Last Monday, teachers at my school in Durham, North Carolina, headed back to work. It was a sunny day, and our schedule was filled with meetings and classroom preparations. That evening, across town, protesters toppled a Confederate statue at the old county courthouse.
These may seem like unrelated events, but they aren’t. As students arrive eager and anxious next week, how do we make sense of the fact that, as statues come down and protests heat up across the country, North Carolina passed a law in 2015 preventing the government from removing Confederate statues? How do we explain that the North Carolina House of Representatives approved legislation in April 2017 that protects drivers who run over protesters, effectively creating open season on dissent? How do I create civic responsibility in my classroom when my state government ushers in rules that contradict it?
As educators, we should be laying the groundwork to build trust, understand foundational information and explicitly express anti-racist values from the first day of class so all students have the skills to grapple with these contradictions.
Often, when events like the toppling of statues in Durham or the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville occur, teachers are stumped on how to pause their classroom routines to discuss the issues. But if the classroom is focused on issues of justice, power and identity from day one, discussions of specific current events are a natural extension, especially if students understand this is the expectation.
To do this effectively, teachers must engage in self-education and reflection. It’s time to take it beyond saying, “I’m not racist!” and ask ourselves, “How are my teaching and behavior anti-racist?” Teachers won't be able to initiate courageous conversations in the classroom if they aren’t engaged in conversations about their own experiences with race and power. With this, we must dismiss the idea of an apolitical classroom—which does not exist.
It is our duty to question our daily practices (and popular narratives) to disrupt the white supremacy that is being affirmed in our schools and legislative buildings. My classroom has specific themes that all texts and assignments revolve around. When we read texts like Code Talkers or All American Boys, we are learning how to name systems, power and injustice. All classes can and should make space to discuss root causes for events like those in Charlottesville and the motivation behind passing laws like those protecting Confederate monuments in North Carolina.
I am a high school English and writing teacher for students with learning differences. I am told often that my students—who have diagnoses like ADHD, dyslexia, autism and anxiety—cannot handle the critical thinking necessary to discuss issues like police brutality or to understand legal issues like gerrymandering. But while a student may struggle with nuances, they need a foundation to begin somewhere. When we think kids can’t handle these issues, we are denying them their agency and ability to engage in civic concerns. And we uphold status quo systems complicit in white supremacy.
Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum once said, “Cultural racism ... is like smog in the air. Sometimes it is so thick it is visible, other times less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in.” Gatekeepers of the status quo may try to silence us as a way of feeling better about living with the smog and doing nothing. But it’s time to be a disruptive peacemaker, and in the classroom, that means being an anti-racist educator.
Mgongolwa is a high school English and Writing teacher in Durham, North Carolina.
This article was produced in partnership with the anti-hate writing project 500 Pens.