This past spring, Netflix released Ava DuVernay’s powerful limited series When They See Us. It tells the story of the Central Park Five, now known as the Exonerated Five: black and brown teenage boys wrongfully convicted of the sexual assault of a white woman in 1989. Since its release, I have heard many educators—especially white educators—discussing how they will use When They See Us in their classrooms to examine a story of injustice at the hands of our criminal justice system through the eyes of black and brown youth.
For the past several years, I have taught a mass incarceration project in my high school classroom. We examine injustices in our criminal justice system and how they contribute to our nation’s rising incarceration rates. I firmly believe that teaching about mass incarceration is critical because it is part of the ongoing narrative of racial oppression in the United States.
This year I will be teaching a semester-long course dedicated to exploring these issues. And, while it covers many of the themes that we will discuss, I will not be showing When They See Us in my classroom.
If you are considering using When They See Us in your classroom
If you are an educator—and particularly a white educator—who is thinking about showing When They See Us to your students, I encourage you to ask yourself the following.
What is my goal for showing this in my classroom? Are there other resources for achieving this same goal?
When They See Us can be a powerful tool for examining institutional racism and decentering whiteness. But for many black and brown students, it may trigger trauma. We don’t know how many of our students have experienced racial injustice at the hands of our criminal justice system. Some of our students may see their own experiences mirrored in the experiences of the boys in the limited series. Too often, the curricula we choose retraumatize students, even if they’re chosen with the intention of dismantling systems of oppression.
I have heard educators argue that When They See Us affirms the humanity of black and brown people and builds empathy by telling the story of the Exonerated Five through the eyes of the accused boys. But we must consider whether there are ways to achieve this goal without retraumatizing some of our black and brown students.
Additionally, while the work of examining systemic injustice with our students is critical, the stories we tell in class about people of color too often focus on issues of pain and suffering. As a white educator, I must ensure that my black and brown students see their cultures celebrated in the classroom as much as they learn about the oppression that their communities have faced.
Who will benefit from seeing this? Do the benefits for some students outweigh the potential harm for others?
One of the strengths of DuVernay’s limited series is that it evokes such visceral emotional responses from its viewers. But it is also important to consider what emotions it will evoke in our students. Many of my white friends or family members who watched it told me that they found it “difficult to watch”—and for good reason: When They See Us exposes a system of white privilege that undeniably devalues black and brown lives. For white viewers, I would argue that the limited series is necessarily “difficult to watch” because it forces us to confront the systemic racism in our country.
But as educators, we have a responsibility to create a safe learning environment for all of our students. So while When They See Us tells a necessary story, we cannot trade the trauma of some—in this case, our black and brown students—to build empathy in others.
Am I prepared to lead discussions about institutional racism in my classroom? Do I have established norms and procedures in place? Is my classroom community ready for such a conversation?
If you answered no to answer of these questions, you should consider the work you’ll need to do before you jump into these critical topics with students—whether you’re considering screening When They See Us or not.
Consider using these resources
Although I won’t be showing the limited series in my own classroom in an effort to create a safe learning environment for all of my students, my students will still engage in the work of understanding how mass incarceration today is part of an ongoing narrative of racial oppression in the United States. There are many sources that “put a human face” to these systemic issues and address the same themes as When They See Us.
Here are a few I plan to use.
Institutional racism in our criminal justice system
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Teaching the New Jim Crow
Alexander’s book explores how our criminal justice system perpetuates a system of racialized control that she traces back to slavery and Jim Crow segregation. If you don’t want to read the entire book with your students, the introduction does a good job getting at many of these themes.
This documentary, also directed by DuVernay, weaves the thread of institutional racism and the perpetuation of slavery in our country from convict leasing to Jim Crow laws and lynching to the war on drugs, mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex.
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row by Anthony Ray Hinton
The novel tells the story of how Hinton, a Southern black man experiencing poverty, was wrongfully convicted of two murders and spent 30 years on death row before having his conviction overturned.
Cases from The Innocence Project
The Innocence Project’s website shares the stories of people wrongfully convicted of crimes. One inclusion is the case of Anthony Wright, a black man from Philadelphia who was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder. After he spent 25 years in prison, The Innocence Project helped exonerate him by using DNA testing.
Just Mercy (Adapted for Young Adults) by Bryan Stevenson
Two chapters are particularly useful in the classroom. Chapter six tells the story of Charlie, a 14-year-old boy who is being held in adult prison on capital murder charges. Chapter eight includes the narratives of three people who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles.
All Children Are Children report by the Equal Justice Initiative
The report uses stories of young people to highlight the unjust sentences and treatment of youth in adult prisons.
How I will use When They See Us
While I won’t be sharing it with my students, I do believe that When They See Us can be a powerful teaching tool. White educators like me have a responsibility to do the work within ourselves to confront the racism and white supremacy that we benefit from daily.
For this reason, When They See Us is necessary viewing for every white educator—and, I would argue, every white person. Showing how individual and institutional racism worked against the Exonerated Five, it helps us better recognize how racism similarly influences the educational system and institutions that we work in.
This school year, I plan to use When They See Us as a tool for having conversations with white colleagues to decenter our own whiteness. How will you use it?
Coven is a high school English and Social Studies teacher at Sullivan High School in Chicago, IL.