Race, Recognition, and Reflection

If you’ve been following my posts at all this year, you likely have a good sense of who I am and what I value as an educator. In my first post, I advocated three hundred sixty degree understand of historical events and the cultivation of “healthy critical” students. I’ve promoted authenticity, through crafting thoughtful assessments and studying local history. Most centrally, though, I hope that I’ve reminded you all that we are teaching humans first and foremost–not students, not kids, but humans. Members of society. Global citizens. And that is where I feel the most weight and responsibility, but it’s also what gets me out of bed and to my classroom each and every morning.

I teach at a New England boarding school and–because of the unaffordability of private education for many strata of society–my students are more often than not a combination of white and/or wealthy. As a teacher of US history mainly, I am constantly working not only to expose my wealthy, white students to the stories of other groups, but I am trying to address those few students of color in my classes to make sure that they feel seen, heard, and reflected in my curriculum. Racially-charged incidents are all too commonplace in American society, sometimes rearing their head all too close to home. A seemingly dormant movement in the eyes of students continually pokes its head out in unexpected and anxiety inducing ways.

Just days after talking about the swelling of the KKK in the early twentieth century, my American Studies students watched a Nightline clip–filmed during Obama’s first term–about the twenty-first century KKK. My white and international students were appalled at the racial vitriol emerging from members’ mouths, but may have been more appalled with themselves for not knowing that the KKK was still an organized entity within this country; my black students made eye contact with me and nodded in recognition, maybe of me or of themselves. Similarly, students were left slack-jawed in class today when we read articles about the three black churches that were burned to the ground Louisiana just weeks ago. How could the accidental ignition of Notre-Dame be plastered over the news–an ocean away–when they had no idea this was happening in their metaphorical backyard?

Working with students so that they can understand broader systems of discrimination is hard. It’s complicated. It’s uncomfortable. And I’m certainly not exactly what I should be doing to combat racism everyday, nor am I often doing it “right.” But I’m doing it. And if you are on this website, reading this blog post, I bet you’re doing it–or trying to–too. It’s a helpful reminder though that, through this work, everyone wins. Our students of color feel known, seen, and represented, and we continue to pull back the curtain on the less savory aspects of our country’s history for everyone else. If you need the encouragement–to push through the hard, complicated, and uncomfortable, I’ll leave you with the words of one of my seventeen-year-old black students: “it doesn’t matter how long you have the conversation for or if you do it right, it just matters that you try.”

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