The events in Ferguson have caused me to continually ask myself what could have prevented this situation. I’ve seen no end of white people (and exactly one person of color) posting about how if Michael Brown had just behaved better toward Darren Wilson, then he wouldn’t have been killed. If Trayvon Martin had just chosen “more appropriate” (read: “less black”) clothing, then he wouldn’t have been killed. If any number of other black people had changed their behaviors or their appearances, then they would still be alive.
This is victim blaming.
So how do we prevent situations like this from happening again? I’m going to speak just to the white teachers for a moment.
White teachers have a critical role in this process of preventing the unjust death of black people. Because, you see, Darren Wilson was in someone’s class. He never was asked to confront the prejudices that made him see Michael Brown as “a demon.” One of the first steps to preventing another situation like the many that have resulted in dead black people is for white people to educate other white people.
Are you a white teacher with a class full of white students? You have the privilege of never having to talk about race, because none of your students are going to be stopped on the street simply for the color of their skin. I am asking you to talk about race anyway. It is not the responsibility of black people to educate you or your students about how to not be racist, although that responsibility is often thrust upon their shoulders. Don’t trust that your white students are just going to figure it out on their own. I didn’t. I needed another white person to confront teenage me and challenge me on my “colorblindness” and ignorant beliefs until tears were streaming down my face.
Talk about it even though it might feel uncomfortable, and even though you might not feel like you have all the answers. Talk about it even though you teach math, or science. Talk about it with young students. Talk about it with high schoolers. Talk about their fears, and talk about their prejudices. Be honest about your own prejudices and how you have overcome them. Understand that confronting your own privilege can cause people to be defensive and emotional; talk about it anyway.
Read, read, read about how to talk to your students about race. Talk to your colleagues. Ask questions. Educate yourself.
So why do I address this post primarily to white teachers? Because black teachers can and will be dismissed by white students as being “angry.” I’ve heard this time and time again at the postsecondary level from black professors, especially black female professors. Black people ARE speaking up, and have been speaking up for decades, but white people are still nurturing their racism with thoughts like, “What about all this black on black violence?” and “Why are you destroying your own community?”
As a white teacher, you need to be prepared to intelligently challenge these ideas. Educate yourself on why statements like these are racist and inaccurate. Be ready to have these conversations with your students.
Are you a white teacher teaching students of color? You might feel like you have no right to discuss race with your students. You are wrong. EVERYONE needs to talk about race. The difference now is that if you’re a white teacher talking to students of color, you’re not going to be taking the approach of educating them about racism; they know it exists. Instead, you’re going to help your students debrief and process recent events, and think through how to live in a world that consistently pushes them down.
No subject matter you could be teaching today is more important than talking about what happened in Ferguson. Start the conversation.
Here are some resources to get you started: