Our students want to know more than we are telling them.
I teach a class in which my predominantly White juniors and seniors teach all of the predominantly White freshmen and sophomores about racial literacy and social justice.
I teach this class in a small town in Iowa.
Day one is all about identity and Lillie—White, female, junior—takes a deep breath and collects her thoughts after she has asked a room full of sophomores to write down the things about themselves they value most and then cross them off one by one. As said breath exits her body, she speaks these words:
I see how bad it felt for you to cross off these parts of your identity. Some of you didn’t want to do it. Some of you refused to do it, and this isn’t even real. What if I told you that people walk through the world, our town, this school being forced to cross off pieces of their identity? What if I asked you how we, as students, make each other erase our identities to become what we think is good?
Lillie wouldn't be dropping insightful truth bombs like this if she hadn't experienced life outside of her isolated White community first. She's spent three years learning.
In those three short years, she has taken my African American Literature and Social Justice courses, traveled with me through the American South to learn the truth about American oppression and the resistance to that oppression, traveled with me to Collins Academy in North Lawndale to spend the day at an aquarium with students who live in an isolated Black community in Chicago, and now takes this class—a project-based learning social justice class that aims to do nothing short of changing the world by loving it well.
So, when Lillie and her classmates decided to start teaching racial literacy by first teaching about identity, I thought, yep, these kids are going to change the world.
We Want to Know and Be Known By Others
People are bias-filled and broken and they want to know and be known by others. And this includes us. It includes our students.
White students need racial literacy and social justice-driven curriculum in order to eradicate the biases that create systemic racism. More than needing it, they want it. Even when they don’t know they want it, they want it.
As I walk through doing this exact thing with students, over and over again they say, “Why aren’t we learning this?”
They feel betrayed. And I wonder if they aren’t learning this because we teachers haven’t fully learned it. Because we haven’t undone the work that was done in us during our youth. Because we haven’t examined our biases and poured out our broken hearts to preach truth and reconciliation in our classrooms.
So yes, White students need this and want this, but, teachers—so do we.
How Do We Undo What Was Done?
Educators can do this well by learning from experts of color, by reading everything you can get your hands on, by examining your own heart, by teaching and failing and teaching again. Because as we teach a fuller truth for fuller humanity, we are all changed.
Leigh Ann Erickson is a high school teacher at Mount Vernon Community Schools, Iowa. She has designed and built a curriculum for teaching cross-cultural understanding and acceptance to high school students. After teaching in NYC and Chicago public schools, Erickson learned firsthand the unjust challenges and barriers students of color face in school. In Mt. Vernon, she works to teach her ...