BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER ALEXANDER SLAUGHTER
My journey did not begin as an anti-racist. As a child of a Black father and White mother, I began life with the colorblind mentality. I was led to believe by various authority figures that the United States had solved any forms of racism back in the 1960s with Dr. King. The lessons that I was taught year after year from my Catholic K-8 education was that he did it pretty easily: get a whole bunch of people together, say a profound speech, and *poof* there goes racism! We solved it! Yay!
I, therefore, didn’t catch all of the microaggressions that stung me and my Black classmates, whom I didn’t meet until high school. People often praised me for things I had considered common like holding the door for someone. They also said things like, “You’re not even Black” or “You’re one of the good ones.”
By the time I got to college, I got to hear a gut-wrenching defense of the N-word as someone used to tell me, “If you’re Black and I don’t like you, then you are a (insert N-word here), so don’t get on my bad side.” I didn’t understand that I had the power within me to say no to the obviously misguided, uneducated, and racist peers that I had grown up alongside.
My first teaching assignment placed me at a school with a 96% Black population in the heart of Pittsburgh. We also had a large Black teaching force that was much higher than the national and state average. Unfortunately, my years of colorblind education had not prepared me for how to work with my students. I often thought and said things like: “What does race matter? It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
Here is the problem with that previous statement: no one waits for you to show what’s on the inside before making judgments about you and what you look like on the outside. I realized in my first full year teaching that my students faced a lot of racial adversity. Pittsburgh, like many other places in America, provides ample opportunity for Black students to find structural barriers because of their race.
It wasn’t long before I also felt the hurt and oppression that my students were feeling. My students, all below the age of 14, were coming in feeling the threat of the police, not because they did anything wrong but because their neighborhood was labeled as a place to watch. Students had to hear their neighborhood on the news as a place that was broken and helpless. Students also shared situations in which some of my teaching colleagues carried some of their implicit biases into the classroom and had unknowingly negatively impacted students and caused trauma.
I began to connect that I had been the victim of racist acts my whole life. I had faced the same experiences that my students had faced. My childhood neighborhood had a high Black population but was in no way high crime. This was the profiling I had faced. My glass ceiling had shattered. What was I going to do?
It took 24 years of my life before I realized that race is a defining feature of who we are. Race is a social structure that was created in order to “other” people. When we address race we are using it as a way to separate people by skin shade. Racism is a way to demean and belittle people who are not White. I say this because people who are White are the majority and therefore in a space to oppress others whose views may not be the same. Since race and racism are human-made inventions, we have the power to unmake it and disrupt systems of oppression. So this is my plea to you: begin to reflect and educate yourself on race and systems of oppression.
This work is not just to benefit Black students but also to open and engage dialogue with White students. I have transitioned to a new school where a White middle school student proudly asked, “Why don’t we get to have White history month?” I wanted to get upset. I felt like this was an attack on all of the hard work of many Black Americans who we don’t acknowledge but one time a year. Our curriculums aren’t mentioning major accomplishments of people of color and I felt like Black History Month is the only time that we celebrate anyone who is Black.
I was angry, but instead of responding with anger we had a dialogue regarding all of the White authors, musicians, TV stars, Presidents, and scientists that she knew. When I asked her to name Black people who were represented in the same categories, her answers were limited. I informed her that representation matters and we will continue to educate.
She deserved to have educators who are intelligent on race and oppression and are willing to educate her instead of dismissing her.
Often we look at race as a red button issue, but why? Race is one of the first things we see about a person whether we appreciate it or not. Often, many students tend to stay in their homogenous groups based on race. These students are staying there because they are comfortable in that grouping. I challenge that if we hope to make students that are knowledgeable, compassionate, and critical thinking then we have to teach them about the complexities of more than just one race or culture. We have to go deeper into representation and help students see the value and importance in everyone, especially diverse groups of people.
We need to begin to educate ourselves so that we are equipped to transform the lives of all students. I have spent many summers devouring books, articles, and videos regarding race in the hope to equip myself with enough knowledge and passion to educate not just my students but also any human around me, especially when those pesky microaggressions emerge. The journey begins with reflection and continues with transformation.
This journey is tough, and not everyone is always ready to listen, but we owe it to ourselves to be informed and continue to have dialogue. The work in this is a marathon, not a sprint, and just when you think you’ve learned enough - push yourself to learn more. The path is hard, but as our country has shown, progress and equality are even harder to attain without any effort.
Now is the time to begin the journey so we can follow through with the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
Some of my favorite books to begin the work:
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee