Invisibility in Our Schools

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Invisibleness. It doesn’t start with manhood or even adulthood. It starts in childhood. When our black and brown babies cross the thresholds of our schools. Yes, they’re there: flesh and bone, fiber and liquids, and they might be said to possess a mind, but because people refuse to see them and I mean really see our children; who they really are, they remain unseen. Invisible. .One of my favorite quotes, (and I have teachers reflect on it in almost every workshop or class I teach) is by Parker Palmer and he says “we teach who we are” and that “Teaching is a truly human activity… the way in which one teaches emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or for worse.” So where does the healing begin in our schoolhouses? In one’s inwardness. It begins with deep, personal interrogation of the practices, perspectives, and ideologies of the adults in the building. We have to look at all of our history; the good, the bad, and the ugly. And when it comes to race in this country, there’s lots and lots of ugly. Racism did not go away with Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Act, or even the election of the first black president. Racist practices are alive and well. Some are implicit, and others are blatant. Overt. But all of them are harming our black and brown children long before racist cops can get their hands on them, long before they are pushed into a racist criminal justice system, long before they’re slammed on the floor and hand-cuffed in the schools to which we entrust their well-being. Racism is alive in our schools, in our Euro-centric curriculum; in what we call the “hidden curriculum”; in discipline policies that lead toward criminalization of black and brown children; in the number of black children who are disproportionately retained, and referred to Special Ed. We have to stop dancing around the subject of Race and face it head-on. So where does seeing our children begin in our schools? It has to begin with teachers and administrators being willing to do the hard work and self-examination to look at their conscious and unconscious contribution to racist practices in the schools. It has to begin with teachers, who are mostly white and middle-class being willing to examine their White privilege and to be honest about the harmful effects that Whiteness has on the black children who sit in front of them every day. So what might this look like? It might look like the group of black and white women (who are mostly educators) that I facilitate. We hold online and monthly face-to-face discussions about Whiteness, White privilege, the hidden curriculum of our schools, cultural appropriation, anti-blackness in our schools and in the media, and any other topics that push our white colleagues to deeply examine ways in which they exercise their privilege, and to look at their personal histories, and we make clear to them the ways in which they are able to navigate the world and how that differs from the ways in which their black counterparts are able to live. We push them to uncover their biases, and to explore the impact of Whiteness in our schools and in the world. We then challenge them to go out and “do the work.” To challenge their white colleagues in their schools and colleges and have conversations with their black colleagues and to change the ways in which these issues are addressed in their education courses. It could look like a conversation I just had with a group of teachers in which we were talking about kid-watching and building community through a cultural lens. The question was raised : In this school, what ways do you intentionally teach through the lens of racial equity and social justice? How do you make it visible? And let me tell you, after a lot of swallowing, uneasiness, possibly some hurt feelings, they came to the conclusion that they don’t do as much as they thought they did to let the children know that they SEE them. RACE is one of those “non-discussables” Roland Barth writes about. It can be hard, almost traumatizing to face one’s privilege and see it as part of a system of power and oppression. But Race has to be dealt with. It can no longer be a non- discussable. The adults in our schools, who are given the charge to teach our kids cannot continue clutching their “good White people” status to their bosoms. Holding onto their unexamined privilege, contributing to our children’s pain. Contributing to their invisibleness. I believe that with continuous, honest conversation and closer scrutiny of practices; especially in the areas of suspension, retention, referrals to Special Ed, that lead to the marginalization and criminalization of black and brown students, we can move toward more equitable, just practices in our schools. But, we must talk about RACE. In Sonus, an arts program started by my son, Preston, we intentionally teach through the lens of equity and social justice. In The Sonus Village, I’ve been talking with our parents about how schools may negatively impact the psyches of our students through what we call “the hidden curriculum”, our day-to-day actions, in our schools. When I say “hidden curriculum”, I’m talking about the words we use, the views we share; the books we choose or choose not to read; the stories and perspectives we embrace or do not embrace; the topics we deem important enough to discuss or those we avoid— the narratives we choose to believe about black children; especially poor black children and how that is communicated to them. I’ve taught parents to take a closer, different, more informed look at their children’s schools and to teach other parents to do the same. Unfortunately, I’ve had to coach parents on how to teach their children how to advocate for themselves; to recognize and protect themselves from macro and micro-aggressions; how to SURVIVE school. We are a racialized society. That being said, some of us have been surrounded by these harmful mindsets so long that they have become mainstream. Normalized. The stereotypes, the narratives perpetuated by the media, we’ve begun to believe. And now, I’m talking to black teachers. Some of us have drunk the Kool-aid. The amount of victim blaming, and shaming of children of color from those educators who look like them has to be at the least confusing. Hurtful. So, we have some soul-searching to do, also. So, how does the “seeing” begin? It begins within each and everyone of us. Close, ongoing, reflection, education, and conversation. It begins with doing the work necessary to make sure that not one child in our care feels invisible. What work are you willing to do? What change are you willing to make? What conversations will you have so that our children are no longer invisible?     ‪  

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