By: Nicole O’Connell, Secondary ELA Teacher
I have been thinking a lot about what to say lately or if I should say anything at all. My voice isn’t the one that should be heard right now, but I also know that my voice (a white voice) is one that many will listen to. And so right now I think that speaking up is exactly what I need to do. But then I ask you to please listen to the voices in our community that have been silenced for too long. We cannot ignore what they have to say.
I am a white teacher of black and brown students. And I am terrified for them. Of the hatred. Of the injustice. Of what could happen to them when they are going to the corner store. Of when they are playing outside. Of when they are walking home. Of when they are playing basketball in the park. Of when they are in their places of worship. Of when they are outside of school. Of when they go for a run. Of when they are living their lives.
And I am angry.
I am a white teacher of black and brown students. And I listen to their stories of racism, the times they’ve been afraid and felt hate based on what they look like, the snap judgements of who they must be. We have discussions about what their reality is. And when I get home I cry. I cry for their experiences. I cry that what should be unacceptable is somehow accepted. I cry that society sees them as throwaways and can’t see them as I do.
And I am heartbroken.
I am a white teacher of black and brown students. And to say their skin doesn’t matter denies who they are. But they are also funny and smart and compassionate. They read books and write poetry and get nervous about presentations. They play sports and paint incredible artwork. They have dreams of their futures and encourage each other when they are struggling. They are future doctors and lawyers, nurses and engineers, teachers and firefighters. They have deep and important conversations about the world and in the same breath they quote lines from their favorite movie. They sing in the stairwells and write short stories that make you literally laugh out loud. They have unique and amazing personalities. They are each so wildly and beautifully wonderful.
And I am amazed by them every day.
I am a white teacher of black and brown students. And you don’t see them the way I do. So I am afraid for them. And you can’t tell me that my fears aren’t real, that they aren’t justified. Because you forget that I hear the things you say, I see you try to justify and talk about “bad apples” and “well his past!” and “but the riots!” and crime in urban areas as if I don’t know that you’re trying to justify your own racism and privilege.
And I am fed up with the excuses.
I am a white teacher of black and brown students. And I turn on the news and cry at what I see. I cannot explain the fear that one day I’m going to see a face that I love above a hashtag. And that you’ll drag out your tired excuses and justifications and halfhearted support and say “well Nicole…you can’t make this about race” just like you have before. So many times before.
And I am deeply afraid.
I am a white teacher of black and brown students. And I am terrified but I know that my fear can’t hold a candle to theirs. As scared as I am, I haven’t lived their experiences and don’t know what it’s like to have my skin color make me a target of hate and injustice. I don’t know what it’s like to be afraid of the people who are supposed to protect me. My parents never sat me down to have the conversation that black and brown parents have with their children about the police. They didn’t need to. My whiteness protects me. I don’t have to be afraid that I will be seen as a threat and not a human.
And so I refuse to be silent.
I am a white teacher of black and brown students. And I can’t just be not racist, I have to be anti racist. I need to have uncomfortable conversations about my own privilege, my own biases, and take a hard look at my part in institutionalized racism so that I can work to help dismantle it. I need to objectively look at my curriculum and decolonize it. I have to actively speak out against racism each and every time I see it. And I have to show up, I have to listen, I have to continue to learn and do the hard work.
Because I am a white teacher of black and brown students I will never be silent. I can’t be. Their lives are too important to me.