In 1954, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the unanimous ruling against the “separate but equal” mandate and demanded desegregation of schools.
It’s been 66 years since that ruling, yet we still do not have a school system that is not segregated.
It’s true, there are outside forces that continue to uphold institutionalized racism of segregation, racist practices such as redlining that do not officially exist but still flow within the undercurrent. But can we honestly look within our schools and say that there is not a microcosm of segregation within our individual buildings? Do the demographics of our teachers reflect the demographics of our students? Are there a proportional number of students in our accelerated and Advanced Placement courses that reflects our student populations? Do racial and ethnic groups even commingle in our school cafeterias?
White educators have led the classroom and public education in so many ways, standing behind our podiums or at the front of the room, all but willing to impart our knowledge into the sponge-like minds of the youth that sat before us. But what is our knowledge really? It’s time that we admit to ourselves that we were not taught all sides of history when we were children. It’s time to recognize that it is our responsibility to finally break the chains of a Eurocentric curriculum and not to replicate a system that upholds the centering of white lives and instead pushes our future generations to really build toward the inclusive society that we all state we believe in. We must recognize that it is indeed time to not only say “Black Lives Matter,” but that it is time that we mean it and show it with action.
Action means more than creating a facade of acceptance by hanging our inclusive messaging on the wall; “Diversity rocks!” and “All students are welcome here!” It means rolling up your sleeves and doing the actual work of having the hard conversations, with yourself and with others—without needing the praise and acknowledgement of doing so. It means taking responsibility for your power and your privilege and making sure that you do not wield it as a weapon but instead give it freely as a way to elevate your Black coworkers and your Black students.
Action means checking your inclination to ask your Black coworker to discipline a student because you think that they are not listening to you and instead ask yourself where you might have failed in developing a relationship with that student. It means pausing to do your own research when trying to find lessons that incorporate culture into your curriculum. It means recognizing that Black people are not a monolith and refraining from expecting your coworker to answer a question in the category of “All things Black”
Action means listening to what our Black colleagues say we need to do to recognize our own inherent biases, read the books and articles they suggest, advocate for culturally responsive professional development and ethnic studies, push for restorative justice practices, and even listen when they talk about police-free schools. It means biting your tongue and staying silent when the “Yes, but what about…” comment pops into your head. It means listening without the intent to respond and listening to only hear, recognizing feelings of fragility when being told that you made a mistake, even leaning into the process of learning from it
Action means recognizing your own relationship with whiteness by questioning whose norms you are upholding when you talk about closing the achievement gap or strategies to address students that are falling behind. It takes an understanding of the fact that our students are measured, tested and graded by a system that upholds white supremacist ideals. It means stopping yourself from correcting students that are not speaking proper English, or even not holding a conversation in English at all.
Action means taking responsibility for your role in the work of dismantling racism and power structures in our own faculty lounge, having those difficult conversations and not only recognizing racism when we are confronted with it, but also naming it for what it is. It’s time to admit that there is a “white chalk line” that encircles us as we push to hide stories about how educators have mistreated students in the classroom, particularly our Black students. It’s a line that we are too easy to step behind when we hear a comment in the faculty room that makes us cringe.
It’s a line that would be so easy to erase, if only we would just pick up the eraser and get to work.
Melissa Tomlinson, NJEA member
Melissa Tomlinson is a special education teacher at Buena Regional Middle School and a member of the NJEA Delegate Assembly, among other state and local association leadership roles.