On March 3rd, HuffPost reported on a Florida middle school teacher with a double life as the host of a white nationalist podcast. According to the article, “Dayanna Volitich, a 25-year-old social studies teacher at Crystal River Middle School in Florida, has been secretly hosting the white nationalist podcast “Unapologetic” under the pseudonym “Tiana Dalichov.”
She used this platform as well as social media to espouse and affirm anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and white supremacist ideas. For example, when a caller to her podcast suggested it was unrealistic for a “kid from Sweden” and a “kid from Nigeria” to learn the same material because of different IQs she “enthusiastically agreed.”
Should We Be Surprised?
To be honest, the news that a teacher was exposed as a white supremacist was unsurprising. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map, there are 954 active hate groups in the United States. Furthermore, in their end of year report, 2017: The Year in Hate and Extremism, they cited, a post-Charlottesville Washington Post/ABC News survey which found that, “9 percent of Americans — about 22 million people — thought it was fine to hold neo-Nazi or white supremacist views.”
Given the fact that roughly 80% of k-12 teachers in the United States are white, it would be more statistically unlikely to NOT find a white supremacist in of our nation’s classrooms. Nonetheless, the story was disturbing. Volitich relished her ability to influence young people and inject her classroom with her white nationalist ideology. She encouraged more white nationalists to “infiltrate” the education system. The idea of teachers like Volitich harming the young people – white kids and kids of color – they are meant to educate is unsettling.
Volitich’s Racism is the Rule, Not the Exception
But at the same time, Volitich represents an extreme case, but not an anomalous one in the U.S. education system. White teachers don’t need to attend alt-right rallies or host white nationalist podcasts to cause real, and lasting damage to the kids in our classrooms.
Blatantly, unapologetically white nationalist teachers are a rarity in U.S. classrooms. On the other hand, well-meaning, but nonetheless racist, white teachers are the norm. In New York City, the supposed bastion of liberal progressivism, we have had a string of headlines showcasing this problem.
Recently, when I questioned the wisdom of a test passage that portrayed Robert E. Lee sympathetically, there was a big backlash from white teachers in The Educator’s Room community. There were two main arguments in favor of the passage, which downplayed his enslavement of Black people and highlighted his loyalty to his family and community. The first was that Robert E. Lee was a historical figure, and therefore students should learn about him (And yet, we don’t come across Malcolm X, Nat Turner, Assata Shakur, or other “problematic” Black historical figures on many 5th-grade test passages). The second argument was that we can’t judge Robert E. Lee’s actions by today’s moral standards, in spite of the fact that Robert E. Lee lived at the same time as Black and white people who adamantly opposed slavery.
I bring up the New York City headlines and the Robert E. Lee test passage to show that bias and racism are in fact a widespread problem. Therefore it is not enough for white teachers to shake our heads in disgust at teachers like Volitich. We have to look at ourselves in the mirror. We have to talk to our colleagues. We have to examine our own biases and our curricular choices. They may seem less wrong than outright white nationalism, but they have a cumulative impact that is no less harmful.
Therefore it is not enough for white teachers to shake our heads in disgust at teachers like Volitich. Click To Tweet
As White Teachers, We’re All Accountable
When we mispronounce our students’ names, when we make assumptions about their home lives, when we devalue their home language and culture, when we refuse to talk about race, or to center students’ lives in our curriculum, and when we play the part of “white savior” we are causing real harm. Whether or not this harm is to a different degree than the harm caused by Volitich is irrelevant.
Teachers are responsible for thousands of decisions each day, small and large. The decisions we make carry weight, and we must be accountable for this.
Let me clear, as a white teacher, I am absolutely implicated in all of this. As a white teacher, I make mistakes and have to deal with my own internalized white supremacy. As Beverly Daniel Tatum analogizes, racism is like smog. We all breathe it in, and we are all absorbing racist ideas, whether we want to or not.
Let me clear, as a white teacher, I am absolutely implicated in all of this. Click To Tweet
Personally, I am working on discussing racism more with my white colleagues. It is not enough for me to think I’ve “graduated” from certain aspects of anti-racist work, and to detach from the broader white education community. I know I have avoided conversations with colleagues out of a fear of conflict. But avoiding these conversations protects my emotional safety at the risk of students’ psychological and physical safety.
Overall, all white teachers have work to do to serve students of color and white students alike. We can and should denounce teachers like Volitich. They have no place in our classrooms. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think they’re the only source of racism in our schools.
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