By Nadia Razi
Teaching African American literature to juniors and seniors means we’ve been discussing current events that affect the Black community every week, all year. In May, the focus of our discussions began unfolding before our eyes. My students watched the video of Ahmaud Arbery being shot to death on a jog, followed shortly by footage of a white police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. Over the following weeks, we would witness an uprising unlike anything my students have seen in their lifetimes.
As school wrapped up for the year and students got involved in local activism, I looked to my school and district leadership for guidance. How can I support my students right now? How can I make sure our Black students feel safe at school? Where can I find resources to talk about these events with them next year? We received nothing. The all-staff emails from our school leaders had no mention of Black Lives Matter, injustice, solidarity, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade … all the topics that my students were already talking about and continued to discuss for weeks into the summer.
After several days of silence, our students finally received a message from school and district leaders, acknowledging that the topic is uncomfortable for people to discuss. The email explained some are afraid to say something that may be insulting or sound insensitive. In response, one of my students said the email left her feeling ostracized and disheartened. She wrote: “During high school, there have been several times when the topic of slavery and the civil rights era arose, and students would turn their heads and stare at me, the only Black girl in that classroom, and force me to give my take on it and share my experiences. But where was the administration sending me an email, letting me know that if I don’t want to talk about it I don’t have to?”
This advocacy from students extends beyond our emails onto social media and in demonstrations in the streets of several towns in our suburban area. Amid the silence from adults in their community, these children have taken on the burden of engaging in difficult discussions with their families and friends, and in my student’s case, the school administration. They are depending on us to do the same. School leaders across the country are just beginning to navigate the issues. Our students already understand. They are aware of modern school segregation and the achievement and opportunity gaps. They recognize discipline practices that disproportionately harm Black and brown students. They understand the importance of culturally competent mental health and counseling support for students who not only experience trauma from watching people who look like them being murdered but understand the history of systemic racism, police brutality, and the legacy of slavery that led to where we are today. I watched them learn it in my class and they are ready to act.
Since my student wrote her email, though social media attention has dwindled amid ongoing violence, educational leaders across the state have spoken up. Tony Thurmond, State Superintendent of Public Instruction; Gavin Newsom, Governor; Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California; E. Toby Boyd, President of the California Teachers Association have all stressed the importance of engaging in anti-racism practices and working to reform the unjust systems that exist in our school districts. The California Department of Education committed to training their employees in implicit bias and have created guidance for school districts in dismantling systemic racism in education.
But ultimately, our school districts are responsible for our own anti-racism efforts. Especially during distance learning, teachers need help creating safe spaces for our students of color to learn and thrive. We need to encourage direct, honest discussions about the role each of us plays in perpetuating racism in our schools, whose voices we’re amplifying in our curriculum, and whose stories aren’t being told. With the necessary training and curriculum, we can recognize systemic racism in our schools and learn how to dismantle it. If we hope to support our students in their anti-racism education, we need systems in place to allow for our own professional learning. Districts can choose to engage in school-based book studies, invest in long-term anti-racism and implicit bias programs through Black-owned consulting firms, and provide professional development that fosters culturally relevant pedagogy. All summer, there has been an outpouring of resources for educators to address racism. Now we need strong leaders, who uplift students and teachers of color, to guide us.
District leaders must understand the gravity of this responsibility at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. As we await guidance on what our schools will look like in the fall, and work through the challenges of distance learning, we cannot allow anti-racism education to be pushed aside. School district leaders must take on a crucial role in affirming students like mine who are depending on us to respond to this moment and break the silence.
Nadia Razi teaches African American Literature and AVID at Foothill High School in Pleasanton, California. She is a 2019–20 Teach Plus California Policy Fellow.