My educational journey started as a special education student, a label that I would maintain throughout my elementary school years. From first to fourth grade, I attended Laurel Elementary School in Bloomfield, CT. Although I appreciated the education I received at Laurel, my time at the school came with many personal challenges. The lingering stigma of being a special education student contributed to my inability to connect socially with other children.
The mistreatment I received from the mainstream students made me fully aware of where I stood within the school’s social hierarchy. I felt like a second-class citizen within my own school. Being a second-class citizen meant I wasn’t “cool enough” to sit with the popular kids during lunchtime. It also meant being subjected to a barrage of jokes about my significantly darker skin color and West African heritage. I remember being called names such as “Yoo-Hoo,” “Black & Crispy,” and “Hershey’s Chocolatey”—all because I was so much darker in complexion than most of the kids in school. The Lion King jokes were a huge hit with the crowd and they certainly made it a point to run those jokes into the ground. Even at home, my father was infamous for calling me “Stuuuupid” every time I made a mistake or said something that he thought was dumb.
It’s been 26 years since I’ve occupied a special education classroom and, yet, these painful words still linger in my mind. At 37 years old, I’m a two-time college graduate, a husband, father, author, entrepreneur and a successful educator. With that resume, I should be able to sit back, reflect on my accomplishments and be in awe at how far I’ve come, right?
As much as I’d love to do that, the truth is I can’t because eight-year old Kwame still occupies real estate in the depths of my psyche. He still serves as that chip on my shoulder that won’t allow me to be fulfilled with what I’ve accomplished. He still cries whenever he hears whispers of dark-skinned jokes from his classmates and the crippling insults from his father.
Ironically, I believe my childhood trauma has allowed me to be a caring, empathetic teacher for my students, especially my Black students. When I hear the countless stories of teachers using racial slurs towards Black students or presidential candidate Joe Biden casually say that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids,” I’m reminded of how words have the power to perpetuate the racialized trauma that so many Black students endure throughout their K-12 schooling.
Words can either empower or overpower our Black students. As teachers, the words we use to communicate to them can make or break their futures. And, as teachers, we must strive to be on the right side of the pendulum.
Sadly, we still have too many teachers within our education system who weaponize language that reeks of implicit bias, privilege and racism. These teachers have no business teaching children, let alone Black students.
I’m not writing this piece with the intention to elicit apologies. Quite frankly, apologies just infuriate me these days, especially those from well-intentioned and well-meaning white folks. I just want people to be aware and take action. If my personal story empowers you to police racially-charged language that is constantly used to disparage Black students in our education system, that will mean so much more than any apology ever could.
Kwame Sarfo-Mensah is the founder of Identity Talk Consulting, LLC., an independent educational consulting firm that provides professional development and consulting services globally to educators who desire to enhance their instructional practices and reach their utmost potential in the classroom. He is the author of two books, "Shaping the Teacher Identity: 8 Lessons That Will Help Define the ...