or the last time that police decked out in battle gear started raining tear gas down on YOUR neighbors when they grieved and mourned and protested publicly against another ridiculous death. Heck: Name the last time that you were even wronged enough to NEED to protest publicly against anything?

Think I’m being overly emotional?  Unfairly calling out a single isolated incident that cops and right wing radio hosts are likely to call “an unfortunate accident?”

Then check out incarceration rates.  Or poverty rates.  Or unemployment rates.  Or high school graduation rates.  Or CHILD poverty rates.  Or juvenile justice rates.  Or average annual income rates.

(Do I need to keep going?!)

As you go back to school, look for the Dereks walking down your hallways.

Wearing defiance as a shield, they are going to be hard to reach and even harder to teach.  Rather than writing them up, reach out and lend a hand.  Start a conversation.  Prove moment-by-moment that someone cares — and that a system which is still largely run by white faces CAN be compassionate and safe and relatively free of injustice.

The sad truth is that life still ain’t no crystal stair for many of the kids of color in your classrooms — but if we start taking small steps together, the climb seems a lot less dark.


*Not his real name.

  • ReneeMoore

    Thank you.

    For having the courage to say it out loud.

    • billferriter

      I’ve wrestled with race my

      I’ve wrestled with race my whole career, Renee — and often catch myself passing unfair judgments against kids and their communities based on nothing more than race.  In those moments, I realize just how deeply messages about race are ingrained in who we are as a nation.  If I can catch myself using race to make assumptions about people, I can only imagine the depth of the racism — intentional or not — that still exists in America.  



  • CindiRigsbee

    No Crystal Stair


    Your post resonates with me for many reasons. I see so many Dereks when I look back over my teaching career. Also, my daughter lives in St. Louis…about eight miles from Ferguson…so this story has been close to my heart. On the other hand, my husband is a former police officer who now facilitates law enforcement training so I’m trying to keep an open mind and realize I don’t know the whole story. But the picture I saw of someone’s child – someone’s CHILD – lying in the street bleeding with no one there showing any compassion whatsoever just breaks my heart. Police officer or not, I think I would’ve bent down and held his hand. No one deserves to die alone like that.

    Thank you for your poignant post, a great reminder to all teachers, and to all human beings in general, to be more sensitive and compassionate to others.

    • billferriter

      I’m with you, Cindi — I won

      I’m with you, Cindi — I won’t pass judgment yet on the cop who pulled the trigger.  “Act medium” is a mantra of mine whenever I’m in an emotional situation.

      But the follow up response — the days of tear gassing, the fact that a body was left lying in a street, the extreme statements dropped by pundits, the tone-deaf response of the police to the criticism they’ve received — would never happen if this had happened in any kind of white community.  

      That’s a truth that we need to wrestle with as a nation.  Why does policing look SO dramatically different depending on the race of the community being “policed?”

      Rock right on, 



  • ValBrownEdu

    Derek and Others
    Thank you very much for your post. It’s very important that educators lead the way in engaging in these discussions across the country.

    I think it is also important to note here that not all black and brown boys will be loud, aggressive, angry, or combative like Derek when they struggle or are frustrated.

    There will be Walter, Paul, Jeffery, Michael, Byron, Rory, Kenny, and my own son, Nyan, who will be students from various socio-economic backgrounds but will still wear the burden of the angry black man stereotype. (Aside from my son, who is in first grade, all of the names are real black men successful in education, business, architecture, or medicine. )

    What I found key in your post was the importance of building relationships, seeing people for who they are on the inside, not only how they act on the outside.

    • billferriter

      Val wrote:

      Val wrote:

      There will be Walter, Paul, Jeffery, Michael, Byron, Rory, Kenny, and my own son, Nyan, who will be students from various socio-economic backgrounds but will still wear the burden of the angry black man stereotype.


      This is such an important point, Val.  The assumption that every kid of color is an angry black male feeds the confrontation mentality that we have around race in America.  

      Thanks for the reminder, 


  • BillIvey

    Thanks, Bill

    I can’t help but think it’s imperative that we as a country learn how to both recognize and get past our “blink” impressions of people and find out who they really are. Toward that end, and to help with having the necessary and ongoing conversations we must have about race (long after the #Ferguson hashtag has disappeared from Twitter), “Courageous Conversations About Race,” shared by Jason Flom and Sabrina Stevens, can be a great resource.