The Death of Michael Brown, Teachers, and Racism: 10 Things Every Badass Teacher Needs To Understand
Hello my fellow badass teachers. My name is Denisha Jones and I have been a member and admin for badass teachers since the first week BATs was created. I am also a teacher educator at Howard University. My background is in early childhood education, diversity, curriculum teacher professional development, curriculum, and instruction. In addition to working for BATs, I am an admin for United Opt Out and I have worked with Save Our Schools since their march in 2011. And also, I am a black female. I tell you things so you know a little bit about me and my background before you judge what I am about to tell you.
In the wake of the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year old black male who was killed by a police officer, America has once again been forced to deal with its troubled history of race. Residents of Ferguson MO, where Michael Brown lived, and activists from all over the country have taken to the streets to protest this senseless and tragic death. The media has continued to report this story making it hard for many people to ignore what is happening in America today. And many BATs have felt the need to address this issue in the main group. This has caused numerous posts filled with support, questions, ignorance, and disgust.
When BATs began to grow, the founders, admins, and moderators, decided to delete conversations that were divisive. These included posts that talked about the pledge of allegiance, sex education, changing the name, racism, and discrimination. We felt that for BATs to grow strong we needed to focus on our mission. Over time we realized that by silencing some of these conversations we did not own up to our mission. See BATs was created to give voice to every teacher who has been blamed for the failures of education. Our goals were to fight against the Common Core State Standards, high stakes standardized testing, Teach for America, for profit charter schools, and value added measures. What we came to realize over the past year, is that although these issues are very important to many teachers there are other aspects of education that are just as, if not more important, to other teachers. These include poverty, racism, and discrimination. Many of our teachers felt that these issues are central to their voice and their fight. And our attempts to silence these conversations silenced their voices. We have since apologized for our actions although it was never our intention to silence the voices of teachers. And we, the founders, admins, and moderators, have been working diligently to allow these conversations to happen in our main group. That leads us to where we are today.
In the past few days we have had conversations about these issues that have over 1,000 comments. We know that these issues are tough for many and uncomfortable for most of us to have. But we are committed to having these conversations and being an organization that embraces social justice and multicultural education as the core of who we are and what we do. Now you might not agree with our decision to expand our mission and that is OK. Many of our members do not agree with all of our decisions. Some love CCSS, some are TFA, and some work in charter schools. Those who stay understand our position on these issues and what conversations we will or will not allow in our group. And some leave because they do not want to be affiliated with us. We understand that BATs is not for everyone. But what you need to understand is that we are not going to change course to make some of our members happy. You are free to decide if you want to be in BATs.
So now that we got some of the background stuff out of the way, there are a few other things you need to know regarding the death of Michael Brown, teachers, and racism. After participating in some of the conversations we had in the past few days I have created this list of 10 things we need you to understand. This is my list, and although the founders, admins, and moderators may agree with some or all of these things, they trust me to have this conversation. They know that based on my experiences as a black woman and as a teacher educator who has taught diversity for many years I am qualified to speak on this subject. And they are willing to learn from me what they do not know. I hope those of you reading this (lengthy) article, are also willing to learn from me. If you are new to understanding the world of racism and privilege then I ask that you approach this discussion like you are a student. When you teach your students about a difficult topic that they know little about you hope that they keep an open mind and trust you to help them make sense of the new material. Well imagine I am your teacher and trust me to teach you about something that I know a lot about. As you are just one teacher of many who knows things, I am only one person who is attempting to teach you about what I know. There are many others whom you can learn from so if you decide to embark on this learning process please do not let me be your only teacher. Begin with me but please allow others who have knowledge in this area to also teach you. So let’s begin with a few things I need you to understand.
- When unarmed youth of color are killed by police it is an educational issue.
This has typically been the first issue raised in the conversations about the death of Michael Brown in the BATs group. Many of our members do not see what this tragic death has to do with education. I guess depending on where you live and where you teach, you might not have to deal with the increasing number of unarmed black youth who are killed by police, neighborhood watch, and anyone who has a gun and feels they have a right to kill someone else. But for many teachers this is something they do have to deal with. They have to discuss this with their students because they can be the next Michael Brown. They can be the next Trayvon Martin. They can be the next Jordan Davis. Their students live in fear that one day they will die at the hands of another human being simply because their skin makes others suspicious of them. These teachers have to work with parents who worry that when they send their son out to the store he will come back in a body bag. And some of these teachers have children of their own that they also fear will be killed because someone decided to be their judge, jury, and executioner. And finally there are those teachers who, although they do no fear this happening to their own child, or their students, are nonetheless angry and fearful about the way black and brown youth are routinely treated in this country. So if your first thought is, this conversation does not belong here, please think again. BATs welcome these conversations because we know that they are important to many of our members.
