CNN recently reported about yet another culturally insensitive assignment given to students in an eighth-grade U.S. history class at a charter school in Texas. There, students were told to complete an assignment on the “positive aspects” and “negative aspects” of the life of slaves, giving a “balanced view.”
This assignment wreaks of micro-aggressive and racist overtones. To be a Black student in this class or any other where such assignments and postulations are freely thrown about with no immediate avenue for relief is stressful in a way that only another Black person could truly understand.
Teachers are in authoritative positions and the activities they assign, if questioned by a student, may cause backlash. I presented the CNN article to a former high school student of mine who is now in college. He confirmed that as a student “you don’t want to mess with a teacher because, at the end of the day, that person is the one in control of your report card grade. If that grades doesn’t look right, I’ll get in mad trouble with my parents and I definitely don’t want that so….yeah, I don’t know if I would say anything if I was given an assignment like that, even though it’s crazy, unless someone likes few other students or another teacher would go to the principal with me.”
This incident highlights the impact on Black students when forced into a position of tacit acceptance of racism and puts these students in an untenable position. It’s about power — the student I quoted is afraid of retribution from those whom he is responsible to and have authority over his educational trajectory — both the teacher (who gave a racist assignment) and his parents, whom he doesn’t want to piss off. (I wouldn’t go hard on the parents — I’m sure they’re not racist, just wanting their kid to be successful.) What happened in Texas is the sort of thing — which must happen more frequently than we know because kids are afraid to speak out — that creates a dynamic that perpetuates a racist system through the misuse of power. If we could create a system that applauds students for pointing to prejudice — after all, teachers are supposed to be pushing critical thinking skills, per Common Core — without fear of repercussion, then we might break this dysfunctional pattern. So, how can that happen in the classroom?
We’ve seen many examples of overt racism in the classroom ever since the rise of #Black Lives Matter — yet we only discipline on a case-by-case basis. We have to recognize implicit racism holistically, as a widespread problem that needs to be addressed (not just in teaching but in all professions) through education of students, teachers, and all Americans.
For all our talk of inclusion and acceptance of those traditionally excluded from certain spaces, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to exist as a Black person in America. Look at what happened at Yale University this week: Even after earning a seat at an Ivy League university, a Black student still can’t sleep on a couch in a room designated for that express purpose! All a White woman has to do is say that she feels scared by the presence of a Black person — any Black person, whether they belong there or not — and the responsibility now falls in the Black student to prove that he/she belongs there. All this after pulling a grueling all-nighter of studying and writing papers.
I’m repulsed by racism and I can’t think of an arena where it bothers me more than when I see it in the education sector. If the places where we go to learn and become better are flooded with racist ideologies, that which was designed to heal and improve society becomes the very poison that is killing it.
I’m gasping for air.