We Owe It to Our Students to Do Some Racial Justice Homework This Summer

Jul 1, 2021 12:00:00 AM


This has been the longest year of my teaching career.

Not literally, of course. Like many of you, I’ve worked about 200 days since last August, just as I do every year. Every educator, however, knows exactly what I mean by calling this past year “long.” The stream of ever-changing coronavirus information and our constant adjustments has lent my work a quality I hope never to see again. I am so grateful for the break from teaching afforded by summer. I need a recharge.

If you are anything like me, though, there are some things you have let slip that you need to pick back up now that we have a chance to breathe. Specifically, I’m talking about that other major event of 2020, the one most white people had the luxury of forgetting once the school year started: the movement toward racial justice galvanized by the murder of George Floyd. 

Many of us had such good intentions last summer, in the days before the second wave of coronavirus cases. We read books like “White Fragility and “How to Be an Antiracist.” We made plans for the coming school year and told ourselves we would make conscious moves toward racial justice in our classrooms. Perhaps you can relate, though—the virtual sessions and the in-person protocols quickly consumed the lion’s share of our attention once the year began. The election season—culminating in the events of January 6—vacuumed up the rest of our waning energy. Then Amanda Gorman spoke at the Inauguration, and that little burst of light convinced us that everything might be all right even without our attention. 

We took our foot off the gas completely.

This summer is the time for us to reaccelerate. Implicit bias and systemic racism are not things that will fix themselves; the conviction of Derek Chauvin is not an end to the story of last year. Now that we have a respite from the daily demands of the school building, [pullquote]it is time for us white educators to bring our attention back to the work of racial justice.[/pullquote] We might be forgiven for taking our eyes off the ball during this crazy year, but it would be a mistake not to return to the task at hand.

My Summer Syllabus

Let me share my summer syllabus with you. If you, like me, believe that white educators have a responsibility to address race and racism in our schools, you could follow along. A little bit of homework never hurt a nascent scholar. 

First, I have more to learn. Last summer I read “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. This middle-school text was wonderful, and it filled in many gaps in my knowledge base. This summer, however, I am tackling the source material: “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” Kendi’s National Book Award winner. I must confess that I bought the book some time ago, but only just now have the breathing room to tackle it. Is it possible you have a similar tome sitting on your shelf? Now might be the time to open it up. 

Next, I want to lament. I use this archaic world deliberately because I think that often we white people stuff knowledge into our heads without ever moving it to our hearts. If we take ownership of the injustice of racism—learn to see the part we play in it—we will become better teachers of Black and brown children. As James Baldwin wrote, 

[White people] never confessed their crimes, and they don’t know how to confess their crimes … The only way to get past it is to confess. 

Some of us have become experts at the subject matter of racial injustice; if we don’t personalize it, though, we will never be able to “get past it.”

What Personalization Means to Me

For me this summer, personalization means two things.

  • One, I am examining the role that government policy played in my extended family’s entrance into the middle class. This story is written in the legislation of the New Deal, the GI Bill, and federal housing policy—all areas haunted by structural racism. If I am not careful, I may internalize the false notion of the American meritocracy, believing that my grandparents pulled themselves up by their bootstraps through grit and talent alone. In fact, their white skin played a large role in their rise. I want to lament this privilege I have inherited.
  • Two, I am compelled by the notion of “land acknowledgments.” I have lived in my current house for 16 years—longer than I have ever lived anywhere—but I have only recently come to realize that the property was taken from the Cherokee Nation in the early 1800s. Though I am not quite sure what it means for me to acknowledge that theft, I feel as if some lamentation for the benefit I have accrued from it is in order.

That is my homework. Hopefully, I will be able to do more—but this summer I refuse to accomplish less. You probably have other ideas in mind, though I would love to share mine if you feel so compelled. [pullquote]It’s only a start, this learning and lamenting, but it is an overdue one for so many of us white educators.[/pullquote]

It is time to make good on the work we began last summer. We won’t get graded, but the benefit to our classrooms will be enough to make the assignment worthwhile. We owe it to our students to do a little homework of our own.

Jay Wamsted

Jay Wamsted has taught math at Benjamin E. Mays High School in southwest Atlanta for fourteen years. His writing has been featured in various journals and magazines, including "Harvard Educational Review," "Mathematics Teacher" and "Sojourners." He can be found online at "The Southeast Review," "Under the Sun" and the "TEDx" YouTube channel, where you can watch his 2017 talk “Eating the Elephant: Ending Racism & the Magic of Trust.” He and his wife have four young children, and he rides his bicycle to and from work just about every day. You can contact him on Twitter @JayWamsted or by email, wamsted@gmail.com.    

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