I am a teacher. A public school teacher in New York City. In two weeks, I will begin my tenth year of teaching English to teenagers. I have worked at three schools: two in the South Bronx, both of which were schools exclusively for recently arrived immigrants, and the third in Midtown Manhattan, hopefully my last until I retire, which is an alternative school for students who left or were asked to leave their previous schools. Although these schools are run differently and are plagued by problems of varying nature and gravity, the following is true for all three schools:
– The majority of students are children of color.
– The majority of teachers and administrators are white.
– Most students live in poverty.
– Many students live in foster homes and shelters.
– All students are performing below grade level, according to existing assessments of academic progress.
– Many students have been incarcerated, or have close family members and friends in jail or prison.
– Many students, their families, and friends have been victims of gun violence and/or police brutality.
– Many students are teenage parents, some raising children alone.
– Many students are afraid for or at least worried about their safety, lives, and families.
– Many students do not receive diplomas despite their utmost efforts because they age out before they are able to pass the biased, unjust, useless state assessments, which are required for graduation, and do not take into account our students’ needs and abilities.
– Some students continue on to college. Many of them leave before earning a diploma.
– Most teachers design lessons and units on something having to do with racial history, political upheaval, and social justice, most presenting Black history and issues of race through lessons on slavery, abolition, and the Civil Rights Movement.
– In the hundreds of hours of professional development meetings, not one session is devoted to discussing race–what it is, how it shapes us as individuals and communities, how it impacts our work, and how it should be taught.
Every new teaching year begins with an earnest setting of goals, and a tedious review of almost always new assessments set forth by a blind state for teachers, students, and schools. Every year is a scramble to fulfill this or that requirement–so we continue to get funding, so our doors stay open, so we don’t become a statistic in a culture of school failure and closures. And every year, the issue of race doesn’t make it into a single meeting agenda.
I don’t know why.
Maybe we think ourselves socially conscious enough not to need to discuss race. Maybe it’s a Pandora’s Box everyone is better off leaving untouched for the sake of collegiality and comfort. Maybe we see our schools as truly diverse communities, where our peaceful coexistence obliterates the need to notice race. Maybe race is a non-issue because it is one of those things that are always there, like air and water, and what’s there to talk about, when race has always been and will always be?
But maybe it’s time to acknowledge that we are in the midst of a revolution, which has begun through the exposure of racial injustices, and mushrooming conversations about race and racism in America. We are living this revolution. So we need to understand it. And to understand, we need to read and write and talk about it.
The measure of a truly diverse school is not that its members are beyond race, colorblind, so to speak, but that we make a point of acknowledging race, inquiring about its effects on our students, our relationships, reflecting on how race should be taught.
Does Black History need to begin with slavery? Must it focus on the handful of individuals, battles, and triumphs that have come to define the Black struggle? Do we understand the Black struggle? Can we be truly successful in empowering youth of color if we carry on cooking up lessons with race on the back burner? What does it mean for students of color to learn about race and racism from mostly white teachers? Whose narrative of Black history and the Black struggle are we teaching? Are we really a diverse community when there is such a drastic difference in how people of color are represented in the student body versus the faculty?
Educators should be leading the fight for the kind of understanding of and grappling with race that can lead us closer to equality and justice. Taking race for granted does not make us somehow beyond race and racism. Assuming that we know and understand the racial history of this country doesn’t absolve us of what is our responsibility–to listen to the call of our time, and make room for perhaps the single most important issue plaguing our communities. Schools must find productive, honest, and effective ways to bring race to the forefront of discussions on what it means to close achievement gaps, to empower, to truly educate.
This is the urgency of now: It’s time to talk about race.