2. Teachers are essential in the fight against racism.
When it comes to the responsibilities teachers have for fighting racism I think teachers fall into three categories: 1) they accept the responsibility; 2) they are unsure if this is their responsibility and 3) they refuse to accept that this is their responsibility. When we decided to be teachers I doubt many of us thought we would become activists for racial equality. I sure didn’t and I’m black! In fact when I decided to become a teacher I was probably just like some of you. See I used to believe in a colorblind approach for dealing with racism (more on this later). I thought that if I ignored the fact that I am black others would also ignore it. But I what I learned growing up in White America is that no one can ignore the fact that I am black. And I don’t want them to. But it took me a long time to get to where I am today. So I understand why you might not see this daunting responsibility as yours but it truly is.
You see nearly every child in America will have a teacher. Children go through school for 17-18 years and teachers are a major part of that schooling experience. Although you may only have that student for one year, that year is a long time and can have a major impact on the life of your student. We all remember one teacher who made an impact on our lives in one single year, so the importance of teachers cannot be understated. And since teachers are central to the lives of many children, they are in a unique position to help children make sense of the world we live in. That includes the history of racism in our society. Now you might think that this is the parents’ responsibility, but we cannot control what parents do or don’t teach their children. We hope that they teach their children about many of these tough issues but we cannot be sure that they will, so we have a responsibility to also teach these issues.
History has shown us that teachers can have a profound impact on a student’s ability to learn about and understand racism in America. It was a teacher who told Malcolm X that he would not become a lawyer because he was a n*****. And it was teachers who inspired many successful people to become who they are today. My point is that teachers matter. And when it comes to young people learning and understanding America’s history with race, we need teachers to help them through this. So please know that you as a teacher are essential in this fight against racism. I cannot force you to take on this responsibility but I hope for the sake of all of your students that you do (especially if they are all white).
3. There is a difference between racism and prejudice that you need to understand.
Now this is going to be hard for many of you to accept but there is a fundamental difference between racism and prejudice. Many of the conversations happening in the main group are facing challenges because not everyone shares the same definition of racism and prejudice so people do not understand each other. In order for us to move forward we need to clear up these differences. In relation to racism, prejudice can be defined as the individual acts of meanness based on race. Using derogatory terms about a person’s race, attributing negative behaviors to a person because of their race, and treating someone poorly because of their race, are all examples of prejudice. Anyone can be prejudiced towards another person based on race. Black people can harbor racial prejudice towards white people. Latino people can harbor racial prejudice towards Black people. White people can exhibit racial prejudice toward people of color.
Now racism is more than just racial prejudice. To understand the difference you can define racism as prejudice + power. See racism is a system that confers advantages on one group while systematically disadvantaging another group (for every advantage there is disadvantage). In America, racism is a system of white supremacy that advantages white people over people of color. Since the founding of America, racism has been used to advantage white people over people of color. Beginning with slavery, through Jim Crow, and even in the age of the first black president, America has a structured and institutional system that advantages white people over people of color (if you are having a hard time accepting this look up redlining and Sundown towns and read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness).
The reason why this is important will be discussed more thoroughly later but for now this is the difference between racism and prejudice that you need to understand.
4. Colorblind is not the solution to dealing with racism. It’s the new problem.
I am not sure when it began but at some point in our history colorblindness was created as the solution for dealing with racism. Some have believed that the best way to deal with racism was to be colorblind. If we were blind to race then we would not judge people based on the color of their skin. If we were blind to race then racism would not exist. As I mentioned before I used to subscribe to this belief and remember I am black (very black). I grew up in predominantly white communities and I thought the best way to fit in was to ignore the fact that I was black. But what I learned is that being black is not something I can ignore, it’s not something others can ignore, and it’s not something we should try to ignore.
Being born or raised in America means that we are acculturated to be aware of race. Young children notice racial differences and make assumptions based on those observations. They are aware that their community might not include any people of color. They are aware that only people who look like them attend their school. They are not colorblind. And neither are most adults in society. We notice the color of someone’s skin the same way we notice their gender. And noticing color, just like noticing gender is not a bad thing. Making judgments (prejudice) about someone based on their skin color is a bad thing but simply being aware that I am black is not something we should be blind to. Because it means something to be black in America. It means that I am a member of a group that has historically been disadvantaged simply because I am black. It means that I inherit a legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights simply because I am black. So to be colorblind to my blackness is not the solution, it is the problem.
