Earlier this month, Sherri over at Sherri’s Slice of Life Project asked if any of us were thinking about race and, if we were, challenged us to write about it during the month. I think about race a lot for various reasons, but I’ve struggled to find the right story to tell. Today, I’m sharing one. I have others that I will share over time. I share this one with a pounding heart and the sincere hope that others will recognize that I am striving to do better.
I found my former student in his English class. He knew why I was there. So we walked.
I said, “I heard about X’s class. You want to talk about it?”
Pause for a moment: I am a White woman from a privileged background; he is a young biracial man whose single mother works hard to make sure they have what they need. I probably wasn’t the ideal person for him to speak to. But I’m all he’s got in this school. It’s me or someone like me because in a school with about 80 teachers only two are people of colour. Neither of them chooses to emphasize that part of themselves in the school. Neither of them is Black or biracial, either.
“It’s just… we don’t even talk about this stuff in class. I feel like we should at least talk about it…” His voice trailed off.
The “stuff” was racism. His mother had called the school to complain about racism in his English class. The teacher had shown two movies with images of lynchings, images of the KKK, and White characters using “the hard R” (I had to look it up), and had not discussed or contextualized any of it. The images and the words were not central to either film, but they were present. During the second movie, this student walked out. No one else did.
My student was frustrated. “It’s just… no one else cares about this. And this is the only time we’ve even seen Black people this semester. And it’s like it’s not even happening, like it’s just normal or invisible. And…”
After a long conversation, I asked him what he would like to see happen next. He said he just wanted to talk about these things in the class. He wanted the teacher to acknowledge what they were seeing and hearing. I asked who he would like to lead this discussion. His teacher? Absolutely not. We cast about for the right person. Finally he said, “Well, you could do it.”
First I said ok. Then I said no. I know the kids in the class, and I love talking with them and listening to them and helping them think about things. But how could I place myself in front of them as the right person to lead this discussion in a room where race was being ignored? It felt wrong to me. That said, who else could speak to the issue of racism?
And this is the crux of it: I could only think of one Black man who might be able to talk to the class. So I got in touch with him. It still makes me feel sick.
I asked a well-known Canadian spoken word poet to come to our school – not because of his incredible work but because of his skin colour. I told him that this is what I was doing. I told him that I was asking because I really wanted to honour my student. I really wanted him to know that someone was listening, that someone was trying.
This wonderful poet agreed, then declined, then agreed again. I think he and I were having similar misgivings. At best, his presence – the presence of an award-winning poet with black skin – would be a band-aid. Neither of us thought that anything in the school would change. Neither of us thought that what we were doing was a solution or even an adequate response. In the end, I think I asked and I think he came because we wanted that young man to know someone cared.
I think it was the wrong choice.
Oh, the presentation was wonderful. He said things that I didn’t know, that I couldn’t know. He said things that I couldn’t say. He was honest and open and thoughtful. He engaged many of the students in the classroom, not just the one who had complained, not just the students of colour. He was great.
I had asked that both the teacher and the Vice Principal attend and they did. For a brief moment I thought maybe they had heard, maybe this wasn’t just a band-aid. But in the end, the teacher neglected to mention the presentation the next day, and continued on with class as usual. The payment for the poet was inexplicably delayed. The student’s mother ended up calling the board office to complain.
And me? I had used a man for his skin colour rather than for himself. No wonder there was no change.