by: Alex Stubenbort
“This is for the real organizers all over the country, the activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do. Alright? It’s kind of basic mathematics.
The more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.”-Jesse Williams at the 2016 BET Awards
Last night, Jesse Williams (@iJesseWilliams) came with tornado-like passion and ferocity through my TV screen and dared me to reflect on the plight of the black man and woman in America and my place in it. If you were not fortunate enough to bare witness to Williams’ acceptance speech for the Humanitarian Award at the 2016 BET Awards last night, do yourself a favor and watch it (allowing plenty of time in its wake to reflect).
Many of my fellow white educators that I have had the pleasure of working alongside believe that they offer equity in their classrooms by merely standing by the mantra that “race doesn’t matter”. In their heart of hearts they believe that they are without the typical biases and prejudices associated with “unintellectual white folks”. However, oversimplifying the reality of a clear and increasingly prevalent racial divide in our classrooms and our nation is dangerous and disengenious. All too often, especially in a rural community like mine, white educators lean on the token black students in their midst to, as Williams puts it, “comfort the bystander(s)”. This, however, is not and should not be their function within an institution of learning. To limit their voice within public education to what is convenient and/or comfortable to the teacher’s and class’ white palate robs them of sharing the full scope of themselves (a decency that white students have grown accustomed to).
Williams accused “this invention called whiteness” (and I believe rightfully so) of “burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting (black) culture, dollars, entertainment, like oil, black gold. Ghettoizing and demeaning our creations, then stealing them, gentrifying our genius, and then trying us on like costumes, before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.” In our classrooms, this is made evident by the despicable reality of disproportionately black numbers of student office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions within our nation’s schools (particularly in the South) as reported by NPR in August of 2015.
The message to our black students (whether we are concious of it or not) is that they possess freedom but, as Williams points out, it’s “somehow always conditional”. You are free, but not too loud. You are free, but don’t get angry. You are free, but don’t retaliate. You are free, but bringing Black Lives Matter to our discussion is too controversial. You are free, but don’t talk “ghetto”. You are free, but under one condition: don’t act “too black”. This has to change in order to close the achievement gap between white students and the students of color we so clearly underserve.
But how can we “make it right”? How can white educators ever fully understand the scope and depth of the black experience? How can WE make a difference? I believe that first and foremost it starts by acknowledging our ignorance. Cultural norms are not absolute. To assume that the values, likes/dislikes, and traditions of our black students and families mirror our own is almost definitely a mistake. However, if we are willing and able to admit and address our ignorance we will be more likely to engage our students of color in genuine inquiry instead of outdated, archetypal questions aimed to show the class their inherent “sameness”.
Furthermore, it is paramount as white educators that we acknowledge two fundamental truths: (1) We possess preconceived biases and prejudices and (2) We are beneficiaries of White Privilege. By acknowledging the scientifically tested truth that white individuals irrationally fear black men and boys (March 2015 NPR Report), white educators can actively reflect and consciously correct these biases openly and honestly. By understanding not only what White Privilege is but that we are, in fact, daily beneficiaries of it can also have significant results. Instead of oversimplifying situations that face the students we serve (i.e. “Just listen to the police”, “It’s just a word”, “It isn’t racist”, etc.), we will be more inclined to attempt to see the situation from another, less privileged angle. Doing so could bridge a cultural, communicative, and engagement gap that currently exists in public schools today.
All in all, I am far from the sole possessor of all of the answers to solve our nation’s growing epidemic of inequity in our public schools. Honestly, a lot of the gaps would be closed if schools hired more African American educators. However, listening to friends, educators, students, celebrities, activists, and thinkers of color is a far better approach than trying to figure it out on my own and prescribing for a culture that which I have admittedly limited understanding of. Thank you, Jesse Williams, for your powerful words and moving call to action. It did not fall on deaf ears.