The Students are Watching

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Blog Image | Students Walking

The other day I asked my two Black children if they ever had any antiracist teachers. They paused, unsure how to answer. After an extended silence, I asked them if their teachers ever did anything racist. “Definitely,” they said. They provided me with examples, such as the curriculum the teachers used, or the ways in which a teacher made them feel, or their ability to trust a teacher enough to talk to them about racism.

My daughter reminded me of something that happened when she was in fifth grade. I have her permission to share her story, but marginalized people should not have to remind the dominant culture of their inherent value to have their humanity recognized. 

During a read-aloud, shortly before winter break, her white teacher was trying to get students to imagine themselves in front of a warm fire. “Imagine you are sitting in front of your fireplace. You are wearing your coziest clothes, and you have a warm cup of hot chocolate,” she said.

At that moment, a white student sitting next to my daughter patted my daughter’s head and said, “I have my hot chocolate right here.”  

The teacher said nothing, and my child sat there silently mortified. She told me the story when she got home from school with tears in her eyes.  

“I’m so sorry you had your first microaggression,” I said. 

To be clear, a microaggression – a thinly veiled everyday instance of racism through the form of a comment, gesture or insult – is not micro in its impact at all. Microaggressions are expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and fear of “the other.” They can, and often do, cause lasting damage and make classrooms and schools unsafe for marginalized students and educators. When I asked my daughter if she was going to talk to the teacher about it, she said that she would not. She anticipated the teacher would encourage her to get over it because it wasn’t a big deal. I am confident that if my daughter had any indication the teacher would act on her behalf, she would have immediately gone to her for support. We never followed up with the teacher because my daughter did not trust that the teacher would take her concerns seriously or recognize the comment was racist.  

My daughter believed she had all the information she needed when the teacher remained silent. Therein lies the problem.

When educators are silent about racism, marginalized students assume the educator is comfortable with the status quo. This is unacceptable. At CARE, we believe recognizing race and confronting racism is necessary to be an antiracist educator. Recognizing race and confronting racism includes being able to speak comfortably about your own racialized identity, challenging racist ideas in texts, and naming antiracism as your goal. When you can do this, students and families will no longer question your support when the inevitable racist incident occurs in school, the community, or the country.

Here are some additional ways to proclaim your antiracist educator stance: 

  • Make antiracism part of your classroom culture through your classroom community agreements. This can be done by defining racism, explaining to students how racist actions will be addressed in your classroom, and then following through. 
  • Provide space to talk about racism and how it is impacting students. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of racist incidents happening all around the country. Students want and need to process and make sense of the world around them. Even when students aren’t ready to open up with you, you can open the door for them by talking through your own reactions to current events. 
  • Welcome feedback from students. If a student is brave enough to tell you a text you have assigned or a comment you made is racist, consider it a gift. Feel the impact. Does it make you sad, embarrassed, confused? This is your moment to listen, develop your critical consciousness and act differently.  

Although my daughter was the most impacted by the hot chocolate comment; she was not the only student impacted that day. Bystanders, especially young people, are also adversely impacted by racism. The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that youth who are bystanders to racism experience “profound physiological and psychological effects” when asked to recall the memory. The organization goes on to explain that active antiracist interventions can lead to the wellbeing of all children. 

Thankfully, our family has had open conversations about race and racism since she was three years old, so we were able to talk through the incident and continue to investment in her positive racial identity. What about those other students? Who did they process with that day? What lessons did they learn? What investments are being made in their sense of self? Are they wondering now if they have a teacher they can trust? We don’t know. But we do know the students are watching.

To be clear, a microaggression – a thinly veiled everyday instance of racism through the form of a comment, gesture or insult – is not micro in its impact at all.