Talking About Racial Injustice in the Classroom5 min read

Seven years ago the black 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 after 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 a black student sitting in the center of the room squeezing his fingernails into the palms of his hands and making his knuckles turn white. 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 a 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.”

Hung him.

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 him 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 tragedies of Breonna Taylor, Michael Floyd, and too many others 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.

And I understand this temptation to stay in the neutral zone and avoid these discussions. They are difficult. We feel like we’re supposed to have all of the right words and end the conversations with all of the right outcomes. But I don’t think that’s actually what our students need most. Our students need to be listened to, validated, and seen. They need to know that no matter what they see in the news, hear in the hallways, or observe from a sidewalk, that they have someone on their side.

Now, if we go with the second option, avoiding the discussion, 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.

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/

Austin Channing Brown: http://austinchanning.com/
Ibram X. Kendi: @DrIbram https://t.co/oX4pGAaJrq?amp=1

Nikki Wallace: @nwallacecxh
Victoria Thompson M.S.: https://sites.google.com/view/victoriathetech/home
Dwayne Reed: @TeachMrReed 

Zaretta Hammond: @Ready4rigor
Ken Shelton: @k_shelton 

Andre Daughty: @andredaughty

Also, the resources in this document are extremely helpful (I did not put these resources together):
Anti-Racism Resources

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Trevor Muir

I believe every student has the potential for greatness. And I believe every educator can be equipped to unlock that potential.