Could you imagine being gender blind? Women have also been historically and systematically been discriminated against in this country through the system of patriarchy that advantages men over women. But rarely do I ever hear anyone say I am “genderblind” as a way of dealing with sexism. So why should we accept being colorblind to deal with racism? The answer is we should not. Instead we should be color aware and appreciative of the rich diversity we all share, including people of color.
5. People of color know more about race and racism than white people. Allow them to teach you what they know.
One of the many criticisms I hear from people when we are discussing racism is why should they accept my definition of racism and prejudice. I mean we all grew up in America and we think we know something about racism so what makes my knowledge any better than theirs. Well to answer that critique I often ask if you are a Christian would you allow a Muslim to teach you about Christianity? Or if you are a man would you allow a woman to teach you about masculinity? My point is that we often do not let outsiders teach us about things we know about because we belong to that group. Well if that’s the case then I as a black person, know more about racism than you because I have experienced it in ways that you cannot and will not ever experience it. Does this mean that all black people are experts on racism? No it does not. Many black people experience racism but are unable to define it the way I have or even make sense of it. But remember I am not just a black person I am an educator. And I have studied and taught about diversity which includes racism for many years. I have read countless books, watched countless documentaries, and listened to many experts over the years that have even more knowledge then I and this coupled with my unique experience as a black person means that I know something about this topic and can teach you something. But even if I was not a diversity educator, as a black person my experiences with racism will be different than white people. That experience should matter when talking about these issues. If you are white than you need to acknowledge that people of color know more about racism than you do. And they can teach you what they have learned from their experiences if you let them.
6. The goal of social justice and multicultural education is not to make white people feel guilty.
What I have learned in my studies of diversity education is that discussing racism, discrimination and white privilege often makes white people feel guilty. I get it. Through no fault of your own you were born in to a system where you have historically been advantaged because of the color of your skin. You did not ask for these advantages and some of you probably don’t feel advantaged (more on this later) but yet as a white person you inherit the legacy of white supremacy and white privilege. When I taught my kindergarten class about slavery (yes it was black history month so it was allowed) I worried about the two white boys in my class. After our discussion I heard them saying “I owned slaves back then.” I was quick to remind them that they did not own a slave back in the day. Many white people owned slaves during that time period but it was a long time ago and today no one owns slaves (I spared them a discussion on the current human trafficking crisis). And that is what I tell to all white people who tell me that they don’t want to feel guilty for being white. I am not asking you to feel guilty.
Unless you owned a slave you have nothing to feel guilty about. Just like I was born into our racist society and inherited all of the many aspects of being black in America, you too were born into this society and inherited all of the many aspects of being white. Guilt is not useful and it is not the goal of social justice and multicultural education. Responsibility is the ultimate goal of diversity education. Each of us has a responsibility to dismantle racism. Now I believe, as do some others, that ultimately this responsibility rests in the hands of white people. You see there is only so much people of color can do to about racism. The same way that only men can end rape, only white people can end racism. So instead of feeling guilty about racism, be willing to take responsibility in our collective fight to end racism.
7. If you feel the urge to get defensive when people are talking about racism, white supremacy, white privilege, and discrimination, try being silent instead.
This has been of the most contentious issues for me to deal with in the conversations we have had about the death of Michael Brown and racism. Without fail, one person, followed by others, will become defensive and feel as though they are personally being attacked in the conversation. Someone will say something that begins with white people…and in a matter of moments someone will comment that they are white and they take offense to being referred to in that way (more on generalizations later). When this happens it is the equivalent of throwing a grenade into the conversation. Now you are you are on the defensive and the rest of us cannot have this conversation because we have to deal with your anger. When this happens I am quick to inform the other person that they are hijacking this conversation. I also remind them that NOT EVERYTHING IS ABOUT YOU. I purposefully put this in all capital letters, not because I am screaming, but because it is super important that you recognize that not everything is about you. Talking about racism is difficult and uncomfortable.
The nature of racism means people of color have been disadvantaged and discriminated and this means there will be feelings of anger, fear, and hurt. But the one thing that is sure to make it worse, is when a white person enters the conversation and is defensive. Imagine you are having a conversation with fellow teachers about how CCSS and HST are making it difficult to do your job. You are sharing your experiences about how these new reforms are hurting your ability to teach your students. You also discuss how the actions of your administrator are not helping. Now imagine an administrator joins your conversation, not your administrator, and the first thing they do is get defensive and accuse you of attacking all administrators. How would you respond? Would you feel safe continuing the conversation? Would you be angry that they thought everything you said was about them? Would you be hurt that they hijacked your conversation and made it all about them? This is what happens when white people enter into a conversation about race and racism and are immediately defensive. The conversation becomes silenced or hijacked as people are forced to deal with your issue instead of theirs.
