If I am being honest, I’ve not thought deeply about what Anti-Blackness within the classroom looks like to a Black person — until recently. Being Black in society is hard enough for me. I am always aware of my dark skin, no matter where I go or who I am with.
As a mother raising three kids in varying skin tones, I am more sensitive to how I carry myself in front of them and how we talk about race in our home. We call people Black or Brown — so much so that our kids think that all people are black and brown (we are working on rectifying this). I am okay with them thinking that there are only two kinds of people in the world — because to me, skin tone does not matter. But to so many other people, it’s all that matters, including some teachers, and that’s where we run into problems.
We are weeks away from the school doors opening again, and not only am I preparing my kids for their first year of kindergarten, but we are broaching the conversations around their Blackness, arming them with the words that will combat the discrimination which will inevitably come.
In exploring this as a mom, I’ve been asking myself: How does Anti-Blackness show up in the classroom?
Before we can delve into how to deal with Anti-Blackness, we must first understand what it is. The Merriam Webster Dictionary says it plain and simple: “opposed to or hostile toward Black people.” When it does show up in the classroom, you might sometimes not even hear it, or see it because it is just that quiet. You might even mistake it for irrelevant — if you’re anything other than Black.
So let me give you a crash course …
Anti-Blackness is the mispronouncing or consistently saying incorrectly the name of a Black person. My name, for instance, isn’t particularly difficult to say. But many letters have been added to my name, letters that aren’t even in it — like “t” — changing my name from Nikkya to Nikita (as in La Femme Nikita, a white woman from a 90’s television show).
Or perhaps Anti-Blackness in the classroom is more obvious, more offensive, like feeling the need to guard your personal belongings when a Black boy or Black girl comes near. Or like in my case when my 4th grade teacher accused me of stealing a wooden block from my classroom’s toy bin (I did not).
And then there are some who remain silent when other teachers or colleagues make Anti-Black remarks and you fail to stand up for that Black person, knocking down stereotypes or recognizing the goodness in the Black student.
Ibram X. Kendi captures it perfectly in an essay in The Atlantic:
“To be black and conscious of anti-black racism is to stare into the mirror of your own extinction. Ask the souls of the 10,000 black victims of COVID-19 who might still be living if they had been white. Ask the souls of those who were told the pandemic was the ‘great equalizer.’ Ask the souls of those forced to choose between their low-wage jobs and their treasured life. Ask the souls of those blamed for their own death. Ask the souls of those who disproportionately lost their jobs and then their life as others disproportionately raged about losing their freedom to infect us all. Ask the souls of those ignored by the governors reopening their states.”
We are just weeks away (some have already begun) from classrooms reopening amid this pandemic, and as Black and White and Brown parents, we must all stand behind, stand with and move our country forward as one, together and stand up for Black people, especially in the classroom. Teachers are necessary and crucial to anti-racism.
My son will be in 9th grade this year, and the conversations we have with him around being Black are more about actions he needs to take to keep himself alive. There is a longstanding fear about Black people in our society — from Black men with hoodies to little boys playing in the park with toy guns to outspoken Black women or even Black women who laying asleep in their own homes (Breonna Taylor).
But for many of us, that fear begins in the classrooms from kindergarten through high school (and college for some of us). Our Blackness is seen as something to be feared or be threatened by. I wonder if teachers, principals, and school staff would fear a White student in the same way — a blood boiling sense of fear — fear that money may be taken from your wallet or your iPhone stolen or that that student might know more about a particular subject matter than you. What would happen if we let those fears, those misperceived feelings go? What if educators and school staff acknowledged and confronted their internal biases? How would our educational institutions fare then? I think it’s safe to say that we know they would be a safer, healthier, more nurturing learning environment for Black and Brown kids. It would also be a chance for white kids to see true allyship and the value of equity and inclusion.
Our actions are guided by our feelings most of the time. If we feel unsafe, we work to make our spaces safer. If we feel like we are being shut down in a discussion, we get defensive.
On Instagram, ms. henryy, a BIPOC-focused educator, shared informative and useful tools to help transition back into the classroom this year — with remote learning and all — and how to be a better ally and advocate for your Black students.
There are quite a few options to choose from in her what to “do instead…” post but the ones that stuck out the most to me are these: 1) write letters to stakeholders (board members, superintendents, etc) to advocate for policies which protect black students and families, create affinity groups for Black (and queer) students, and 2) take field trips to HBCU’s (historically black colleges and universities).
When it came to college tours, who remembers going to an HBCU? Not me, if I am being honest, I didn’t even know what an HBCU was until 12th grade.
In an Unlocking Us podcast Brene Brown speaks with author Austin Channing Brown about racism, Channing states, “Have you built the capacity to care more about others than you care about your own ego? Will you choose to protect someone else over protecting your own ego?”
That is the question we all must answer in some way or another. But as our kids return to the classroom — some two days a week and others remotely — the lessons are not null and void and do not rest solely in what is learned from textbooks. I hope our teachers, principals, and staff will leave their egos at the door and do the work to make the classroom the place it should be — a safe space for all.