The other day I was recording an episode of my podcast with 11th graders at a school on the far south-side of Chicago. During our conversation about their experiences as Black students in a historically racist public school system and the inequitable distribution of resources, one of the young ladies began her response to a question with, “Well, because they [White people on the north-side] are more high-class …”
Everything she said after “high-class” sounded like, “Womp, womp, womp, womp … womp” because I was having my own conversation in my head:
Me: Did she really just say that???
Self: Girl, yes she did!
Me: Wow! Okay, just making sure I’m not trippin’.
This mentality—this thinking right here is the acid that has persistently eroded Black Americans' sense of identity and value, individually and collectively.
The notion that we’re “less than” has been reinforced by White privilege, mainstream media that loves to perpetuate colorism, oppressive institutions and prejudiced ideological constructs dating back to the day we stepped foot on this land as enslaved Africans.
So after that moment of clarity, I took a break from recording to address the comment. The young lady seemed embarrassed and apologized profusely, believing she’d said something wrong. I assured her that there was nothing to be sorry for, affirmed her identity and presence as an intelligent, strong, worthy, young Black woman and topped it off with, “It’s okay—we all have some unlearning to do. But now you know.”
While Black History Month is the perfect time to begin some of this unlearning, I don’t expect any of us to go hard for 29 days (we’re in a leap year) and emerge on March 1st as brand new Black people. Realistically, the illusion of inferiority has been a curse in our communities for generations, so to gradually shift from that brainwashing to self-actualization will take time.
But the journey has to begin somewhere and I think the best place to start is with chipping away at the faith we have in our public school system.
Even though I fantasize about every Black parent snatching their child out of public schools to bankrupt the system, I know throwing the whole thing away will have a negative effect on us, too (similar to the aftermath of Brown v. Board when Black educators lost their jobs and our communities were further destabilized). But if you’re one of those people who think the public school system is doing everything it can for Black kids, let me let you know right now that it’s not. In fact, it was never designed to truly educate Black kids. If you need receipts, here you go:
First, why would a country that once persecuted our ancestors for attempting to learn how to read and then later enact laws that put restrictions on the extent to which we could learn have a change of heart? It wouldn’t—a leopard doesn’t change its spots.
Second, if we don’t trust the criminal “justice” system, why would we trust a public school system built by the same White men whose main interests are protecting their power and privilege? The public school system grooms Black people at an early age to enter into the criminal “justice” system by reprimanding, suspending and expelling them from school at disproportionate rates—impressing upon these young minds that they’re delinquents. And they’ve strategically built the school-to-prison pipeline to not only deter Black people from getting an education, but to continue the industry of profiting off of chattel slavery through mass incarceration. It’s all connected.
And because of the aforementioned, we also have to detach ourselves from the definitions of “perfection” and “achievement” set by White supremacy culture with the ultimate goal of keeping us “in our place.” That’s how we’ve gotten caught up in this whole “achievement gap” nonsense that paints an utterly ridiculous picture of Black kids not being able to achieve at the same level as White kids.
Is there an “achievement” gap? Nah. Is there an opportunity gap? Hell yeah!
These are just a few examples of where we can start. But, we’d be irresponsible not to coalesce this unlearning with self-taught knowledge for the purposes of affirming cultural identity and communal empowerment.
The way I see it is, Sankofa is our foundation and the principles of Kwanzaa are our building blocks. We need to know who and where we came from—greatness, struggle and glorious overcoming—to develop a clear vision of where we’re going and how to get there.
This means creating our own supplemental educational systems that disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and help our kids to realize their full potential. We have to become scholars of our own history, tell those stories and set our own standards for success and excellence. And we have to assume the power this country is so afraid of us having.
I think I’m making this all sound easy, but it won’t be. We have over 400 years of unlearning and learning to do. In fact, the process of unhinging ourselves from believing in the education system alone seems cumbersome.
Buy y’all, the perceived “risk” of unlearning is not only necessary, it’s absolutely worth the reward of discovering ourselves. If we just take it one step at a time, we can get there. Start right now during Black History Month and take every opportunity to instill in a young person that they’re worthy, valuable, destined for greatness and most definitely high-class.
Tanesha Peeples is driven by one question in her work—“If not me, then who?” As the former Deputy Director of Activist Development for brightbeam, Tanesha merges the worlds of communications and grassroots activism to push for change in the public education system. Her passion for community and relentless mission for justice and liberation drive her in uplifting and amplifying the voices and ...