Why Teachers Need to Have Difficult Conversations About Race With Their Students5 min read
6 years ago the African American students in my class sat in stunned silence the day it was announced that the officer who shot Michael Brown was not to be charged with any crime.
As their teacher, I had no clue what to say or do that day. I didn’t know what to say after the death of Trayvon Martin or Freddie Gray or after the Charleston massacre, and I didn’t know what to say with Michael Brown. So we sat in silence for a bit, and I invited anyone who wanted to express their feelings to go ahead.
The first students to speak were a few white ones. I heard comments like, “It doesn’t matter if the cop was guilty or innocent, Brown shouldn’t have committed a crime.”
and, “If they want to be treated better, they should respond more appropriately and not act like this when the court case doesn’t go their way.”
These same comments were made all over the news and by politicians and pundits. These students were responding the way their culture was responding.
My black students sat silent.
A tension was building in the room as the conversation dwelt on one side of the issue. And then I saw an African American student sitting in the center of the room squeezing his fingernails into the palms of his hands and making his knuckles turn white. Then he looked up at me and said with real and pure anger,
“White people don’t get followed every time they walk through a store, and I’ve never stole anything in my life. It’s always like this for us; we always get treated like this. We really needed a win this time.”
Another student, now more emboldened, said, “I walk with my mom through the grocery store, and they follow us around to make sure we don’t take anything.”
A white girl spoke up, “My step-dad is black, and people always give my mom evil looks when we go out in public because she’s married to a black guy. That’s why we don’t go out in public much.”
And then an African American boy, one of the quietest kids in my class, said in just above a whisper, “My grandma told me that they hung my great grandpa when they lived in Mississippi.”
The first boy who spoke, whose eyes were red with anger and sadness, pounded his desk and said,
“I just wish God would have made everyone yellow. Then we wouldn’t have to deal with this shit.”
We live in a country where a boy as magnificent as this one would would want to deny his color, culture, and heritage because of the way he has been treated.
I cannot relate to this.
I don’t know what it’s like to be guilty of a crime before it is committed. I have no clue what it’s like to have to dress like someone from another culture in order to get a little bit of respect. I never feel fear when I go for a run or get pulled over for speeding. I don’t know what it’s like to know that my grandpa was strangled to death in front of a mob of people because he is black.
I do know that these stories that flooded my classroom when students were given a voice make me angry.
And I cannot imagine the anger I’d feel if these stories were not just stories for me, but actually my life.
During this discussion, I didn’t have the magic words for my students to make it all better, but I could give them a space where they’d be listened to. I also created a space I was committed to learn in.
With the tragedy of Breonna Taylor and the many other tragedies that have occurred in the past few months, more fear has been sown into the hearts of our black students.
Teachers have to lead these discussions.
As a teachers, we can either lead our students through these discussions, wading through difficult and unfamiliar territory as we learn about each other and vow to create abiding change- or we can avoid these conversations, pretending all is well and that our only focus should be on our content areas.
If we go with the second option, avoiding the conversation, keep in mind the fact that all is not well, and your students’ anger and sadness does not go away just because we ignore it.
In the current virtual space we are in right now, I encourage you to create a space for your students to grieve, to vent, to express themselves, and more than anything else, to be listened to.
I feel strongly convicted to speak up and advocate. Sitting silent does nothing to defeat injustice. However, as a white educator, I feel equally called to listen and learn. I am ignorant to so much and have a long way to go. Here are some of the people I am learning so much from. I recommend following and learning from them as well now and long after the tension of this current crisis passes.
Sarah Thomas @sarahdateechur https://www.sarahjanethomas.com/
Ashlee Eiland: @Ashlee_Eiland https://www.ashleeeiland.com/
Jose Vilson: @TheJLV https://thejosevilson.com/
Ibram X. Kendi: @DrIbram https://t.co/oX4pGAaJrq?amp=1
Dwayne Reed: @TeachMrReed
Ken Shelton: @k_shelton
Also, the resources in this document are extremely helpful (I did not put these resources together):