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How Educators Can Turn Grief into Action

This article originally appeared on Rodney Robinson’s blog and is reprinted with permission.

Yesterday, I woke up to a country and a city in crisis.  I had text messages from former students who are now in their late 20’s looking for guidance and advice. Teachers who are close friends and some strangers have asked for my advice on what they should be doing. I did my best to calm their fears and try to help them channel their anger, anxiety, and aggression into a more impactful way but soon became overwhelmed at the sheer hopelessness of the situation.  Like everyone, I’ve been sulking and processing the events of the past week. 

Politicians, the media, and pundits love to use the term systemic racism to describe what is going on to generalize the problems of being black in America. While this is true, we must address the causes of systemic racism and not allow them to generalize and describe the system they are complicit in maintaining. We must push them to make systemic racism more than a buzzword.  We must push them to define systemic racism and demand solutions that provide actionable change and implementation which most aren’t willing to do because they must sacrifice their comfort and position.  

Peaceful protests and uprisings are not inspired just from the frustration of a lynched unarmed Black man. This is the frustration that comes from an inherently racist society that was built to subjugate Black people.  According to Ta-Nehisi Coates, the “destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include frisking, detainings, beatings, and humiliations.” It also comes from lack of safe, affordable neighborhoods, an education system that punishes black and brown boys and girls at rates 3-4 times higher than white kids, and a criminal system that stalks and preys on black bodies limiting their opportunities for physical and financial freedom.

Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful tool we can use to change the world.”  As teachers, it’s our job to examine what we are doing and how we can help change the world. The biggest tool you can use for change is the mirror. Take an honest look in the mirror and ask yourself if you are part of the problem. These are uncomfortable questions, but Martin Luther King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Now is the time to test the ultimate measure of you.  

You could ask your Black teacher friends for advice but understand and be sensitive to the fact that we are overwhelmed from the trauma of processing things ourselves. We are also paying “The Invisible Tax” by holding on to the secondary trauma from helping our  Black students process.  Besides, it’s not the job of Black teachers to fix the problems of White Supremacy. The most important thing you can do is prepare yourself to teach in a way that liberates your students.  You should be teaching for abolition. Author Bettina Love said in her book, We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, that “Abolitionist Teaching is the practice of working in solidarity with communities of color while drawing on the imagination, creativity, refusal (re)membering, visionary thinking, healing, rebellions spirit, boldness, determination, and subversiveness of abolitionists to eradicate justice in and out of school.”

Abolitionist teaching starts with rooting out your racist beliefs.  It’s easy to say I am not racist, however,  you are the product of a racist society so it’s impossible not to  have some of those beliefs. You have to de-program the racist ideologies that have been acquired from our educational system.  That starts by asking yourself, “Am I a racist or anti-racist?”.  Dr. Ibram X Kendi, in his critically acclaimed book How to Be An Anti-racist defines a racist as “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.”  Most Americans do not openly say racial slurs such as the n-word or support ideas such as segregation but commit other racist actions that seem neutral. For example, are you quiet right now or are you speaking out against society? Your voice, while being silent, is as loud as ever to your Black coworkers and more importantly your Black students because your indifference is a racist action.  Are you saying “All Lives Matter” in response to “Black Lives Matter”?  Deflecting from an  issue by being colorblind is also a racist action.

Dr. Kendi describes an anti-racist “as one who is supporting an anti-racist policy through their actions or expressing anti-racist ideas.” Are you making a commitment to analyzing and understanding racist policies and ideas? Are you welcoming the opportunity to grow from them and be a better person?  Are you creating spaces for Black students and coworkers to express their ideas of racism without pushing back and centering whiteness as part of the conversation?  Are you challenging white coworkers, students, friends, and family members who vocalize racist ideas or commit racial abuses?  These are anti-racist actions that help move society into a positive direction.

A key part of abolitionist teaching is understanding the history of your students and their country. America is a country founded on genocide and grown on the backs of enslaved blacks and other people of color. This is not a hypothetical theory; this is a fact.  Until you are willing to acknowledge that, you can never understand how the plague of racism has always affected black and brown people.  If you have trouble digesting that statement, then I recommend reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. In it she argues, “white people have uninformed opinions of race because they rely on information that is skewed against people of color. Mainstream American culture and the media are filled with social forces that constantly trying to push a certain narrative.”  It’s uncomfortable to learn new things that challenge your structure but imagine how your Black students feel every summer when they celebrate “Independence Day”. If you can’t imagine that, then go read Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” 

This essay seemed angry because it is angry. We must truly and honestly educate every child in our classrooms if we want the world to change. I’m angry that some teachers are sitting on the sideline and not getting involved. When I got my teaching license, my goal was to be any and everything for my students. I am not going to let anything stop me from fulfilling their needs no matter how uncomfortable it makes me. We must create spaces that empower them for success and allow them to tell their stories. There’s an old proverb that says, “If the lion doesn’t tell his story; then the hunter will.” The hunter is telling the story of our students.  We must arm them to become the hunter, instead of the prey. One way to do that is through a quality education.

I close this essay with a list of books and resources that will take you on a path of becoming an Anti-racist. We want our students and society to be at peace so we must liberate them through an education that is truthful, socially conscious, empowering and civic centered. Malcolm X said, “You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless they have their freedom.” Let’s work together to free everyone so our country can have some peace.

Books on Abolitionist Teaching 

  •  We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom,by Bettina E. Love
  •  The Trouble with Black Boys….And Other Reflections on Race, Equity, and the Future of Public Education by Pedro Noguera
  •  The Racial Healing Handbook: Practical Resources to Help You Challenge Privilege, Confront Systemic Racism, and Engage in Collective Healing,by Annelise E. Singh
  •  White Fragility: Why Its So Hard For White People to Talk About Race by Robin Diangelo
  •  How To Be an Anti-Racist, by Ibrahim X. Kendi
  •  Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms,by H. Richard Milner IV
  •  Cultivating Genius: An Equity Model for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy,by Gholdy Muhammad
  •  Closing the Attitude Gap by Baruti Kafele

Historical Books on the Black Experience in America

The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America by Khalil Gibran Muhammed
Chokehold: Policing Black Men by Paul Butler
Pushout: The Criminalization of Young Black Girls by Dr. Monique Morris
Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix by Jason Reynolds and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
Between The World and You by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A Stone of Hope: A Memoir by Jim St Germaine
Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon
The Autobiography of Malcom X by Alex Haley
Letter From a Birmingham Jail (An Essay) by Martin Luther King

Podcasts (recommended by EdWeek)


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