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White Man. Black Boy.

Posted by on in School Culture
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Can you come with me please?

We walk down the hallway and step into my office.

I close the door.

Have a seat please.

And then we sit across from another. White man. Black boy. Oftentimes coming from and living in two completely different worlds. Does this matter? Is it significant? I think the answer to both questions is a resounding Yes.

But what choice do we have? I am a 45 year-old white elementary school assistant principal serving predominantly African American children. As is the case across the country, the majority of the students I see for disciplinary reasons are male. And since the majority of our students are African American, I meet with young black males more than I meet with any other subgroup of students.

We sit. We laugh. We problem solve. We share. And I feel honored that the majority of the time they accept me unconditionally. Is it because I am their assistant principal? Maybe. But I'd like to think it is because I make every attempt to build quality relationships with them. To get to know them. To learn their story.

And I try my best. But I know that matter how I hard I try I will never fully know their story. Despite the fact that I have lived in the same town that they do for almost my entire life. Despite the fact that I attended the very same elementary school in which I work today. Despite the fact that I sat in the very same classrooms that they sit in today.


Because I grew up a blond haired blue eyed white boy.

And they didn't.

Trayvon Martin would've turned 21 yesterday. I wonder how many of the young men I meet with even know that. Part of me hopes that they don't and another part realizes that they must. And I hate it.

My son will never have to worry about wearing a hoodie as he's walking home at night. But many of the boys I see each day will do. So I wonder. When we are in my office. With the door closed. Trying to solve problems. Move forward.

How do they see me?

Because we are not the same. We never have been and we never will be. Dr. King did not wish for all people to be treated equally because we are the same. He wished for all people to be treated equally because it is right.

When I meet with these young men I am giving them everything that I've got and yet I often think that it is not enough. This is not because they are not open to receive what it is I have to offer. I think it is because I am a white man and they are black boys. And no matter how hard I try, I will never know what it is like to be them. To see the world through their eyes. To turn on the news and see young men that look like them being shot and killed for being...

I don't know what.

So what do I do? What can I do?

Do I lament the fact that I can't fully connect with these young men because I am white? Do I steer clear of certain topics because I am of a different race? Do I give up hope?

No. No. No.

I am a man, a husband, a father, a son, a brother and a friend. These roles transcend race, so I can do everything in my power to prepare them for each one of them. No matter how far down the road they may be. I owe them that much.

Furthermore, I can listen and learn. From those that look like the young men that I serve each day. From those that live with the young men that I serve each day. Race is an important topic that we mustn't shy away from. In her book White Teacher, Vivian Gussin Paley, writes of an encounter she witnessed with a teacher who was boasting to a parent that she doesn't see race. The parent's response was powerful and I have never forgotten it.

What rot. … My children are black. They don’t look like your children. They know they’re black, and we want it recognized. It’s a positive difference, an interesting difference, and a comfortable natural difference. At least it could be so, if you teachers learned to value difference more. What you value, you talk about.


Vivian Gussin Paley, White Teacher


Monday morning will be here soon. And most likely at some point in the day I will be called to speak with a young black male. I will listen. He will listen. We will talk. And hopefully we will both be the better for it. At the end of our time together, he will still be black and I will still be white. Nothing will change that. But we both have the power to change who we can and will become. By listening and learning each others stories. However different they may be.

And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor,—all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked,—who is good? not that men are ignorant,—what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.


W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk








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Jon is currently the assistant principal in Dorchester County, Maryland. This is his seventh year serving as an assistant principal at the elementary level. Prior to becoming an administrator he served as a Math Coach and an elementary school teacher. During his ten years as a classroom teacher he taught first, second, fourth and fifth grades. During his sixth year teaching he earned Nationally Board Certification, which he held for ten years. For seven years he ran a Young Gentleman's Club that was aimed at helping young men reach their full potential.  

Jon received a B.A. from Furman University while majoring in Philosophy. He later went on to earn his B.S from Salisbury University while majoring in Elementary Education. Jon was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to student teach in New Zealand. He eventually received his M.A. degree from Salisbury University in Public School Administration.

Jon lives in Cambridge, Maryland with his amazing wife and two awesome children.

  • Guest
    Jennifer Hogan Sunday, 07 February 2016

    I can relate to this blog post so well, Jon. Thank you for writing this, as I feel as though I give everything I can, but I often fear it is not enough. that doesn't mean I won't stop giving, but it means to me that I've got to be consistent and persistent. I love the quote from Paley's book. When I was a young teacher, I, too, said that I didn't see race. What I meant was that I saw more in common than different. Now I realize that it's okay to say that I see differences and that I value those, too. I haven't changed, but I'm better at sharing my thoughts through different words.
    Thank you for sharing this. Keep up the great work!

  • Jon Harper /  @Jonharper70bd
    Jon Harper / @Jonharper70bd Monday, 08 February 2016

    Thank you for reading and sharing your journey as well. I think we owe it to our children to listen and learn and sometimes accept that we may not always have all of the answers but we will do all that we can.

  • Ben Gilpin benjamingilpin
    Ben Gilpin benjamingilpin Monday, 08 February 2016


    You took such a sensitive topic and articulated yourself amazingly well. The authenticity of your approach can be felt through your words.

    You said it best when you stated that Dr. King wanted us to do what is right. I was born caucasian and all I can do is my best. I listen, I empathize, I can never truly understand the situation, but the more I listen the more I will begin to understand.

    Thanks for taking on such a sensitive topic.


  • Jon Harper /  @Jonharper70bd
    Jon Harper / @Jonharper70bd Monday, 08 February 2016

    Thank you Ben, that means so much coming from you as I consider you a mentor who has helped me through the last few years.

  • Errol St.Clair Smith
    Errol St.Clair Smith Wednesday, 10 February 2016

    Great read, Jon! Your post opens an important conversation that we need to encourage. Sane, sober, balanced voices who can speak candidly about race are needed now, more than ever. I thought you provided an authentic, real and relevant perspective.

    I think the lament you share about your differences extends beyond race. If you had a twin brother, there would likely be a chasm between how you each experienced the world. If we unpack this discussion, we might find that it's less about race and more about respecting the existential realities others face.

    I learned a wonderful life lesson on this point some years back. A minister invited me to speak to a group of young men at a maximum security prison. They had listened to me on the radio and wanted to discuss some of my "sensitive" ideas in person. Once inside the gates, it dawned on me that things could get ugly if I unintentionally offended one of them.

    Though we were all black, my life experience was as far apart from theirs as you and your students. We ultimately had a spirited and enlightening discussion. The good news: I walked out unscathed. The takeaway is captured in a photograph that says it all.

    In the middle of the image is this scrawny little guy in a business suit, surrounded by a group of about 25 muscle men in prison jeans. We're all smiling, and they're treating me like one of the boys. Every time I see that picture, I'm reminded that the rapport developed that night resulted from looking beyond their exterior appearance and conditions and respecting them as valid, valuable individuals. We all saw the differences between us, but we also saw what mattered most - our common humanity and dignity.

    The stripping of humanity and dignity is what started our race problem. I think this is where all bridge building needs to begin.

    Candidly, I don't think anyone expects to be fully understood. I know for sure that blacks don't expect it. Indeed, as the cliche goes, "it's a black thang, you wouldn't understand."

    I've found that trying too hard to understand or show understanding is counterproductive. It often leads to a bizarre patronization that undermines trust.

    Two words: Dignity and respect. I sense that this is the secret sauce between you and your students.

    Jon, I respect your approach to every issue I've seen you address. This post is just one more reflection of your basic nature,

    Thanks for being you!

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