This is one of the main reasons why we as a society cannot have honest conversations about race and racism. Because white people are often offended by these conversations and they are quick to change the conversation from something that offends them to something that is all about them. When you feel the urge to do this please don’t. Stop and think about your anger and where it comes from. And then think about how you would feel if you were having a conversation that was important to you and someone else entered the conversation to inform you that they were offended when in reality you were not talking about them specifically. And then stay silent. Silence can be your friend when learning about racism. Silence affords you the opportunity to listen while others discuss the topic at hand. Silence keeps you from hijacking the conversation and silencing the voices of others. Silence can be golden, so if you are angry and defensive please try and be silent while you deal with that anger. And if you cannot be silent, then please stay out of the conversation. The BATs founders, admins, and moderators will not allow anyone to hijack a conversation because they are offended. If the moderators have decided to allow the conversation to happen then your anger is not relevant. And remember that entering in to a conversation is a choice you make. No once forces you to comment. If you do not like the topic then you should move on to another one that suits you. But if you try and derail the conversation, you will be asked to leave and possibly be removed if you continue to engage in this type of behavior after repeated warnings.
8. White generalizations are no different than other generalizations that we all make.
In Chapter 6 of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Dangers to America’s Public Schools, Diane Ravitch says,
“Despite significant progress in expanding educational access, educational attainment, and economic opportunities for black citizens in the past half century, blacks continue to be disproportionately poor, to attend racially segregated schools, to experience high rates of incarceration and to live in racially isolated communities where children are likely to be exposed to violence gangs and drug use.”
Now compare that statement to this one.
When confronted with the realities of racism white people tend to get offended.
Now if you are a white person, were you offended that Diane Ravitch did not say some blacks continue to be disproportionately poor, I mean seriously all black people are not poor. How dare she lump us all into the same category! If not did you feel that way when I said white people tend to get offended? Was your first reaction to tell me that is not a fair statement because it lumps all white people together? I have had this same conversation with many members in one of the posts about the death of Michael Brown. Someone will say something in general about white people and without a doubt some white person will take offense to the generalization.
I am not saying generalizations are a good thing but the fact is that we make them all day every day. We speak about black people, poor people, teenagers, and special needs children in general terms. Depending on what we say, most people understand that although we are referring to an entire group, some is implied in those generalizations statements. We know that each special needs child is different so whatever we say about them will not apply to all but to most. And sometimes we qualify those statements with words like some, or many, or most, and other times we do not. And the reason we do not have to quantify those statements is because as long as we do not say all black people, or all white people, or all poor people or every teenager then we are not directing our statement to everyone in the group. We can make a generalization that infers many or most people share the characteristic we are discussing but understand that very rarely do we mean all or every. This is the same logic you should apply when you hear white people…and you immediately get offended. Unless the person says all white people or every white person then they do not mean each and every white person. They mean some, so if whatever they are saying does not apply to you as a white person then know that you are not the “some” they mean. But other white people are so even though it does not apply to you it applies to others like you.
9. Reverse racism doesn’t exist.
Now this is something many white people refuse to accept. I have often wondered why white people need to believe in reverse racism or need black people to be racists. I wonder if believing in the myth of reverse racism somehow absolves white people from the responsibility to fight racism. I do not know why white people need to believe this, but I have learned that they do. Well if you remember what I said about racism being a system that advantages white people over people of color, then by default there is no such thing as reverse racism and people of color cannot be racists. Remember racism = prejudice + power. In a system of racism the institutions and the people who control them, have the power to deny people of color life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. People of color have been historically and currently denied the right to housing, health care, education, and basic right to be free of suspicion. Until people of color can do the same to white people, reverse racism does not exist.
Now remember what I said about racial prejudice, anyone can exhibit racial prejudice. Often when white people tell me that they are the victim of racism they describe an experience when they were the target of racial prejudice by a person of color. This is not racism. Although in that experience you were hurt and angered you were not the victim of racism. That one experience did not put you at a systematic and structural disadvantage. I am not trying to downplay your experience because it was wrong and no one should be the victim of racial prejudice. But I need you to know the difference between racism and prejudice so you can understand what we mean when we say people of color cannot be racist. I know this is difficult for people to accept. And all black people do not necessarily agree, but anti-racists and diversity educators have come to accept this truth.
This does not mean that white people cannot be the victims of racial prejudice. I have a white male friend who was the victim of a hate crime. He was on the subway and the last thing he heard before he was hit in the head was “get the white guy”. The next thing he knew he was being beat up by several black men. Thankfully he survived this horrible experience and he is definitely the victim of a hate crime, because anyone can be the victim of a hate crime. But had the police refused to file a report on his attack, and if the hospital refused to treat his injuries or sent him to a white hospital to be treated, then he would have experienced a form of racism. Racism is greater than that one horrible experience. It is a system that advantages one group over another. It is the combination of racial prejudice and the power to systematically disadvantage people of color.
10. White privilege does not mean that you have not worked hard in life or that you have never suffered. Each of us has some type of privilege.
This is something I try and make clear to every white person when discussing white privilege. White privilege means that because you were born white you receive the advantages of being white in America. Your white skin is a privilege because we live in a society where racism advantages you over people of color. This concept is essential to seeing how racism works. You do not have to do anything to receive the benefits and you do not even have to recognize these benefits for them to exist. Racism is like water to a fish. It is everywhere and often invisible to the people who benefit from it. Just like the fish can’t see the water, white people do not always see how they benefit from racism. The point in defining white privilege is to help people see how racism operates as a system of advantage.
We typically see racism as the individual acts of meanness done to people of color but rarely do we see the advantages that racism confers onto white people. For every disadvantage there is an advantage. If black people are kept from living in a certain neighborhood then white people are allowed to live there. If white veterans are given access to the GI bill to obtain a home and an education then they are advantaged while black veterans who are denied access to the GI bill are disadvantaged. To truly understand how the system works you need to see it from both ends. If we only focus on the ways people of color are disadvantaged then we cannot see how racism is a system of both advantages and disadvantages. Now if you are still troubled by the idea of white privilege because you don’t feel privileged please know we all have privileges. Black people have privileges. Not the privilege of being black, but a black man still has male privilege.
I as a heterosexual, English speaking, highly educated, cis-gendered, American have many privileges. I have the privilege of being attracted to the opposite sex and being able to freely marry them and engage in public displays of affection with them without the fear that we will be scorned or attacked. I have the privilege of being educated and receiving the advantages that come from informing people I have a doctorate degree. I have the privilege of being an American citizen and treated as one wherever I go in the world. I have the privilege of being able bodied and not having to rely on others to make sure I have access to their space. We all have privileges. Does having American privilege mean I didn’t work hard for my doctorate degree? Does accepting my heterosexual privilege mean that I have not been the victim of sexual assault? No it does not. Having privilege does not mean you did not work hard to get where you are at today. Being privileged does not mean that you have not suffered in your life. It means that in some ways you have received privileges based on some things that are out of your control (race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation). That is all it means. But it is important to understand because systems of oppression operate by giving privileges to some while denying others those same privileges.
It also does not mean that you cannot be privileged in one area and disadvantaged in others. You can be a rich white male but also be gay. You can be a black woman but also come from a wealthy family. And you can be a poor white person and still experience white privilege. So when someone tells you to “check your privilege” what they are saying is to see how your privilege might blind you to the realities of others. I can be told to check my American privilege when I assume that the American point of view is the one only correct point of view. Or I can be told to check my education privilege when I assume that others who do not think like me or not as smart as I am. And when a white person is told to check their privilege they are being asked to remember that their reality is not the reality shared by many people of color.
If you have made it this far then I want to say thank you. If this is the first time you have heard anything I have said I know it is not easy to accept it. I know because the first time I heard I did not accept it. But over time I continued to learn and I realized that what I thought I knew was not close to the truth. And I allowed others to teach me along the way. And I continue to try and learn more and more every day because I do not know everything on this topic or any topic (not even on my dissertation topic). What I do know is that for many people racism is not something they can hide from or ignore or be blind to. And for those who have the luxury to hide, ignore, or be blind to racism I ask that you reconsider those options. Especially if you are a teacher and in particular, if you are a badass teacher.
To me, being a badass teacher means although you might have the luxury to pretend to be colorblind you have chosen not to. You have chosen to embrace your responsibility to help your students understand and fight racism. You have decided to be an ally to people of color and use your white privilege to dismantle racism. Not everyone will agree that this is what it means to be badass. And you can be in BATs and not believe anything I said and not believe that you have a responsibility to deal with any of it. But BATs is taking on that responsibility with or without you. We hope you choose to join us because with the support of over 51,000 members we can take on this challenge and do whatever it takes to make sure that none of our students and children becomes the next Michael Brown.