This is a post for white teachers – it doesn’t matter if you teach at predominantly white schools or schools with a majority of students of color. I don’t pretend to have big “A” Answers, but what I hope this post does is help you make sense of the role you play as our nation grapples with one of the most challenging issues of our time – police violence and how that is magnified against African-Americans.
In the past two days, we’ve seen two videos of Black men dying after having been shot by police officers. The videos are almost impossibly hard to watch. We’ve seen the partners and children of these men react to their death – and those videos are nearly as hard to watch as the deaths themselves. These killings are the most recent example of how many people die at the hands of police officers in America — and importantly — how there is deep racial inequity about who dies at the hands of the police. In 2015, 7.27 African-Americans per million were killed by police while 2.93 white Americans per million were killed by police. (http://theguardian.com/thecounted) American police officers kill more people per capita than most other places in the world. And American police kill African-Americans more than they kill anyone else.
And while this racial inequity in US policing is not new at all, the probability that our students have experienced watching the video of seeing people die — possibly not by choice if they have auto-play turned on on Facebook — is a modern phenomenon.
These issues come into our classrooms, whether we acknowledge them or not. And as Pia Martin (among others) reminds us, there is no such thing as passive anti-racism. We, as white teachers, do not have the luxury of pretending the world doesn’t impact our classroom and our students. Whether we choose to directly deal with the issue in our classrooms or not, we have a moral obligation to be caring and thoughtful in our classrooms – especially to those who may be experiencing trauma due to these events. With that, some thoughts on how to be a caring white teacher in these times:
- I was lucky enough to be a part of a group of amazing educators who came together to write about teaching about issues of state-sanctioned violence after the trial for Jordan Davis’ murder. While some of what we wrote was specific to that case, there is still a great deal there that would be applicable now.
- Educate yourself. You can look at the hard data — and the stories behind the data — at The Counted – where the Guardian is cataloguing all of the people killed by US police. You can look at a comprehensive proposal for police reform at Campaign Zero. Those are but two of the many sites out there.
- This is a moment where remembering that we teach students before we teach subjects is incredibly important. If we had school today, you might have students in your class who watched two people die yesterday, who had to have another version of “The Talk” or who had to be reminded of their own experiences with racial profiling and racial violence by police. Be aware of this and be understanding that your lesson on Hamlet, the quadratic equation, Ancient Rome or the past perfect tense of -ar verbs may not be where students are focusing.
- We don’t have to “be the expert.” In fact, we can’t be. If there was ever a moment to not to be didactic, it’s now. This is a time to listen far more than lecture.
- Let students know you care about this issue — and that you care about them. Silence really does imply consent in moments like this. You may be at a loss at what to say – many of us are – but saying nothing can be even more chilling.
- Don’t put the burden of dealing with this on the African-American teachers in your school. All over America today, African-Americans are struggling with these two killings. Asking Black teachers to then also carry this burden in our schools is not only unreasonable, but it’s cruel.
- Don’t make this only about Black students. This is an American problem that affects all of us. The onus is on all of us to make a better world. In the same way that we should not put the burden on Black teachers, be very aware of any burden we might inadvertently place on Black students.
- Do not make this about us. It’s not about us. Do not center this issue on how you feel. Use empathy. Share thoughts. Make common cause, but listen deeply and be thoughtful in your responses. There is deep pain here. We must honor that first and foremost.
- And to that end — Respect boundaries. No one has to talk about these issues. No one has to mine their pain as a classroom experience. If someone trusts us enough to talk about these issues, we must respect that trust, and realize that for many of our students, this is not a dispassionate academic issue. This is something that cuts far too close to home for many students, and we have to respect that and understand how painful this issue can be.
- And finally, do not say “All Lives Matter” or “Black on Black Crime.” I’ve linked articles explaining why those words are toxic to this conversation. Please, if this doesn’t automatically ring true, take time to read both.
This isn’t a comprehensive list. This can’t be a step-by-step guide. There is no way to just lesson plan our way through this. But we have to be part of the solution. We cannot assume that others will deal with this, or think that this isn’t an issue that affects our schools. And we cannot leave this issue for African-Americans to try to survive their way through. White teachers, it is time for us to carry our weight and do our part to make sure that all our students understand how important this issue is — and that our Black students feel from us that one societal institution – our schools – are for them, even as the images they’ve seen in these past few days have made many feel that another societal institution – the police – is not.