I haven’t had words in the last two weeks, like many others. I have been so angry and upset hearing about the news of Ahmaud and Breonna’s stories. And I still do not even know where to begin in speaking and in fully processing.
It wasn’t until I was back in my classroom on Monday taking down some student work off the walls that I was brought into more processing and words.
At the beginning of the school year, we started off with a social justice unit. Our anchor text for the unit was a young-adult novel All-American Boys written by Jason Reynolds and Brandon Kiely in 2015. The book centers around an incident of police brutality, where Rashad, a high school black kid, was accused of stealing and brutally beaten because of that accusation. A white kid was on his way to the store to buy alcohol for a party when he witnessed this happen. He was in the alleyway and so people did not know he was there and the police officer happened to be his best friend’s older brother, who was like a brother to him. He knew that what he witnessed was wrong, but throughout the story, he is conflicted about whether he should speak up or not. The book is written from both Rashad and Quinn’s perspective. The chapters alternate between the two. The book is just as much about white privilege as it is police brutality. It is also about family and racism and community. It is not a light book to start the school year off with. It is a book that requires humility and open-dialogue and respect within the classroom.
I am a young, white, middle-class, female who grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta. I grew up ignorant and was often even taught ignorance within a school space. I had no idea the depth of white supremacy nor did I understand that racism is very much a part of the present. We were taught history from a distance. Textbooks were sugar-coated and white washed. I had never heard of the word police brutality until college and that infuriates me to even think about. When news broke out about Michael Brown in 2014 and as the Black Lives Matter movement began to fill the news in 2015 and 2016, I was distraught. It was like I was seeing for the first time ever. Oh how blind to injustice I was. And often still am. It was one of the first times I ever actually began to process what it might have been like to have been someone who was not white, middle-class, heterosexual, and/or Christian within where I grew up. I was so angry. Angry at myself. Angry that no one was talking about any of these issues. Angry to learn how hard some of my classmates fought to be seen, to be heard, and to be fully embraced. Angry at my ignorance. Angry at the injustices. Angry that people did not feel safe at school to be themselves. And really heart-broken. I didn’t know what to do.
I was pretty quick to speak the summer of 2016 as news of more innocent black lives lost arose. I was beginning to grasp that silence was indeed a part of the violence. I wanted to jump into conversations about race reconciliation. I wanted to speak. But, I realize now I had a lot more listening and learning to do first. I probably, without realizing, hurt people even in my speaking out against the injustices. Why? Because I was (and still am) incredibly ignorant. And honestly, those within the dominant culture (myself included) often like to be the first to speak. We speak and then we go silent again. We follow the trends of social media, but grow silent as new news arises with some other issue(s). But, when it comes to engaging in difficult discussions in person, we often stray away out of discomfort. I learned I probably shouldn’t be the first to speak, but that I also did not want to stray away from the discomfort of discussions about racism. And, my professors did not want me to do so either. Oftentimes my professors had a difficult task of bringing many privileged white students into seeing their own ignorance, their own biases (both implicit and explicit), and into seeing the brutality of the world that we have been protected from our whole lives. They pushed us into the uncomfortable spaces and quite honestly, many days I wanted to run. The more I learned, the more angry I grew. The more I learned, the less I actually understood. The more I learned, the less words I had. But, the more I learned, the more I realized I need to never stop learning.
