Educational empathy. That’s what guides me in my work with students. It’s the very foundation of my educational advocacy. “How would a student feel if I introduced the lesson this way?” “If I were in their shoes, would I want to write a paper over winter break?” Probably not? Don’t assign one.
That educational empathy bubbled to the surface again this weekend as I watched the now viral video of teenagers in MAGA hats from Kentucky’s Covington High School whooping and hollering as they surrounded a Native elder.
The whole scene made me mad, sick actually. Boys in a crowd, all whipped up, surrounding a man with a drum might not end well. The smirk on the student’s face as he stared down the elder was familiar, too. I’ve seen it before. “Who are you? We are big and loud. You are one. Insignificant.”
I watched, wanting to do those teachers’ job and scream in my teacher voice for students to get back to the bus.
What was happening? Why? How would I feel if I were one of the students? How would I feel if I were the teachers? What would I feel if I were in the elder’s position?
But a longer video was released later that started a whole new conversation, one that quickly turned antagonists into protagonists and introduced another group of villains, self-identified Black Israelites who shouted vile and disgusting things to those students. I was furious that adults would behave in this way. The conversation on social media got even more heated over the weekend as the main student and his mother released statements, as people turned to look more at the shouting men, and as people began to shift “walking towards the group with a drum” to “confronting with a drum” and “smugly taunting” to “respectful restraint.”
I was mostly struck by the sweeping shift to the type of advocacy I’ve wanted for some of my former students. I was struck by the excuse of behavior that I would not allow from my students even if they were upset that one group treated them with tremendous disrespect and another individual walked into that situation playing a drum. I would think that parents would want me to discuss Black Israelites as well as the purpose of the drumming, (a prayer song) by the Native elder.
Once, a student I taught lost the right to participate in graduation because she was in a fight two weeks prior. It did not matter that teachers spoke up and said that she was defending herself. She was punished by being stripped of that honor. Other students of color have faced harsh punishments despite advocacy from adults. It happens all the time. There is no grace. There is rarely a sweeping shift even when video from hallway cameras is viewed.
“Inconclusive. We can’t really tell what happened here.”
With the spirit of student advocacy still fresh on your minds, I ask that you consider a new scene.
Black and Hispanic students are on the National Mall when they are yelled at by a group of White protesters. “Go back to Mexico! Go back to Africa! You are future carjackers!” As the students started chanting at the group, a White man playing a guitar and singing “Let There Be Peace on Earth” walks toward the students and continues to sing. Students, mostly in dark hoodies, surround the man and one of them stares down the man with the guitar, silent, smirking, wearing that hoodie.
Would the turnaround to empathize with the boys be as swift and as strong in this case? Would we think racialized verbal attacks justified the boys surrounding the man with the guitar? Would we be OK with a stare-down by the hoodie-wearing boy? With his friends’ yells and provocations? Would we?
If we believe those two situations would bring about different responses, therein lies the problem.
As advocates for student safety and for student growth, it is time we start thinking about when, how and why we advocate for students. Are we as vocal for this group over here as we are for that group over there? Would we advocate for boys in hoodies the way we advocate for boys in MAGA hats? How far does our educational empathy extend? We can use video No. 1, video No. 2 and responses to each as discussion starters. That is where the work, post viral video, has to begin.