If You Think Racism is Too Political For Your Classroom, Think About What Your Silence Says

By: Sonja Cherry-Paul

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Photo: Megan Soule

Dear Educator,

So you’ve tweeted, and retweeted, and shared articles and inspirational quotes, and posted your expressions of disbelief and despair about Charlottesville. I have one question. “What are you going to do now?”

  1. Listen! Listen to and think deeply about the experiences of people of color. It shouldn’t take a mob of White supremacists with Tiki torches to prove that racism is real. Listen to and learn the ways that racism operates, institutionally and systematically. Seek out and listen to the voices of First Nations people, African-Americans, Latinx, and Asian Americans in order to really understand that racism is more than isolated or individual acts of hate. Be careful not to make your voice and experience, and the privilege afforded to Whites in America, the center of the work.
  2. Plan! Prominent civil rights leader, esteemed congressional representative, and award winning author John Lewis has said that it’s time to tell the truth, the whole truth about the history of racism in America. What steps will you need to take to accomplish this truth telling in your classroom? In your school? Email your Superintendent, Principal, Assistant-Principal, Director of Curriculum and Instruction. Ask them about their plans to help you and your colleagues discuss Charlottesville. Ask for leadership and resources that can be used in the classroom. If they don’t hear from you, perhaps they too will resume the “business as usual” plan.
  3. Act! In the wake of Charlottesville, what will you say to students on their first day of school? Will you deliver the usual “first-day spiel?” Will you move forward with content rather than racial justice curriculum? Here are the first words I plan to say to my students in a few weeks:

“This year, our focus will be on racial justice, and it is the most important work we can do together. We will learn a great deal about reading and writing, but understanding how racism and injustice operates will be at the core of all we do. My vision for our classroom is that it is a safe space for us to have courageous conversations. I’ll need your help to make this vision a reality. When we discuss challenging issues, we are all going to make mistakes and this includes me. Sometimes, we won’t always know what to say, and I expect that we will mess up quite a bit without any intent to cause harm. We’ll need to give ourselves permission to do so. So the second thing I’m asking for is your patience. But I promise you that we will get better at these discussions over time.”

I’m still smoothing this out, but hopefully you can see how planning is essential to acting effectively.

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