Monday, November 23, 2015

Black Lives Matter, how Liberal Institutions Fail to Address Structural Racism, and What to Do About It

As radical teachers, we are always learning from our students, and understand that a student can very much be a teacher in a more broad sense as well. One of the core tenets of truly student-centered teaching practice is to listen, to not be afraid to allow students to turn the lens of reflection on us (or our bosses/administrators), to break down the hierarchical structures and authoritarian tendencies of our profession so that we can all truly learn to be better human beings together.

The June 2015 Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll (MRR)  is written by Kadijah Means, who attends Berkeley High School (California) as a student and is a recent graduate of the class of 2015. She is a student leader, heading up the Black Student Union and Amnesty International groups on campus, and has been regularly interviewed in local media - particularly with regard to her involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Berkeley High has an international reputation as an enlightened, modern high school that has sometimes employed radical measures to address systemic educational inequities that are rooted in racism, class discrimination, gender/sexuality biases, and other problems that plague schools across the U.S. (and worldwide). Even in this “enlightened” institution, however, these problems persist and often end up magnified. In her column, Kadijah discusses specific examples from Berkeley High to illustrate the repeated failures of the educational system in addressing racism, both within the school context and in the wider world. She also gives some concrete suggestions for ways that teachers, administrators, and school districts can work long-term to be more responsive and help combat the pervasive reality of race-based inequities.

The topic of racism is again at the forefront of the average American's mind. In response to non-indictments and injustice catching the eye of mainstream media, movements like the Black Lives Matter have spread across the US. The U.S education system, specifically in ‘progressive’ places like Berkeley, Ca., has found itself scrambling to write lessons and alter curriculum to meet the needs of the systematically oppressed. The system was completely unprepared to address the idea of institutional racism. The fact that they were unprepared is sad, but not surprising. To be frank this is a recurring reality-- microaggressions and even explicit forms of bias will occur on a daily basis. Faculty is ill-prepared to manage any classroom conflict, not to mention racially motivated ones. There are two issues colliding here: 1. Poor communication from administration to Berkeley High students and faculty 2. The toxic racist environment is preventing students of color from flourishing in the way their white counterparts can.

If communication is key, we haven’t been able to unlock anything lately. -- this cliché couldn’t be more accurate in regard to Berkeley High. There are no processes in place to aid dialog between administration, teachers and students. Furthermore, when concerning events take place there is no effort to inform the faculty or students. here are two solid examples of dis bullshit.

On October 1st, 2014, a BHS security officer discovered a noose hanging from a tree on campus. The school administration waited more than five days to announce the incident, even after pressure from the Dean of Students and the Black Student Union (BSU). When they released a statement via email, it was ineffective, as the majority of the student body remained ignorant of the incident. As president of the BSU and Amnesty International Clubs, I reached out to the Gay/Straight Alliance to put pressure on the administration to act decisively. We decided to force a response by releasing a statement to local news notifying them of the occurrence. In addition to organizing for news coverage, employing the tactics of guerrilla warfare, I read a statement over the school's public announcement system to inform all the students of what happened on our campus, not in 1964, but today, in 2014.

There was no plan to tell the students about the noose. A student group had to bring this information to the student body. The administration planned to put paper hearts in the tree. The hearts were placed in the tree prior to the announcement. Students wondered why there were paper hearts hanging in a seemingly arbitrary tree on campus because they were never informed about the noose. You can’t actually resolve problems before people realize there’s a problem. It doesn’t actually work. I don’t want to make too many assumptions, but I imagine the admin felt like “ this couldn’t have happened at our school”, a classic ‘not in Berkeley’ scenario. Instead of allowing us to feel shitty about the despicable event that occurred on our campus the admin rushed into a band-aid or short-term solution. Sometimes it is important for us to sit in the uncomfortableness.

The noose was a reality check for many. We are not post-racial. Putting hearts in the tree without telling the student body what happened was a rush to solve something that is not solvable in the short-term. This incident illustrates the poor communication and racial tension stirring on campus. I felt the administration didn’t want to face the possibility that this was a malicious act happened in Berkeley, and therefore attempted to cover it up. In the case of the noose, those affected by the triggering imagery were neglected. This is a prime example of how the burden to educate students falls on the affected community. A racially charged incident took place and people of color were expected to respond. Students of color carry this burden, and it  definitely impacts them in the classroom. In instances like this the marginalized continue to be disenfranchised even when ‘it’s not on purpose.’

