Saturday, October 22, 2016

Black Lives Matter & Me


Related to discussion:

I've been thinking about the concept of the White Christian "savior" in context of my hope to work with students who are a different race from me. I'm really trying to evaluate my attitude towards these students and towards people of color in general.

I know I have a long way to go before I can really achieve a level of humility and understanding that allows me to live and work with these people groups without having a mindset that I am somehow noble for making that choice.

I want to live with them, work with them in finding a voice and enhancing and enriching their expressions of culture, and represent them more accurately to people from my own demographic. While those are not tasks that are degrading, the mindset of "saving" them may still be there in trace form. It's something I need to seriously consider and evaluate continuously as I keep moving in this direction.


A week or two ago I watched a documentary called "13th." It deals with the history of mass incarceration and systematic racial oppression of minority people in the US, focusing specifically on the false narrative surrounding Black males that results in their being disproportionately arrested and jailed, often for sentences that strangle any hope they have for a future outside of prison and remove them from their families.

I won't go all MLK or Macklemore (see White Privelege II) on you at the moment, but if you fit the same demographic as me (White middle class, especially evangelical or conservative Christian) think of yourself as a "good person" (hint: everyone does) or if you think Black Lives Matter is irrelevant to you then you need a good solid wakeup call - so go get yourself an education.

I have been aware of Black Lives Matter for about as long as anyone in my demographic, but it became real to me this semester.

I am at the end of my first student teaching placement, and the students I've worked with for the past three months are particularly unforgettable to me (because they are the first classes I really "taught," and because they went through an awkward growth stage with me and we had to figure each other out, but that made the relationships we formed all the more important).

They're going to linger in my mind for a long time, those kids... I will think about those journals I read on the last day of class and the little pieces of their lives that were revealed to me. I will think of them listening to obnoxiously loud rap songs while they write. I will think of them making choruses of "oohs" and "eys" when their teacher says something provocative or "relevant." I will think of them making really lame excuses for why they broke a classroom rule ("Just surfing the web while I wait for this quiz to go down...").

I will think of some of them moving into the honors classes and making the sports teams they hoped for, and some of them getting expelled for behavior problems or falling further behind because they don't have enough support.

Trayvon Martin. (not my student, but could have been)

Those are the things that I know they will be doing because they did them all the time during the three months I was part of their classroom. Life goes on as normal, but I can still dream... Here are the things I hope they will do: 
  • Find out what they are good at and what makes them happy - and be able to do it for the rest of their lives.
  • Have love and support from their families.
  • Be friends with people who are good for them.
  • Appreciate the wonderful people who work in their school and ask for help when they need it.
  • Recognize good in their communities.
  • Listen to really good music.
  • Learn how to write a damn literary analysis paper :)
All those aside, though, my biggest hope is this: That people who don't interact with them on a daily basis, and know qualitatively how amazing they are, will learn to value them as people.

I realized this semester the need to question myself ruthlessly about who they really are and what they really need. Why do they act the way they do? Why might they laugh in the face of correction and refuse eye contact? Why might they distrust authority - or anyone with white skin? I came in thinking I could answer these questions. I left knowing I had so much more to learn.

I think that they knew, by the end of the semester (after I had gotten past some of my awkwardness and insecurity as a teacher and as a White teacher in a room full of students of color) that I valued them, because I knew they could do better than they were doing. I didn't have the ability, as my mentor did, to appeal to them, as another person of color, and insist that either they get their act together or risk reinforcing the stereotypes working against them (upon this statement cue the room going dead silent). I did have the ability to insist that they stop acting like they were made for less.

Tamir Rice. (not my student, but could have been)

I worry about what will happen when they graduate (or don't). I don't see them reaching their potential now and I don't know if that will ever happen. But someday it could be that they don't experience the need to push back against a stereotype, to work extra hard to prove it wrong, because it won't be there anymore.

The fact is, right now, the false narrative says that because they're not White or rich, they aren't valuable. That they're asking for rights they don't deserve. That their parents are bad parents and so they'll never learn "how to act." Or because of their dialect they are less intelligent and less able to communicate well than their white middle class counterparts. Or even that they're genetically inferior or ethnically predisposed to laziness.

Yes, those are all things that real people think. This country, at a systematic level, is an unfriendly place to them.

The fact is that, right now, the false narrative says that if one of them were walking along that street like Trayvon or Tamir and a member of the police force saw them and felt "threatened" by their presence, their clothing, the color of their skin, their posture, or whatever else he decided to cite as justification, he could shoot and kill them with total impunity from the majority of White America. White America might even praise him for protecting the citizens of this country from the "threat" that is their existence. For letting "them" know who's really in charge.

People in general, and students in particular, hardly ever become a threat to the safety of others except when life becomes a threatening and unwelcoming place for them. If they're born into a threatening and unwelcoming life, then that is not a reason for us to be afraid - it's a reason for us to alleviate that - to make a safe space and welcome them into our lives. To validate them as human and show them they can exert a positive influence on this world - through their own personal strengths and cultural assets.

So that phrase - false narrative? It's just another way of saying "lie."

Mike Brown. (not my student, but could have been)

So we need to stop telling lies. We need to tell more accurate narratives about these kids, their situations, and their families - and then we need to take it one step further and tell more hopeful narratives about their futures. This requires us to be in their lives and to know them.

Before I was born the injustice of mass incarceration was happening. Before I walked into that classroom this semester, my students were struggling against generations of low expectations because of circumstances far beyond their control. They will continue to do so now that I've left.

Maybe you don't think Black Lives Matter. Maybe you think All Lives Matter.

I hope that if you're like me, and you struggle to understand people whose lives you haven't experienced, you find whatever ways you can to get to know them, and that you can see them in the way their teachers, their coaches, the people in their communities do: silly, sweet, brave, smart. Kids.

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