As I embarked on my first year of teaching, and kept what the last four years has taught me in mind, I knew that teaching would require that same discomfort. I understood that first and foremost our social justice unit cannot just be a unit. It has to be the undergirding behind the work we do all year long. But, in that, my voice is not the leading voice. I am not the expert in the room when it comes to social justice. Instead, each student carries with them their own experiences, thoughts, and expertise. We have a lot to learn from one another. And, just as I experienced in a college classroom space, that learning can be quite uncomfortable, especially when our experiences greatly differ from one another. As we read and discussed All-American Boys I was honest in sharing that I connect to Quinn and Jill the most. The two characters begin to see what is attached to their whiteness and their privilege and that they cannot be silent. But, they also make many mistakes in that process. They can be really frustrating characters, especially Quinn. Neither one of them is devoid of racism. I am one in the same with them there. I grew up in a county that is known for their horrific racist past. In a county that just years ago a neighboring high school had racist slurs within their school prank signs. And where, on this very day, I saw people reshare that prank on facebook thinking it is funny. I grew up In a county where friends were told they were not allowed to date someone who was a different race than them. The list goes on and on and on. And it could for just about any other town in the south or in the United States. We are not teaching books and history of the past. We are teaching history that repeats. And, as one of my professors, Dr. Miller said at the end of almost every class, it is our job to name that history when it repeats and to speak about it.
That message has been ingrained in me over and over again in the past 5 years. As one of my students put on their redesigned book cover of All-American Boys, Silence is Violence. And so too is our ignorance. And, history is repeating itself. Over and over and over again. And so, the conversation cannot end when a social media trend ends. Names need to be said. Remembered. Talked about. And we cannot miss what is repeating in this moment. We have to do everything we can to ensure it does not repeat again.
At the end of All-American Boys there is a protest for Rashad. And, during that protest there is a roll call where they say the names of the innocent black lives that have been lost. You can see that roll call depicted in one of the projects my students created. And, I am incredibly sad that there are more names to add to that list since the book was written in 2015. I am heartbroken that Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are two of those names. I am heartbroken that it takes people seeing an absolutely horrifying video to see that that murderous act was unjust. And that without a video for another horrifying murder, not as many people are speaking. And I am angry that these are the news our students are seeing over and over again. And I am angry that books like All-American Boys and The Hate U Give and Monster and Dear Martin and Ghost Boys are the books students are having to read, not because of the books themselves. The books are incredible. The authors are doing some of the most important work surrounding police brutality and injustice and racism in America. But, I am angry because they shouldn’t have to.There shouldn’t even be books about a black kid being brutally beaten because he was “suspicious” in “baggy clothes” or a book about a black kid being shot because he moved with a hairbrush in his hands because those stories should never happen in real life. We shouldn’t have these books because we shouldn’t have the real stories to write them about. Or it shouldn’t take a book or a movie for us to see that the fictitious stories are also real stories. And, those should never be the only books black students are seeing themselves represented within.
I am incredibly grateful for authors like Jason Reynolds, Angie Thomas, Nic Stone, Walter Dean Meyers, Ibram X. Kendi, and so many more because they open up spaces for students to talk about the injustices that are not just a part of the past. They write from the perspectives I could never write from or understand myself. They are unafraid to bring about discomfort. They invoke critical thinking, empathy, and conversations that need to happen. Their work is paving the way for more conversations to happen and to CONTINUE to happen. Most times students are far more willing to go there than the adults. They can speak to the injustices better than I can. That is why taking down their work from the beginning of the year helped me process a little more the other day. They reminded me of the violence of silence.
Words though will never be enough. Not until our actions follow suit. Not until we do the difficult work of looking inward at the racism that exists within us. Not until we grow comfortable with the uncomfort of conversations surrounding racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and the list goes on. Not until we learn that ignorance is never bliss. Not until we learn to listen. Not until we are willing to be called out for our words or our actions being not okay. Not until we are willing to admit that there is so much we do not know. And not until we are willing to recognize that all of this, the injustices we continue to see are not just a “them” issue. It is an issue of humanity. Not until we see, political views aside, that putting humans in cages or killing another human being because of how they look is never justified or humane. Not until schools stop white washing and sugar coating history. Not until we each walk in humility and get rid of the hierarchies of lies. Not until us, as adults, are willing to talk with our kids about these issues and what is going on. And not until we, as adults, are willing to learn from our kids.
And, even as I sit here, I know none of this is enough. I know I may reread these words years down the road and be frustrated with the ignorance even in these words that I was missing currently. But, that is not enough to remain silent.