In education, we imagine school to be a safe and equitable place. But my experience has been very different.
As both a Black male educator and an Ethnic Studies teacher, I am no stranger to institutionalized racism. And yet I never thought that as an educator I would be personally and directly affected by racism inside the safe haven of my school.
Despite the prevalence of racism in our society, the last place I would look for racism is among staff members choosing to teach Black and Brown students. I expect educators and administrators to design a healthy learning environment not only for the students, but for adults. Sadly, this is not always the case.
As a first-year teacher, I experienced countless instances of institutional racism, both implicit and explicit. I found few to no immediate support systems where I could reach out and feel safe and supported. When I reached out to my union representative, instead of receiving their full support, I got back the message, “Document it and wait. The time is not right. There are things in place that I can’t tell you now and we don’t want them to be jeopardized.”
How Many Times Are Students Being Told ‘Hold Your Tongue and Wait?’
What? If this is the response from my representative, the real questions are: Who is representing the students, who no doubt are experiencing similar treatment? How do we expect human beings to function properly under such damaging circumstances? How many times are they being told to hold their tongues and wait for the “right” time? What makes a time “right” to speak up against injustice?
Because I could relate to these students on many levels, I felt responsible for being a voice for the voiceless. Poetically, it was these often-occurring injustices that strengthened the relationship from educator and student and transitioned into mentorship and leadership.
I began within my immediate classroom. My Ethnic Studies lesson plans not only taught students how to define and identify institutional racism, but also effective ways to combat it. Those ways included showing up at City Council and board meetings and speaking your truth or writing about a problem to get your message out. Students spoke their truths, like my Arab student who told her story and pushed for something better.
Speaking Out Was Empowering Yet Bittersweet
I helped many students look into different groups designed to give students a voice, such as Energy Convertors and Great School Voices. Both gave my students a platform where their voices were not only heard, but they mattered. We were able to use these platforms to speak on issues that rarely get exposed.
Even more phenomenally, students were able to lead solutions-oriented dialogue about them. People able to make real change, including our superintendent, listened to these young students and addressed their recommendations and solutions.
As beautiful and phenomenal as all this was, it was undoubtedly bittersweet, too. The superintendent, although effective and helpful to the students, could not foresee the hardships awaiting us from other teachers and administration for speaking up against what we felt were injustices within our school community.
These injustices are undeniably present in other school communities, too. Without a doubt, we are stuck in defective systems, based on institutionalized racism. They will inevitably demand pushback to make necessary changes. At the same time, those within the system must engage in self-reflection. We need to fix ourselves, or be fixed, to better the future for ourselves and our students.