Last summer, I watched with pride as students got involved in local activism. I also had a few questions.
“How can I support my students right now?” I asked myself. “How can I make sure our Black students feel safe at school? Where can I find resources to talk about these events with them next year?”
I teach African American literature to juniors and seniors. Though my classes are among the most diverse on campus, my school and district as a whole remain largely segregated. Black students only make up around 2% of our suburban student population.
In the absence of Black teachers at my school, I know it is my job to prioritize the experiences of my Black students. I often benefit from privilege because I am white-presenting, but my identity as an Iranian woman allows me to share my own vulnerable experiences of prejudice.
I learn as much as I can from my students’ stories and questions, and I try to use that knowledge to advocate for them. So, as protests in support of Black lives spread across the country, I—like many educators—looked to my school and district leadership for guidance.
We received nothing. All-staff emails from school leaders had no mention of Black Lives Matter, injustice, solidarity, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Tony McDade or Elijah McClain—none of the people or topics my students were already talking about as they worked together to understand implicit bias, modern school segregation, voter suppression, environmental racism and police brutality.
After days of silence, our students finally received a message from school and district leaders.
The email acknowledged that racism and police brutality are uncomfortable for people to discuss. It explained that some are afraid to say something that may be insulting or sound insensitive.
After reading the letter from the principal, one student emailed her response:
“During high school, there have been several times when the topic of slavery and the civil rights era arose, and students would turn their heads and stare at me, the only Black girl in that classroom, and force me to give my take on it and share my experiences. But where was the administration sending me an email, letting me know that if I don’t want to talk about it, I don’t have to?”
Stories like hers are far too common. According to a 2020 Teach Plus study, efforts to discuss race and racism in school often put teachers and students of color in a position of “navigating interactions that are centered around the experiences of white people.”
Just as the message from leadership focused on the discomfort of discussing race rather than racism’s direct impact on our students of color, educators across the country are starting a journey toward anti-racism but neglecting to address the racism already present in our schools.
We know that schools are places that can reinscribe trauma, including racialized trauma. We know that harm is inflicted on BIPOC students in school, through classroom culture, through policy and through the curriculum. If we listen, our students will reveal that racism. We need to listen.
Teachers and school district leaders must understand the gravity of our responsibility at this pivotal moment in our nation’s history. We cannot allow anti-racism work to be pushed aside.
Every educator who is committed to anti-racism work should become familiar with achievement, discipline, attendance and school climate data in order to learn how schools and districts disproportionately harm students of color.
The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights disaggregates data by subgroup, and shedding light on disproportionate statistics for certain subgroups of students is an essential component of equitable and empowering advocacy. Educators of all races should be using our voice and privilege to question unjust policies and practices in our schools.
Teacher leaders should position anti-racism at the forefront of our student outcomes and encourage our districts to invest in long-term anti-racism, implicit bias, curriculum and professional development programs through Black-owned consulting firms. But as we advocate for systemic change, there is still crucial work to be done on ourselves and in our classrooms.
We need to encourage direct, honest discussions about the role of white supremacy in our schools. Educators need to examine our biases and privileges. We need to revisit our curriculum, our assessment and grading practices, and our discipline policies. And we need to hold ourselves, our colleagues and our school and district administrations accountable.
As we approach the one-year anniversary of last summer’s protests—and as police brutality continues to take the lives of young people of color—we educators must take responsibility for anti-racist education.