In Response to...
Updated: May 1, 2018
I never asked my students “Do you think this would have happened if he was a white man?”
In response to Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and every other unjustified killing of brown men in the news…
I never asked my students “Do you think this would have happened if he was a white man?” because it would have been a biased question that very few of them would have understood. I did not come in to my classes noticeably angry, frustrated, or on the verge of tears because it would have worried my students and colleagues to know that I was deeply bothered by the lack of justice and regard shown for black lives. As teachers often do, I put my personal feelings aside and came into class unready to speak on the matters, but feeling compelled to make sure that what was happening was not simply swept under the rug, or addressed once then simply forgotten.
I teach high schoolers, and I prompted the kids write a journal entry about “current events in the U.S. News” the day after the non-indictment for the Eric Garner case. After one student’s initial response of “I tend to focus more on the international news than the U.S. stuff”, and a brief firm response from yours truly about the importance of knowing what is going on in our own backyards, each of my classes ended up spending the entire hour of class discussing what happened and the consequences that society is facing as a result.
Though I had very strong personal feelings of my own about the influx of news of black males being killed, the lack of indictments, and the continuing protests, I spent most of the time listening and learning about my students’ privileged teenage perspectives.
Before the end of each discussion, which began to get quite heated at certain points, I told my perspective and encouraged my students to remember what influences our opinions about these things, including our cultural backgrounds, personal experiences with police, upbringing, and race.
I worry about my younger brother, a senior Biomedical Engineering student awaiting responses from Ph.D. programs all over the nation, being caught walking down the wrong street at the wrong time and being killed because he looks “suspicious”. I pray for my male cousins who don’t yet understand that the color of their skin may have a huge effect on a judge’s decision when they get caught making dumb mistakes.
It was a very frustrating conversation to have with teens, but it was so necessary. Just as we had a school-wide discussion on Ferguson on the first day of school, as the one black adult on campus, I just couldn’t let the topics go without somehow voicing their importance and relevance to our history. Yes, “our” history- not just the black people of the U.S., but everyone living in this country. It is as relevant to the families losing loved ones and the protestors marching for justice as it is to the indifferent. Though my teenagers did not all agree with my position, they heard an individual side of the meaning of “black lives matter”, and it was a real teaching moment for them. It’s so easy for privileged students to ignore and eventually forget what’s going on around them when they are in such a secluded, sheltered environment where they have to do actual research to find out what is going on in their own country.
This past weekend, one of the deans and a student stood out on the school’s quad and at a major intersection on Rte. 101 holding “Black Lives Matter” and “Justice for Everyone” signs. Though I did not stand with them in solidarity, I appreciated their stance. Even in this small town where people who look like me are beyond underrepresented, and the separation of a couple of hours from the major protests taking over nearby cities seems like millions of miles away, their recognition of the injustice and the importance of their voices in this community were great examples of support particularly to our students from environments where racial profiling, violence, and other aspects of the most recent events are far from rare.
The most recent events have raised the most important conversations. Although lives were lost, as in every struggle, those seemingly unnecessary sacrifices are exactly what it takes to prompt major movements for change. Yes, they are unjustified, and justice is definitely one thing to fight for, but so is the recognition of major changes that should take place in the perception of race, intention, safety, and the understanding of how all of those things factor into our society.
It is very hard- almost impossible- to stay objective in the midst of everything happening, but I hope that as teachers, and particularly as black educators, we use this reminder of the issues in America to teach our students. Teach them to look beyond the news stories and headlines, and to analyze not only their own perspectives, but those of others as well. Understand both sides of the anger, frustration, indifference, and how all of it will affect them now and in years to come.
I truly believe that we are in the midst of a new wave of the Civil Rights Movement, and whether in a public or private school, city or suburb, poor or affluent environment I will willingly play my role in educating my students as “The Black Educator”.
– The Black Educator.