Race, News, Justice

Non-black teachers, listen to your black students

In this world and during these terrible times, they should know you’re on their side.

I’m not black and I don’t know what it’s like to be black in this world. I’m not worried about my own life or the lives of my sisters or my parents when it comes to police brutality. Even when Indian men have been brutally handled by police, it is because of anti-blackness. I am very privileged to not feel unsafe at the hands of police. Despite this, I am outraged by police brutality, systemic racism, and blatant anti-blackness in this country because I am a decent human being who values the lives of other human beings.

I used to teach in rural Arkansas and over 90% of my students were black. When I mentioned where I worked to people within and outside the community, I was told to beware of “those kids.” I once had a museum educator come do science for my students and she told me afterwards that she expected bad behavior because of what she’d heard about us. I heard hateful, negative talk about “those kids” every.single.day. If any of you teach in a predominately black or low-income school, you hear it too.

Believing that all black kids are worthy of a precaution is exactly what gets them killed. How else could someone think a 12 year old with a toy gun was remotely threatening? This is the kind of rhetoric that’s in the back of people’s minds when they murder innocent black people. This is what people are thinking when they defend the actions of power-hungry cops. These are the thoughts that lead people to need more evidence (because somehow videos are insufficient) before condemning police shootings. When I see people on social media and the news talk about the black victims of police brutality being “thugs” or giving the police the benefit of the doubt (because it’s easier to believe all black people are dangerous than believe that some police officers are capable of murder), I am outraged, terrified, upset, worried.

I see my former students posting on Facebook about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and proudly stating that Black Lives Matter. Knowing that any one of them feels unsafe because they’re black enrages me beyond belief.

Educators don’t simply teach students concepts, skills, and facts. They serve as mentors, therapists, supporters, and encouragers. This makes teaching one of the most difficult and important jobs in the world. As a face that students will see 5 out of 7 days a week, you are someone that they should feel safe around. And if you teach black or brown students, you should be making the effort every day to make them feel valued, loved, and appreciated. In this world and during these terrible times, they should know you’re on their side.

It’s also the job of educators to inspire thought and action. These are important times in our country and all students should be actively engaged in what’s happening. It is important to learn how to engage your classrooms in meaningful ways. Students need these discussions – all students. And it’s your job as an educator to facilitate these discussions and empower your students to civil action.

It’s your job as an educator to listen. Listen to your students as they process their feelings and understand the horrors they’re witnessing. And listen to your black neighbors, friends, and colleagues as they tell you about the injustices they’re facing and how you can help.

Systemic racism is alive and well within the confines of your classrooms. Educators perpetuate educational racism every single day and you might be doing this subconsciously. Have you ever thought “oh, they just won’t do this assignment” or “there’s no way they’ll understand this concept, so I can’t teach it”?

Educational expectations for black children are lower across the nation in schools, black students are more likely to be held back and disciplined than white students, and schools with more students of color spend less per student than majority white schools. Schools stress white, middle class classroom norms to students who don’t fit those identities. Stereotype threats burden the minds of students of color and cause them to perform lower in class. In a society where the school to prison pipeline is very real and black men and women are being murdered for nothing, we have to do better by our black students.

If you are in front of the classroom, molding the minds of these young people — the responsibility is on you. Your students need to know they can count on you to push back against racism. It’s the job of educators to stand against the ignorance that is putting students’ lives at risk. Even as someone who no longer teaches, I want my former students to know that I am on their side, like I always have been and always will be. I want them to know that I will always fight for and alongside them. Just as I continue to be inspired and supported by my former teachers, I will continue to support my former students… because that’s the job of a teacher.