Students across the nation have joined in solidarity to ignite a long overdue national conversation on gun reform and school safety. So far, they’ve successfully garnered widespread public support from the media, over 80 colleges and universities and several high-profile celebrities.
Yet, amidst the momentum and air of victory lingers racial tension.
Many racial justice activists and scholars have pointed out that while the youth at the forefront of this historical moment certainly deserve encouragement and solidarity, the public’s sweeping approval of their activism has never been afforded to Black and Brown youth activists. They have a point. Take recent events from the past week, for example.
During National School Walkout Day—initiated mostly by students from Parkland, Florida, a middle class, predominantly White suburb—there were almost no reports of police arrest, harassment, or intimidation of students.
Yet, when Black youth have organized peaceful protests and marches, following back-to-back acquittals of police officers who have killed unarmed Black kids, police have confronted these young activists with K-9’s, night-sticks, riot shields, and tear gas. It seems that the same rallying cry and protest tactics about gun violence are just not as palatable coming from Black youth in predominantly Black, inner-city communities as they are coming from White youth in the suburbs.
This selective outrage and mourning is exactly why a coalition of educators in Seattle founded the Black Lives Matter At School movement—believing that starting dialogue about racial justice in schools is the last hope for rectifying America’s miseducation about racism and race relations.
Why We Need to Talk About Race in Schools
By and large, U.S. schools completely shirk their responsibility of educating citizens about race relations. State-mandated textbooks sanitize the nation’s violent history of genocide, settler colonialism, slavery and structural anti-Blackness.
Teachers get reprimanded for presenting counternarratives to revisionist history. Discussing White privilege is altogether taboo. And it’s becoming increasingly commonplace to subsume any explicitly race-related issue under euphemistic umbrella terms like “diversity,” “equity” or “inclusion.”
Instead of investing in the societal benefits of promoting civic engagement and sociopolitical awareness in schools, most of today’s school systems depoliticize the purpose and role of education in creating a just society—especially with regard to racial justice.
How Did We Get Here?
“The ’60s were characterized by a heady belief in instantaneous solutions,” as Black feminist activist and writer Audre Lorde put it.
As my baby boomer parents and older Black people tell it, the civil rights movement culminated with hardly any actual healing of America’s racial wounds. Quite the contrary, as the momentum of the period dissipated, it seemed that White Americans were hellbent on pretending that racism had magically disappeared after the passage of landmark civil rights legislation.
Perhaps shame about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or humiliation about the exposure of America’s racism in the international press, gave rise to denial, colorblindness and a post-racial fantasy. Whatever the case may be, racial amnesia has long since affected the national conversation on race—or lack thereof—in all sectors of society, including within our schools.
Consequently, schools have produced generations of citizens who believe that being anti-racist is a simple moral decision, rather than a lifelong process of unlearning the complicity conditioned into all of us by a seven-century legacy of structural and systemic racism.
How We Can Move Forward
1. To transform schools into sites of racial healing, we, as educators, must first accept that students think about race, and discuss it with each other, every day.
Although kids may not articulate what they know about race relations with sophisticated sociological theory, they make keen observations about race, and then attempt to deconstruct and make sense of what they’ve witnessed. In the age of digital news and viral social media activism, attempting to shield kids from racial justice issues and movements is futile. Coverage is pervasive.
And given the fact that students’ perceptions about race relations influence school culture and climate, deeming these conversations as too “mature” for school is also dangerous. The better approach would be to keep students’ discussions going, while steering them in the right direction, instead of ignoring them or shutting them down.
2. As educators, we must take seriously the critical importance of our duty to shape the social and ethical consciousness of future generations.
Fearing the backlash of openly discussing identity, injustice and oppression, is understandable. But educators do a disservice to society at large when we do not make every effort possible to demonstrate that real justice is an obligatory and proactive undertaking, not just a passive or reactionary moral sentiment.
This intentional embodiment of justice and espoused values matters tremendously, as most children’s first encounter with healthy or unhealthy power dynamics between institutions and people will occur in schools. For better or worse, students internalize a culture of either accountability and engagement, or abuse and neglect. Our pedagogy has the power to encourage them to fight for the former and stand up against the latter.
3. To transform schools into sites of racial healing, we, as educators, must take charge of our own professional development and continuing education.
We must educate ourselves about liberatory pedagogies that educator preparation programs often do not teach. Central to the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools was critical pedagogy, a philosophy of education that aims to awaken students’ critical consciousness.
Paulo Freire, the father of critical pedagogy, defines critical consciousness as an in-depth understanding of the world that allows one to be an agent of change through social critique and political action. We typically associate this kind of learning with higher education, but K-12 students need this type of education, too. What most schools currently provide is a miseducation, but fortunately, critical pedagogy gives us the tools to change that.
4. Lastly, to transform schools into sites of racial healing, we, as educators, must constantly resist the shame that we’ve internalized about standing up for racial justice in schools.
To do so, we must fully embrace and own our vision that education serves a greater purpose than to just prepare students for the workforce. We must reassure ourselves, again and again, that our educational philosophy and pedagogies are not a fanatical or radical agenda to dictate what students think or believe. We must truly believe that what we stand for is a humanistic vision of equity.
One day, these guiding principles for transforming schools into sites of racial healing will be standard practice as much as they are ideals. Until then, they constitute a call to action for us to do any little thing that we can to encourage students to imagine a more just world; to empower students to use their voices to stand up for what is right, long before they can vote; and to uproot a legacy of oppression by planting seeds for a legacy of liberation.
Like the organizers of the Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools, we all have the power to spark students’ passion for learning and fighting for justice.