Viewing the horror of George Floyd’s murder stunned the nation, galvanizing international protests in a collective demand for justice. Now, whether you experienced the searing pain of combined grief and outrage or simply saw it as a tragic incident, one truth remains for all educators: George Floyd will be in your classroom this fall. The question is, will you see him?
While the man himself will not be there, of course, his embodiment will. In the form of countless African American males in classrooms across this country, George Floyd will be present in your classroom. So will the collection of microaggressions, those everyday racial hostilities that he encounters, that take such an emotional toll on people of color in general and on Black males in particular. Yet when you look at your class, will you notice him or only his skin color? Will you see his humanity, or only your fears? Will you see his trauma and insecurities, or just “an angry black male”?
Not intended as indictments or even as accusations, these questions are meant to spur thought, to compel you to consider the microaggressions students of color experience every day as well as the trauma that ensues. While both subtle and overt instances of racial hostility are a fact of life for all people of color, for black males in particular, the tendency to view them negatively, as guilty of wrongdoing before having actually met them, has detrimental emotional effects. Physically, that hostility can end as it did for George Floyd.
So, if you can move beyond the reflexive response of, “I don’t see color ”—please understand that such a response negates a black student’s existence, indicates that you don’t see him—then it’s important to understand their daily experience:
- The answer to the above questions is too often that skin color is noticed instead of the person, the teacher’s own fear is seen rather than the student’s humanity and students are perceived as angry as opposed to traumatized and insecure. These mistakes start the relationship between students and teachers off on the wrong foot at the outset.
- This tendency not to “see” students is reflected in teachers’ unwillingness to learn names with which they are not familiar, for example. It’s also demonstrated in not calling on black males or doing so only to request “the black perspective.” These behaviors are individually dehumanizing; together, they are microaggressions that alienate students from their own schools.
- The great disparity between disciplining of black males and white students is stark, which statistics firmly support. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that educators are far more likely to invite law enforcement to confront black males, making them three times more likely to be arrested than white students. In addition to being a clear demonstration of white privilege, it is patently unfair to black students.
- The discipline issue is part of a system of unwritten but universally understood racial “rules” created for students of color and that invariably impact black males most severely. Even dress codes are used in this way, making natural hairstyles punishable by suspension or even by prohibition from attending their own graduation. Of course, the amount of time missed from school for such situations has an adverse effect on students’ academic success.
- Students of color in general and black males in particular often are excluded from advanced classes and STEM classes. Making matters worse, high-quality work submitted can bring a plagiarism charge. Moreover, when they have the boldness to select four-year colleges to submit applications, black students often are steered away from them, on the counselor’s assumption that the students don’t qualify. Not only does all of this hinder academic progress, but it also erodes self-confidence unless there is a strong counterbalance.
Singularly, each of these microaggressions can be debilitating. Collectively, the systemic racism they represent has a cumulative effect. It significantly impacts every single George Floyd in your classroom, impeding his ability to breathe freely, to be unencumbered emotionally, physically, and, ultimately, even economically. They deserve better.
What’s more, while you genuinely may not be racist, that’s simply not enough. Educators must be anti-racist. Educators must stand against racist policies, racist actions, racist comments, racist jokes, racist assumptions. Schools can no longer be havens for racism.
Since educating is what we do, we must stand up, speak out and educate those who would persist in perpetuating racism. Each of us must also be willing to assess our own biases, honestly, and with a willingness to override them. The George Floyds in every classroom are relying on our ability to meet this challenge.