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?”
(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.