When you see them, they may be laughing, talking loudly, listening to music that is not your music. They may be dressed in clothes that are not your clothes, speaking words that are not like yours. When you see them, you may see them through glasses colored with your own experience, your impatience and your frustration that they are not like you. And that perception is what can rob them of their education, steal their freedom or take their lives.
In her Netflix series, “When They See Us,” the story of five wrongfully convicted boys of color in the 1989 Central Park jogger case, Ava Duvernay masterfully rebukes the media’s biased headlines and catchphrases by building out the character and experiences of the five boys and their families.
Although Duvernay is holding up a mirror to society in “When They See Us,” I see elements of the school system in the reflection. I know that there is so much good that our schools do. However, if we never acknowledge that education, as an institution, was not designed to empower or liberate boys of color, we won’t see where the cracks are. They’ll go on unchecked.
As an educator, it was difficult for me to watch each episode without seeing Black and Brown students who are judged before they ever step into the classroom, boys who have their names written at the tops of discipline referrals just in case they get out of line. And although we never see the five boys in school during this four-part series, I realized that society’s understood but unwritten manual for how to deal with boys of color has been adopted by far too many schools in this country.
Here’s the four-part manual in short.
Part One: Perceive
In part one of the series, Duvernay illustrates the fact that perception can be the most powerful weapon to use against boys of color. If someone is perceived as violent and then accused of violence, that accusation only serves as validation of the perception. In the jogger case, when facts failed to align with the charges, prosecutors kept shifting the narrative so that it maintained alignment with words they were using to describe the boys—“animal” and “little thug.”
In schools, it plays itself out like this: A Black third-grade boy is the only student who is scolded when a bookshelf falls near a group of his peers. The teacher didn’t see him push it, but he probably did it. The perception: Black boys are always causing trouble.
Part Two: Punish
We know the story when it comes to disciplining Black boys. In our schools, data shows that racial bias causes Black boys to be disciplined far more frequently than other students. They are often put in detention or suspended so that their teachers don’t have to deal with them, so they don’t have to spend too much time thinking of new ways to control them.
The next level of that is the school-to-prison pipeline. The five boys—and so many like them—are often locked in prison so that society is protected from perceptions that may, or may not, come to life through the boys’ actions. Regardless, Black boys are convicted and removed from society for a substantial amount of time.
Part Three: Label
Duvernay shows just how hard it is to re-enter society with a label. The person has become the punishment, a new identity that can never be shaken. “You’re not wanted here. You are now the thing that you did.” In schools, students are told, “You’ve been in ISS (in-school suspension) too many times.” “Remember that time you kicked over the bookshelf in third grade? Well, you’re now ineligible for advanced classes.” “You can’t apply for that program. Just sign up for that other class.” The label is a brand that I’ve seen very few students remove without the help of some fierce advocates.
Part Four: Agitate
Because negative perceptions, punishment, labeling and pain intertwine at the end of the series, part four was, by far, the hardest for me to watch. It focuses almost exclusively on Korey Wise’s experiences. It represents the final section of “The Manual.” The process is simply to never let them forget, to remind them of all that they are and all that they are not, and to aggravate and agitate them until they either become the perception or cling to their truth.
One day one of my students was walking down the hall after returning from suspension. At the beginning of the hallway an adult said, “Oh, you finally came back?” He nodded. The next adult said, “And don’t let me hear anything about you cutting up today.” He nodded. Another one said, “I’ll be watching for you today. You’d better not go to the office.” He turned, “Damn. I’m having a good day. Why is everybody coming at me with that same old bullshit?” Back to ISS.
It happened then, in 1989. But we see Kevin Richardson, 14, Raymond Santana, 14, Antron McCray, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, and 16-year-old Korey Wise in our classrooms today. Their education and their lives depend on us throwing out that same old, raggedy manual that we’ve been using forever. We can do better by them.