Our Political Leaders Might Be Sleep But My Students Are Woke

Mar 17, 2017 12:00:00 AM


Leaders within our new administration seem to be embracing a revisionist narrative of our country’s tortured history with race that is at best uninformed, and at worst, malicious. Take, for instance, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s awkward comment referring to slaves as “immigrants,” or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ remarks celebrating historically Black colleges and universities as exemplars of school choice. Irrespective of intent, remarks like these reveal a white-washed view of history in which the brutal subjugation of an entire people is erased and papered over with manufactured nostalgia. As an educator of students of color, this brand of revisionism is anathema to the social justice curriculum my students are demanding. But while our leaders may appear to be asleep at the wheel when it comes to racial justice, our young people are remarkably woke. Perhaps, then, it is time for adults, especially teachers, to step back and let our students lead our public dialogue about race.

Unfiltered Truths About Race

Across America,  students like mine are already leading important conversations about race and power. Recently, my 10th-graders gave presentations on Shakespeare’s “Othello ,” using the play’s themes as a starting point for independent research. Two students—I’ll call them Candace and Maya—decided that, rather than merely creating a PowerPoint presentation, they would enact  Jane Elliott’s “Brown Eyes-Blue Eyes” experiment as a demonstration of racism’s arbitrariness. I had concerns. In a diverse classroom like mine, this experiment was sure to touch a nerve. Compounding my apprehension was the fact that it would require me (a self-professed control freak) to relinquish control into their hands. On the day of their presentation, Candace and Maya directed students to seats based on eye color. Brown-eyed students were seated in front, offered snacks and showered with praise. Blue-eyed students were seated in the back and ignored, much to their annoyance. After several tense minutes, Candace and Maya explained the purpose of the experiment and connected it to themes of marginalization in “Othello.” Then, they facilitated a raw and candid discussion about racial identity, microaggressions and systemic racism in schools. What was supposed to be a seven-minute presentation about a work of literature unfolded into an impromptu fifty-minute seminar in which unfiltered truths about race were articulated through the voices of people too young to drive, and in which sometimes struggling students revealed themselves as thoughtful scholars and philosophers. “[pullquote]We might be a diverse school, but we’re still segregated[/pullquote],” one girl observed. A classmate offered, “I think it’s less about skin color and more about having common experiences and common interests.” At one point, the conversation turned to the racial dynamics of the school. “Ms. Hughes is cool and all, but why don’t we have a Black teacher for African-American history?” one student wondered aloud. Another responded, “It’s like that across the whole district. There just aren’t that many Black teachers.” Students even picked up on the subtle racial stratification between our primarily White administration, majority White licensed staff and support staff of color—a politically charged (and pervasively underreported) issue in school districts nationwide. “Ms. Andrea is the best,” Maya professed, praising a Black associate educator in our building. “She would make a great teacher, but she’s not licensed.” When pressed to theorize why this was the case, students asserted, “It’s really expensive to get licensed, and the tests discriminate. And, people of color don’t get the same education as Whites, and they face discrimination in hiring.” At the end of the period, Candace and Maya concluded with a closing plea, [pullquote position="right"]“All we want is equality.”[/pullquote]

Allow Young People to Lead

Every major social movement in recent history has been not only buttressed, but led by students: in classrooms, on the streets and across campuses. One of the most difficult but important lessons that every educator—and every adult—eventually learns is when to drop the reins and allow young people to lead. We were only able to experience the power of Candace and Maya’s lesson because I challenged them with a meaningful goal and then got out of their way. For teachers, these are the rare moments that give us hope. This hope comes from knowing that my students are able to use literature to open a door to conversations that are vital not despite, but because of their difficulty and complexity. This hope comes from seeing students of different races actually talking to one another candidly and with mutual respect. And ultimately, it comes from the enduring belief that, with love and guidance, our young people will continue the work of bending history’s long arc toward justice.

Christopher Mah

Christopher Mah is a first-year English teacher in the Minneapolis Public School District and member of Educators for Excellence-Minnesota. He blogs at Real Talk EDU.

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