July 8, 2020
Throughout my life, my blackness has been a feature emphasized in educational spaces. Growing up, teachers and students alike have gushed with favorable opinions of me while diminishing my identity and culture as a black person.
Across America, conversation is erupting on systemic racism and the inequity that is pervasive in our society. As a recent high school graduate, I have had to navigate current and celebrity affairs, like Kaepernick and Kanye, and survive as a black kid in an educational system that is less forgiving of us.
Looking back, there are ways in which my peers and members of the school faculty should have addressed race in more appropriate ways, but there are some steps that members of the community can take to create change going forward.
Following the election of President Barack Obama, many people, like academic John McWhorter, argued that America was "past racism against black people." While it may have been convenient for us to have viewed the first black president as a sign that things were on the mend, it is actually damaging to all students of color to ignore the way in which racism exists beyond the singular representation of a marginalized group in a position of power.
There are so many ways in which certain groups of students are limited in their educational journeys (achievement-admissions gap, school-to-prison pipelines, socioeconomic segregation in districts, etc.). Despite the strides being made in civil rights, we cannot ignore all of the progress that needs to be made in education for students of color, particularly black students, to have equality in opportunity, leading to better outcomes. Seek to educate yourself through the expansive amount of credible sources.
Having your entire class glare at you when the teacher mentions the enslavement of your ancestors is not exactly the best for your mental health. There are many moments when my teachers and peers have inappropriately singled me out on the basis of my race, leading to challenging relationships between us. While this is not to say that you shouldn't engage with your black classmates on the essential conversations surrounding race, understand that there is a clear distinction between engaging in meaningful dialogue and simply seeking them as your repository for all things black history. Seek to learn from them even in moments when it isn't the most convenient for you.
Something that is especially painful is when non-black peers pass judgement and evaluate me on their criteria of what it means to be black. Blackness comes in so many creeds and characters — it is vital that non-black peers understand that and limit their usage of blanket statements such as "you're the whitest black person I've ever met."
"Black folks are highly visible and invisible at the same time in America," wrote educator Bettina L. Love in Education Week last year. While it might be easy and convenient to define blackness based on what is available via social culture, it is crucial that those do not become single stories, and furthermore be weaponized as rubrics against the real and diverse perspectives and personalities across the black diaspora.
Black contributions to history and the history of black Americans are at best a chapter — and at worst a footnote of most school curricula. Rather than using black contributions as interjections of the standard curriculum, it is important that black and POC voices be amplified throughout the fabric of academic discussion.
All too often, black students are placed into conflict where they have to defend their existences against speech that suggests a diminished perspective on the history of colonization and slavery. It is wildly important, particularly for teachers, to recognize when discussion or debate turns to condescension or covert racism. Step up as an ally against all forms of ignorance, especially in school, where occurrences like these are surprisingly common.
Not only is it important for black students to have the support to speak on their issues, but it's imperative that a platform is given for said conversation to take place in the greater school community. Correcting racism as a school community takes the power and energy of black and non-black members alike, and so everyone in the school community should be seeing and understanding the qualitative and quantitative realities of black peers.
As the years pass, it is important that change and equity come from all levels. School is just one of the facets of living for black students in which we are not treated as equals. This piece should be only the starting point of self-education and unlearning about systemic racism and prejudice. No matter what your background has led you to think, unlearning and education have to begin somewhere.
About the writer: IJ is a recent high school graduate who will be attending an Ivy League college this fall.