I am a Black mom and I have two children who are now in high school. Raising them to be inquisitive, informed adults with a strong sense of identity and agency is an essential part of my life.
I am also an educator, so I understand the deep importance of guiding and shaping all of our children. I’m also intimately aware of all the cultural complexity surrounding our work. I know, too, that we have a long way to go before we’re even close to treating all of our students equitably. This is why I’m writing to you today. I have much to say about what I wish you had been able to do for my children when they were in your elementary and middle school classrooms, and what I hope you will do for all children of color entering your classrooms.
Because I’m an educator, I know well what you—or at least the vast majority of you— learned in your pre-K-12 education and in your teacher prep program and what you didn’t learn.
As you grew up, you were most likely taught in school and at home that Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator, that it was acceptable, right even, to refer to the people of the global majority as minorities, and that communities with higher percentages of Black families are in need of saving.
As a teacher, you most likely did not receive ongoing professional development about race and education in America. You’re likely to have a vague understanding of issues of diversity and equity and inclusion with an insufficient understanding of culturally responsive teaching and learning.
In high school, college and your teacher prep program, you no doubt were taught something about race in America, but it’s highly unlikely that you learned the truth about the Black experience. It’s likely, for instance, that you’ve been taught little to nothing about the pre-enslavement contributions of Black people to the world, the horrors and impact of centuries of enslavement, post “Emancipation” Jim Crow laws and practices and the many ongoing racially based systemic injustices such as mass incarceration, housing discrimination, wealth disparities and lack of equal access to quality education, health care and more.
Because it’s unlikely that you learned about all of these things in school or in your home, it’s even more unlikely that you teach about these matters now.
We have talked extensively about these matters at home, but my children’s school experiences would have been far more valuable if you would have introduced them to the lives and works of Ellen and William Craft, Katherine Johnson, Lewis Hayden, Ida B. Wells and Denmark Vesey. They wanted to hear you tell them the truth about The Black Panther Party, the reasons behind the FBI’s surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr., the painful facts about Columbus’s experiences in the Americas and the meaning of Juneteenth. And they didn’t want to just hear a few tidbits about these essential and complex aspects of American life during Black History Month.
If, for instance, you teach a social studies unit on immigration and you have your students present about the countries of their ancestors, Black children need you to think more deeply about how this assignment feels for them.
This can also be a tough and painful assignment for other students of color —especially for First Nations people whose ancestral stories are overlooked and misrepresented. My guess is that you didn’t think about all this in planning the unit. Going forward, I hope you will.
Because you were entrusted to partner with me in the education of my children, I wanted you to wonder how they felt when they saw Mount Rushmore or the face of Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill they handed you with their field trip permission slip. I wanted you to wonder how they felt in your class after hearing about yet another unarmed Black life erased from this world by police brutality—all because the melanin we see as so beautiful looks like danger to others.
Do you know how it felt for my children when you didn’t say anything about racial injustices at the time of their occurrences? Do you know how it feels for your Black students today?
If your school is anything like the schools where I taught, you’ll be expected to interact with your students’ families at open houses, conferences, and literacy or math nights. On those nights, families are expected to come to school and are often judged harshly if they don’t. I want you to think about this, think about why you are judging them harshly and what assumptions you are making.
During parent-teacher conferences, you will most likely not have a lot of time, so you’ll probably default to talking at families about their children instead of engaging in dialogues withfamilies as partners. I know it’s hard. I’ve been there, too. But I’m asking you now, when it’s time for conferences, when families show up to engage in conversation with you about the most precious people in their lives, please don’t see your contract as a limitation. Use these moments as opportunities to connect, learn and share.
As you well know, the dominant culture in the United States tries to suppress conversations on race. There are numerous reasons for this, most of them related to the maintenance of the power status quo. I’m asking you to help break this damaging practice—especially among adults in your school.
There are certain conversations that take place in teachers’ lounges about students and their families that I find both infuriating and heartbreaking. Too often, teachers are silent in the face of racist, prejudicial, biased or stereotypical comments. I know it’s uncomfortable to confront a colleague. I want you to consider, however, how uncomfortable it makes my family and all other families of color to know that there are people who we’ve entrusted with the care and teaching of our children who think of them as less than—less important, less worthy of our love and attention.
When that moment arises next time—and it will arise—I want you to think of how uncomfortable the students are in that teacher’s classroom, and I want you to speak up on their behalf. If a colleague says something derogatory about a child and/or that child’s family, you must speak up. As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Finally, I know it’s tempting to think that because you teach in a school with a high percentage of Black students, racism isn’t an issue for you. Please know that proximity doesn’t equal awareness. That would be like a male teacher saying, “I can’t be sexist because I have female students.” Know, too, that racial colorblindness isn’t really a thing. While it’s right to treat children equitably, it’s also important to understand how race shapes lives in a racist system.
We all breathe in the smog of oppression, and the only way to expel it is to read, listen, reflect, ask questions and become better as a result of what we learn. I’m here asking you as educators to help lead the way. By improving equity in schools, by becoming truly inclusive learning communities with an effective anti-racist curriculum, we improve both individual lives and equity and justice in society. I’m here for you and I’m rooting for you. As Lilla Watson said, “… your liberation is bound up with mine.”
Afrika Afeni Mills is Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with BetterLesson. She works with teachers, coaches and administrators to transform instructional practices and empower all students to thrive. A former teacher, administrator and prominent thought leader, she has been featured on podcasts discussing the school-to-prison pipeline and white fragility and co-presented Required ...