Blogger’s Note: This post is on race in America. It’s full of ideas I’ve been wrestling with for a long while. Like the issue, there’s nothing neat and polished and finished about my thinking. But like the issue, I think it’s time for transparent reflection — particularly from white people in positions of authority and leadership — no matter how messy it may feel.
Read it if you want. And then do some reflecting of your own. This is a conversation we have to stop avoiding. We owe it to one another.
I think I’m an outstanding teacher. At least that’s what I’ve heard from parents and students time and again for 25 years. It’s not unusual for kids to smile when they see me, anyway — and I”m not bashful about telling students that I believe in them and that I care about them.
That matters, right?
But here’s a really uncomfortable confession: I’ve caught myself time and again over the past few weeks treating my students of color differently than I treat the white students in my school.
Simple things, really — but treating kids of color differently nonetheless.
Things like saying, “Where are you supposed to be?” to Ja’Quon when I saw him outside the bathroom, jumping immediately to the conclusion that he’s either skipping or stalling instead of simply going to the freaking bathroom. I even used the word “caught” when describing the interaction to Ja’Quon’s teacher — implying, with little evidence, that he was in a place he wasn’t supposed to be.
Or things like chasing Cadedra and Samyria away from the water fountains when they are saying good morning to one another each day, jumping immediately to the conclusion that whatever they are doing, it’s going to end up causing some kind of social drama that I’m going to have to deal with later.
Or things like being really surprised when Ashante asks the best questions in my classes and that her parents are some of the most interested and involved parents that I’ve ever met — and then realizing that I can count the number of interactions that I’ve had with the parents of my black students on one hand.
Or assuming that Tadion was screwing around in the hallways when he showed up late to class after lunch — and then finding out that he had an upset stomach that he was dealing with.
Heck — I did it today, y’all: De’Andre and Jonaad showed up in my room for our school’s enrichment period. “You’d better be here to work,” I said the MOMENT they walked in the door.
“If you aren’t interested in working, you aren’t welcome here,” I said, with skepticism in my voice even though I hadn’t questioned any of the other kids who showed up to work in my room.
Look back over my list of examples for a minute. There’s nothing overtly racist there, right?
In fact, I’d bet those kinds of moments happen a thousand times a day in your schools, too — especially if your school is staffed, like most, with a whole bunch of white, middle class teacher people.
But that’s what makes them so damn insidious, y’all.
Imagine being De’Andre or Cadedra or Tadion and being doubted and second guessed at every turn by every adult in your building. Want to say hello to a friend? Go for it — but get ready to be hassled. Need to use the bathroom? Go for it — but get ready to be hassled. Late to class because you forgot something in the cafeteria? Yup. You are going to get hassled for that, too.
Meanwhile, your white classmates — let’s call them Sarah and Alex and Jack — are all saying hello to friends, using the bathroom and coming to class a minute or two late without having to explain themselves. Instead, they’re getting friendly reminders to be more responsible next time!
Stew in that for a minute, y’all.
Does it sound like your school at all?
Be honest. It won’t hurt.
But also imagine the impact that being doubted over and over again, day after day, year after year has on our kids of color?
And don’t forget that while being doubted at school, our kids of color are ALSO living in a world where the President of the United States defends white supremacists as “very fine people” while simultaneously calling black athletes protesting police brutality in communities of color “sons of bitches” who deserve to be fired.
ALL. OVER. A. PEACEFUL. PROTEST.
And not just a peaceful protest about ANY old thing — a peaceful protest designed to draw attention to troubling stories like those of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and #ferguson and Freddie Gray and Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — cases where black men were literally killed in the streets.
Need MORE proof of how bad things really are?
Consider the fact that we’ve become so desensitized to the endless cycle of violence against marginalized groups that we barely even acknowledge events that DON’T involve shootings anymore — think School Resource Officer Ben Fields tossing an African American student all around her high school classroom for being disruptive or police officer David Casebolt turning into Kung-Fu Panda to break up a pool party that had grown too large in McKinney, Texas.
And worse yet, we haven’t even really BOTHERED to consider the concerns of the #anthemprotesters.
Don’t believe me?
Go read through your social media streams right now.
I guarantee that you’ll find plenty of people raging about “rich, spoiled athletes disrespecting the flag” but few who are wrestling with “black men using their position as public figures to speak out about racial injustice in America.” The one-sided-ness of the conversation speaks volumes about our readiness as a nation to deal with inequality.
Long story short: I used to wonder why some of the kids of color in our building were so darn belligerent when I tried to correct them.
They’d mouth off every time. I’d write them up for being disrespectful every time. Then, I’d gripe to colleagues about their attitudes — convinced that I’d done nothing to deserve their back talk. After all, they were the ones breaking the rules, right?
But when I think with an open heart about the way that I’ve caught myself treating my kids of color, it’s pretty clear that I’m the one being disrespectful.
I really do jump to negative conclusions about the actions of my black students a heck of a lot sooner than I do when I’m having the same kinds of interactions with white students. Andy gives me attitude and “he’s just having a bad day.” Anquan gives me attitude and “he’s just a bad kid.”
And if I think with an open heart, I’d bet that at least some of the confrontations that I am seeing out of my kids of color are nothing more than a reflection of a society where doubt and criticism and unfair consequences are the norm rather that the exception to the rule for black kids living in a biased world.
I can’t fix all of this by myself anytime soon.
But I can guarantee you that, moving forward, I’m ready to rethink every interaction that I have with a kid of color to at LEAST ensure that my own assumptions aren’t leading to a classroom where bias is the norm rather than the exception to the rule. And I can also guarantee you that I’m going to speak out — as a white man in a position of authority — about race in America anywhere that I can.
It might make people uncomfortable, but I just don’t care.
I OWE that to my kids.
And so do you.
*Note: All student names are pseudonyms to protect identities.
Related Radical Reads: