Racism is not just happening in the streets of America. It’s everywhere. In every profession, including in the field of education. The first time I experienced outright racism was such a shock to my system that I froze. I had no words.
It was during my first year teaching. I moved to North Carolina alone. My family was back home in Pennsylvania and I just took the leap to come to a state that loved its teachers and proved it. Things have changed. That’s another piece for another time. I moved here with no family and no prior connections. I was so excited to begin my career. I knew I’d be that teacher who wore dresses and heels everyday. My students and I would be happy and learn together. My principal would be so impressed and I’d be full of joy living my dream.
Well, things didn’t go exactly according to my dream. One day I was called into a meeting with parents who were upset with me. I had no idea why. All I remember is the father saying “Well why is this n*gger teacher with my son in the first place?” Immediately, my heart stopped and I froze. While one administrator was responding the other had her hand on my leg attempting to console me as I’m sure I looked extremely upset. My body began to shake and I heard the words “Nevertheless, I’m sure she is doing her best to make your son feel comfortable.”
That was it. I was physically and mentally done. Did I just hear that word? Did I not hear any form of support let alone correcting the obvious racist disrespect I was a direct victim of. I went home and cried. I also did not return to that school and moved from the town. If a parent could talk to me that way what would stop anyone else, including a police officer?
I recently had a discussion with some fellow Black educators about our experiences and one interesting comment was “Why does it seem to happen to Black women more often than Black men in the education field.” It could be because 80% of educators are women in North Carolina. It could be because women are less likely to be in administrative roles early in their careers. I don’t have the answer but it’s a good question.
The latest events of Black people being mistreated, harassed, and even murdered because of the color of their skin is nothing new. We have been second class citizens since August of 1619. Over 400 years of oppression that led to striping native cultures, separating families, mutilation, manipulation, rape, murder, rejection of constitutional rights, and so much more has continued throughout history. Yes, it still happens today. That cannot be denied. The only difference is it is being videoed and shared internationally. Protests have broken out in London, Paris, etc. And even a Korean music group’s fandom has matched a donation in response to recent events. The total is $2 million.
It all reminds me of when The Little Rock Nine began to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas in the fall of 1957. People all over the nation saw the horrific response from White citizens who were upset that their privilege and comfortable way of life was being visually broadcasted and shared in newspapers and on television. It caused a national outrage realizing Black citizens were brutally assaulted and killed for just wanting basic civil rights and liberties.
What happened to George Flyod, Aubrey Abram, Rayshard Brooks, Eric Garner, Bothem Jean, Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Mike Brown, Treyvon Martin, Tamir Rice and so many others serves as incredible and almost unbelievable public notice that racism is alive and well. It also continues to be true that lesser known names of victims of police brutality include Black women who died at the hands of those who took an oath to protect them. Some of their names are Shantal Davis, Korryn Gaines, Tanisha Anderson, Bettie Jones, Atatiana Jefferson, Dominique Clayton, Rekiya Boyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and countless more.
We can not forget our sisters who should still be here. They are victims of crimes so heinous yet are often being left behind and not acknowledged during protests and public outcries. Some of these womens weren’t just killed, they were also sexually assaulted and even raped. In a 2015 publication called The Violent State: Black Women ‘s Invisible Struggle Against Police Violence by Michelle S. Jacobs of University of Florida Levin College of Law stated that cases involving Black women tend to have “very low visibility among mainstream anti-violence groups.” This must change if racism is going to be dismantled and destroyed.
It is true that companies such as Quaker Oats, Amazon, and Coca-Cola have made public statements of solidarity directly related to the current #BlackLivesMatter movement. The New York Times reported that various companies reject racism and they value black voices. That’s great that we are finally being recognized as important consumers but when will they show that solidarity in their board rooms as well?
That’s what is next. We must hold policy makers, law enforcement officers, and yes parents accountable for their racist behavior and not allow it to infiltrate our daily lives. This includes my and all the other classrooms. Since that day, I have been a victim of other coworkers’ racist attitudes but the difference is now I’m not afraid to call it what it is. And it’s not me needing time to think about why I’m upset. I’m not “just being emotional.” I’m speaking up and calling out.
My experiences with racism hurt deep. And it didn’t stop there. But what stopped was me not speaking out and using my voice. Several times I’ve had to remind colleagues in a professional manner that I have no problem correcting their racially toned comments towards me or students. Sometimes lessons were learned, sometimes it fell on deaf ears that refused to accept it was wrong and time to change. If they didn’t hear me then, I’m sure they certainly hear the collective call now.
Now, are we ready to talk about systematic racism in schools such as using property taxes to determine education funding? Yes, we have a long way to go to get to the day’s curriculum is full of diversity and authenticity. I also look forward to the days Black and Brown students are not disproportionately enrolled in honor classes and also not over enrolled in special education programs.
Oh yeah, there’s so much more. I also know now that part of my calling as an educator is to instill my students that every human being is valuable and deserves to be treated with dignity. I really believe, in my heart, that my students will be the ones who will fix all the wrongs. I am encouraged that the students of today are able to think for themselves and show empathy towards one another. I see it demonstrated in the diversity of cafeterias, on playing fields, etc.
NaShonda just recently finished her 20th year teaching in North Carolina Public Schools. Arriving by way of Pennsylvania, she enjoys working with students of all ages and abilities. She’s been featured in TIME magazine for her continued advocacy to improve public education. She lives in Wake County.