I remember so vividly the moment that my eyes were ripped open.
The moment occurred while I was watching the coverage that followed the murder of Trayvon Martin. I remember being horrified by the story. But sadly the story alone is not what finally dragged me out of the ignorance I had been living in. The moment that truly sent shock waves through my entire being occurred as I was listening to a black woman talking about how she taught her son what he had to do in order to decrease the likelihood that he would be shot by a police officer for nothing other than being a black man.
I didn’t know that happened.
I honestly did not know.
I am ashamed that I didn’t know. I am so saddened that it took something this awful for me to begin to understand. But the truth was that I did not know. I did not realize what black mothers had to tell their children. I did not bother to seek out the stories of black men and black women who were afraid of not just being treated unfairly, but who were forced to be afraid of being killed because of how others saw them.
But once I started to know. Once I began to understand. I knew that I had to learn more. I knew that my own ignorance was part of the race problem in America. I knew that my ability to NOT know about these fairly common truths was a signal of my privilege and my complicity in a racist system. And so I started to listen and seek out the stories of others. And I also started to see all that was being presented to me that created the biases that I was operating under. And I started to realize just how much I did not know and just how much racism and how many racist messages existed in our world that I had simply not been seeing.
Because after Trayvon Martin, then it was Michael Brown and then it was Eric Garner and then and then and then. There were the stories that made the news and there were oh so many others that did not. And the media coverage alone was enough to prove how racist of a world we are living in. And then, it wasn’t just the media who was saying things that made me cringe. Then it was people in my own life. It was my colleagues. It was my friends on Facebook. It was my students. So many people operating under incredible ignorance. So many people conveniently hiding in their own privilege.
And I was one of them.
And then. Then I started to think about those who were doing the shooting and the killing. I thought about what they had been taught. I thought about what they had not been taught. I thought about what kinds of messages they had been exposed to that they did not even realize were shaping the attitudes and beliefs that they held about people of color. I thought about what kind of classrooms they had sat in as they grew up. What kinds of conversations about race did they hear in those classrooms?
And that’s when i knew. I knew that if their classrooms were anything like the classroom that I teach in every day, there were no conversations about race. Sure there was teaching about the Civil Rights Movement. But that was the teaching of history. Ancient history in the minds of the young children I teach. But there were no conversations about the role race plays in our world today. If their classrooms were anything like my own, their teachers were too afraid, too unaware, too unsure to bring up conversations of race. I know that I have been.
Until my eyes were ripped open. Then I knew I could no longer stay silent. Then I knew that I had to begin to help my students see what I had only just begun to see. Because what I know is that the only hope we have in making our world a better place is in helping our students to grow up knowing more than we knew so that they can do better than we have done.
I was so unsure of how to start. So I had my students start where I was starting. I knew that my students would follow where I led and if I led them into a territory that was so important and yet one that I did not fully understand, I knew that they would still work with me so that we could all reach a better place of understanding.
So this past year, I started with some news articles. We read about race. We read about the protests in Ferguson and in Baltimore. We read about the way people were using social media in order to protest the way things were in our country. We read. And we thought. And in these small actions, we made ourselves a bit braver to tackle the conversations that still scared us. Suddenly, we were having the conversations that I said I did not know how to have. We started so small. But at least we started.
As we read these articles and watched these news clips. I started to ask my students to think about whose voices were being heard in the media and, more importantly, I asked them to think about whose voices were NOT being heard. These questions alone led us to some incredible conversations and some incredible moments of learning for both my students and for me. This led us to analyze how different groups of people were portrayed in different news articles and in the media in general. And this led us to think about who was not really being portrayed at all.
And what my students were showing me was that the most important place for us to start was in simply recognizing the messages that were surrounded us about race. The vast majority of my students are white and they just had no clue as to how much the outside world was influencing the way they viewed themselves and other races. As we did this work I began to see that I had a huge responsibility to begin to help these kids think about race so that they did not grow up believing that race didn’t matter. I wanted to help them start to unpack their own concepts of race, their concepts of what it means to be white, what it means to be black, what it means to exist in a world where there is so much work still yet to be done before we can ever claim that we are all being treated equally. I didn’t have all the answers, but what mattered is that my students and I were starting to at least ask the questions. We were starting to pull apart and look at the messages on race, gender, ethnicity and class that we were surrounded by so that we could question them, push back against them and fight them.
And one day, one of my students asked if these same messages were present in the picture books and novels that we read. And that one question, led my students and I into a four week study of unintended messages present in the picture books that we read. I will share more about the work we did with picture books in my next blog post.