The administration downplayed what happened to make sure the minority of the school, the white students, were more comfortable than the 60 percent, student of color majority. Rather than confront the fact that racism and prejudice still exist, the administration acted as if ignoring the noose made the problem disappear. As an active advocate for equality and equity, it is an understatement to say that I was concerned the situation was not being taken seriously. I felt the history of discrimination was being minimized. We remember the Holocaust, but we constantly try to move past the racist and violent history against black people in this country. The discriminatory treatment of black people is easily ignored today because it is less tangible than at the height of lynchings in 1895 or the violence surrounding the 1960’s civil rights movement, but it is no less insidious. This silence of our community around issues of race play out in a very dangerous way for students of color. Many experience discrimination or microaggressions and have no where to turn. Learning in this environment isn't impossible, but it is harder and that's what matters. It is integral that we support students so they feel able to express when inequities occur.

In a place like Berkeley High where the school is dramatically divided by race, class, and worldview it is hard to teach about race and racism (they are different conversations). I have found that difficult topics are often avoided. Conversations  about racism, how it affects people of color and our community are essential to preparing genuinely egalitarian humans. If that is not the goal then at the bare minimum we should be creating critical thinkers.

I love teachers. I don’t want to complicate their job. They are already playing so many roles in the classroom. I understand that the omission of certain topics is due to lack of training and a fear of discomfort. No one wants to be the racist teacher who said something unintentionally offensive, so they’d rather just skip the conversation completely. I get that. Teachers simply haven’t been taught about systematic oppression, or how to facilitate discussions about it. The intent of omission is to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, but the impact of omission onto students of color is damaging. The one institution that is charged with preparing young minds for higher order thinking, employs a pedagogy that appeals to white students without regard for the students of color in the classroom. We have to reframe our approach.

I am not an expert in education. I am a student who is keenly aware of the impact racism has on students. If I was asked to reform the current school system in the U.S here are a few things I would suggest.

  1. Stop buying textbooks from Texas [editor’s note: since Texas is such a large textbook market, publishers in the United States generally produce textbooks that conform to the educational and curricular standards set by the Texas State Boards of Education. Not surprisingly, Texas’ education boards are packed with Republicans: religious conservatives, racist neo-Confederates, and industrial lobbyists, so you can imagine what kind of “standards” are set by these people, particularly in science and social studies]
  1. Cultural Competency Training
    There are skilled educators who can explain the ideas of privilege, systematic racism, micro vs. macro aggressions, and explicit vs. implicit bias. Every school needs this attention. If a place like Berkeley needs this training then every city in the U.S needs this. I would suggest integrating inclusive curriculum that highlights the contributions of all people to the world, as opposed to eurocentric curriculum only. That means history, math, and science would need to acknowledge contributions from all cultures. This will take time. We have to be dedicated to change if we want it.
  2. Diversifying Thought
    When discussing the Black Lives Matter movement in class someone said, “They couldn’t support such a violent movement.” In my experience at Berkeley High I’ve had lots of students tell me that ‘nonviolence’ is the only way to change things (their idea of violence is looting and property damage, which I do not believe is violence). If I respond, it is usually something like this: “ I am not asking nicely for those oppressing me to stop. In fact, I am not asking at all. I am demanding the freedom and equity my people deserve. So maybe that means some windows will be broken, and some noise will be made after 10pm -- so what.” Unfortunately, I can count the number of teachers who share these radical thoughts on my hand. We can't expect students to question the status quo if the people teaching them aren't willing to question it themselves. We need minds stretching across the entire political spectrum. Diversity of thought is what enriches the learning experience. The entire reason we advocate for ethnic diversity is to expose students to different walks of life. If everyone in the classroom looks different, but have parallel mindsets, that is not enriching. We need to expose students to more radical ideas.
  3. Clear Communication
    There should be clear processes to inform students and teachers of current events on campus, especially harmful events. When it comes to inequity silence is violence.

Change is not always abrupt. These are societal flaws. Racism affects the entire country. Tthe education system has to actively walk away from racism in order to make a difference. The education system is forced to clean up a mess that it did not create. It will take time, but we have to make an effort. --Kadijah Means

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