Living While Black
2022 has had its year of national and international headlines of Black persons not belonging in predominantly white spaces. Amid a mass evacuation in western Ukraine, Africans were turned away at Ukrainian borders while white citizens and immigrants were given the privilege to escape dire conditions in the brink of war. Despite having the necessary credentials to prove their identity and reasoning for being in Ukraine, many Africans were left to deduce that they were being denied the right to survive and live because of the color of their skin. In America, Tesla has been sued by Black employees for “offensive racial harassing conduct so severe and pervasive that it created a hostile work environment” and being expected to perform difficult tasks in a segregated area known as “the dark side”, according to California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH).
Teaching While Black
These stories resonated with me. As a Black, gay, male English teacher, I have found myself having to navigate in white spaces where I didn’t feel like I belong. I felt that I was often judged for simply existing. Despite my credentials and experience, I had to codeswitch my language and assimilate to a culture that didn’t make space for me. My presence infiltrated the borders of my predominantly white colleagues. Since I felt this way as a professional, I began to grow concern for how the Black students felt in this predominantly white space.
I realized that I needed to make room. I became the advisor of the African American Student Union (AASU) and I requested to create a homeroom for its members. This provided me an opportunity to create an affinity space every day for at least ten minutes. My classroom only had 28 chairs; however, I had 35 students on my roster which was 50% percent of the Black student population. The total student body at my school is 2,300. The energy in this space was what we needed. In these ten minutes, I had the opportunity to build relationships with my students. We discussed pop culture, discussed their school experiences and microaggressions, learned the latest viral dances, I checked on their heart, I gave them advice for their soul, but most importantly I saw them for who they were. In predominantly white spaces, Black students simply want to be safe and to be seen.
At the conclusion of the school year, I decided to make more room by honoring the seniors of AASU with the inaugural Donning of the Kente Ceremony. The Kente cloth is a Ghanian woven cloth of bright colors that is worn for celebratory occasions and rites of passage. The Kente Ceremony is a tradition that is celebrated in high schools and colleges across the country. It is an opportunity to recognize the academic and personal achievements of a graduating class and to encourage them to accept the challenge to continue to strive for Black excellence in their personal, academic, and professional endeavors. At my campus, the advisors and the assistant principal of student activities donned the participating students with Kente stoles to wear for their commencement.
There was so much Black joy during this event. Students were excited about being recognized for their high school accomplishments and the obstacles they overcame to earn their high school diploma. They shared their post secondary plans. We hugged, cried, cheered, and finally felt that this was our school, too. This tradition will continue for many years to come.
School Districts Must Do More
The Donning of the Kente Ceremony is not enough to deal with Black students’ microaggressions they’ve experienced during their high school tenure. Schools must provide professional development for teachers and town hall meetings for students on the impact of microaggressions. Students of color and marginalized communities should have access to affinity spaces within their school and access to teachers and staff members who can advocate on their behalf. This requires school administration and school districts’ human resources department on being intentional about diversifying staff and learning environments. Black students’ confidence and academic ability should not suffer in predominantly white spaces. Black educators’ confidence and teaching experience should not be negatively impacted in predominantly white spaces. To build an inclusive learning environment, we must make room for all.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Colleen Cruz (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).