Let’s talk about race

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As I was walking towards the VP’s office today, I passed a student putting up a mural. I teach at an Arts magnet school, and every Spring sees another round of grade 12 students painting over wall space and creating a mural as part of their final Visual Arts project. It’s one of my favourite times of year, and I’ve been thinking about writing about it – I have loads of great pictures to share. But when I walked by Mankaasha Umba quietly hanging one gel print after another, mug shot after mug shot, my breath stopped in my chest.

Mankaasha was carefully displaying her critique of our racism in the hallway right by the VP’s office.

I don’t know her at all, but I stopped to say thanks. “This is just what we need. Can you tell me about it?” Oh yes, she could. These are pictures of her brother, a fourth year university student who plans to continue school and work in cancer research. This is not how she sees her brother, but it is how too many others perceive him.

She and I chatted for probably 10 minutes. We talked about racism in the school and in the world. We talked about perception: how when I talk about racism, I am “passionate” but if she brings it up she is “angry;” how her brother had been followed home by police officers who were “just making sure” he wasn’t loitering; how even in this day and age, she’s had English teachers in our school teach books with the “n-word” but  not even bother to discuss it. We talked about how she struggles more with the subtle racism of the every day than the overt racism of the special occasion. She said, “Go ahead and call me any name you want, I can handle that. But I don’t know how to fight what people never even say.”

She talked about how frustrated she gets because White teachers don’t want to talk about race for fear of making mistakes. She said, “other people have a voice, too. I don’t need to be the one calling this out all the time.” I admitted to being scared sometimes – even in our conversation – that I will say the wrong thing, but I’ve decided that the discussion is too important to avoid. She talked about how Black people have no choice but to talk about it whereas White people get to decide whether or not to engage. We talked about #BlackLivesMatter and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and Jason Reynolds and Miles Morales and so much more. Finally I asked her if I could write about this and she said yes.

While we talked, people passed by and stopped. And stopped. And stopped. “Yes,” they said. “Yes.”

“This is great,” they said. “Amazing.”

I think Mankaasha has just changed our school. I am so damn impressed I can hardly stand it. These kids, they are going to change the world. It gives me shivers to think about it. Mankaasha, thanks for starting the conversation.

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16 thoughts on “Let’s talk about race

  1. What an incredibly powerful piece of art! And what a conversation! I am so glad she gave you permission to write about this, because I’ll be thinking about this piece of writing for the rest of the day. Thanks for such a thought-provoking piece!

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  2. Such a powerful statement she is making and now you are sharing it widely. We do need to think about this and talk about it and then change it. Thanks!

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  3. Sounds like a really impactful project! Like you, I think racism is too important not to discuss, even though I’m sometimes not sure if I’m doing it right. I love that Mankeesha used her project to educate others.

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  4. Amanda, thank you for sharing your conversation with Mankaasha. What stands out for me is her openness and willingness to speak honestly. By simply asking her to say more, you created space for her to expand on her thoughts expressed through her art. You listened and held the space for her to continue to talk about her concerns, fears, perceptions. This matters deeply. Perhaps this is one of the primary misconceptions that whites have about race conversations, that they need to speak. Fear of saying the wrong thing arises from a fear of putting oneself at the center and being on display and vulnerable. Perhaps we should be saying race *listening*. “So you want to listen and learn about race” might be a more useful guide. Your conversation illustrates this so well. And although I spend plenty of time thinking (and writing) about listening, about race and racism, and conversation – this particular insight has not occurred to me in this form. Nicole Furlonge has a book about listening and race conversations. https://twitter.com/NicoleFurlonge I haven’t read it yet but I am reminded now to do that. All this to say, thank you, thank you, thank you on so many levels for continuing the conversation and listening to students. And sharing your listening with us.

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  5. This: “Go ahead and call me any name you want, I can handle that. But I don’t know how to fight what people never even say.” is wonderful and so on target.

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