We Can't Protect Our Students From Racism, But We Can Prepare Them to Combat and Reject It

Apr 19, 2021 12:00:00 AM

by Travon Jefferson

On January 6, when an angry mob stormed the Capitol, I was in the middle of teaching my 7th grade English language arts students about the Free African Society in Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic. As notifications pinged on my phone, I tried to keep on teaching. My students were oblivious to what was happening, but I was extremely afraid. I was afraid because this has happened before during the 1898 Wilmington Insurrection. I was afraid because I saw America spiraling into a dystopia.

The following day, my students had many questions about the events that unfolded. “Why did they attack the Capitol, what made them that mad?” “Why didn’t the cops take this seriously?” “What was their motive?”

I had planned a lesson comparing the Wilmington Insurrection to current events, focusing on the idea of “a Black and diverse leadership threatened by white supremacists.” There were parallels, but the outcome was different.

  • In November 1898, a group of white supremacists violently overthrew a diverse and duly elected government in Wilmington, North Carolina.
  • In January 2021, 123 years later, American citizens duly elected a diverse political party with the first Black and Southeast Asian Female Vice President and the first Black Senator in Georgia. The mob that waved the confederate flag and built a noose in the horizon did not prevail.

My students were stunned that something like this could still happen in 2021 and yet, history teaches us differently. To protect our democracy and ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself, we must teach through a racially-conscious lens. Using my knowledge of history and my understanding of power and privilege, I opened my students’ eyes by giving them a full historical narrative of American life post-Civil War to the present day.

[pullquote]My students need to understand how history connects with the present and to do that, it requires teachers like me to confront America’s racial history.[/pullquote] If we are to do the anti-racist work of liberating our children from this terrifying racist reality, all educators must blatantly call out the systemic and overt racism in our society. Our students are going to encounter racist situations and in order for us to prepare them to combat these, we must tell the full history of our country from the perspective of the oppressed. We must start the conversations on race and condemn racism simultaneously if we want our students to value different perspectives and celebrate different cultures.

History doesn’t only affect the past. Just this month, the Georgia legislature passed new laws that are likely to have an outsize, negative effect on Black voters. Teachers with full historical knowledge of America’s racial past will understand how such laws disproportionately suppress voting rights for people of color, just like they did during the Jim Crow South. [pullquote position="right"]If we are to combat and reject racism and to develop students as critical thinkers and change agents, we as educators have an obligation to teach through a racially-conscious lens.[/pullquote]

In my classroom, my students drew conclusions about current events and connected them throughout history. They started asking important questions and drawing important conclusions.

Racism is still a thing and the justice system isn’t always fair. The events from yesterday showed white privilege, and it seems as though when Trump said make America great again, he didn’t mean for people of color.

I can conclude that white privilege exists in today’s world. It is upsetting to see Trump supporters act like this, and some even go on social media and say mean things about people of color.

I can conclude that Black people are treated unfairly because of their skin color and it's white supremacists that were racist to them.

We cannot stop our students from encountering racism, but we can prepare them to combat and reject it. To do this, we must commit to being racially conscious educators.

Travon Jefferson

Travon Jefferson teaches sixth grade social studies at Yes Prep Hobby in the Yes Prep Public Schools in Houston, Texas. He is a 2019-20 Teach Plus Texas Senior Fellow.

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