Recently, I’ve thought of being black in America as being an avatar for a video game. Players get to log in, dress like you, pick the stages and difficulty levels they think they’re prepared for and play the game. When you die, the players turn off the game and go about their business.
Racial inequity isn’t new to America. It’s new to the part of the country that’s seemingly ready to have an honest conversation about it. When I got caught in the rain trying to find Zook Hall, I asked four different students if they could help me find it (Google Maps is going to kill us all), three white students literally shrugged at me and the one student that stopped to help me spoke very little English. Those white students were trying to get out of the rain like me, and maybe they were late to a class, so I didn’t take it personally. But it’s my everyday reality to think that I did something wrong, not that people are just being mean or judgmental because of my skin color.
I was headed to Zook Hall to listen to expert faculty from the LeBron James Family Foundation College of Education speak to current and aspiring teachers, as well as UA students, about racial inequities and how to have those difficult discussions in elementary, middle and high school classrooms. Racism is taught. It isn’t a gene you’re born with, so I can get behind a forum teaching our youth how to have the hardest conversation in our country right now in a positive way.
The speaker introductions took an hour (the forum was from 5:15pm – 6:45pm), but there was an abundance of useful information within the shameless promotion of experience. All of the speakers made it clear to the teachers in the room that talking to your students about racial inequality isn’t about your opinion, it’s about being a facilitator for effective conversation.
Dr. Francis Broadway (Integrated Science and Mathematics Education K-12, Early Childhood Education, Science Education) eloquently suggested that teachers ask themselves, “What luggage do I bring to the classroom?” Rather than inserting their personal views, he said the key for teachers is to consider what lived experiences they as teachers bring to the table.
Dr. Bridgie A. Ford (Special Education, Integration Specialist programs) talked about our youth not understanding their own history, and how that in part adds to racial inequality. I felt Dr. Ford covered the most ground by being brutally unswerving about how systemic racism is exactly that—a system. African-American students are still underachieving academically, and in most classrooms, they come in expecting to do so. Lower grades and expectations lead to higher dropout rates, which lead to unemployment, which often leads to imprisonment. We aren’t going to solve the problem in one day or one conversation. However, Ford says that students “have to be able to recognize so they can advocate and empower themselves and others.”
Talking about race gets problematic for African-Americans when we feel white Americans don’t want to acknowledge that a system exists. When Dr. Ford asked why we think African-American students are underachieving, an older white male yelled out “lack of discipline.”
Dr. John E Queener (Counseling Psychology Doctoral Program) addressed this inadvertently by stating that one of his mottos is, “If you can only talk about race from your perspective, you’re miseducated.” Queener says that you have to “talk about race from multiple perspectives, especially ones that make you uncomfortable.” While lack of discipline may be the case in select scenarios, using the blanket statement that all underachieving African-American students lack discipline is just as ignorant as me saying, “all old white guys don’t get it.” All the speakers asserted that it’s imperative for teachers to know themselves before they step into the classroom ahead of these discussions.
It’s about building trust and a safe environment with your students where positive dialogue can be explored. As difficult as it may be to hear, Erin Saal (Social Studies Teacher, Akron Public Schools) advised white teachers to “acknowledge that you’re white” and “allow yourself to mess up because it’s going to happen.”
Talking about race is exhausting, especially when you are responsible for molding young minds. One audience member asked how to handle that kind of weight on your shoulders in a small amount of time every week. Mr. Larry Weigle, (Retired APS Administrator and Senior Lecturer at the University of Akron) proposed that we redefine the definition of a teacher. He said that “everyone in the building is responsible,” from the Superintendent down to the classrooms.
It’s our civic responsibility to look at race objectively in America and to be able to talk about it. More importantly, it’s our duty to help our young people understand the world they live in, so that they can interact positively with different groups of people. The very student we help to feel comfortable talking about racial inequities may be the one that creates a solution to this man-made problem.
[Featured photo: Expert faculty panel dropping jewels for teachers and students. From left to right: Ms. Erin Saal, Ms. Rose Langstaff, Dr. John E Queener, Dr. Bridgie A. Ford, Dr. Francis Broadway, Mr. Larry Weigle (PHOTO: Floco Torres/The Devil Strip)]