"It keeps us all safe" and Other Lies Used to Spirit Murder Black and Brown Children
What a time to be alive. Many of us, particularly educators, are wearing hats we never even thought to try on before. I think of the everyday woman who now has multiple full-time jobs: her actual job, parenting, and remote learning management of her children. I think of the parent of a differently-abled child who now has to lead that child’s physical, occupational, or speech therapy daily. I think of BIPOC who now are called to serve as knowledge banks and on-call historians for their white friends who recently discovered (spoiler alert) that racism isn’t dead. It’s as if the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor were a wake-up call to sleeping America.
As an NYC educator, biracial Afro/Indo-Caribbean cis woman, and advocate for black and brown children, I’ve spent quite some time thinking about my role in this fight, because that’s exactly what this is. A fight, not just for survival, but a fight for mattering, as Bettina Love so eloquently puts it in her book, We Want to Do More Than Survive. The truth is, black and brown children are spirit murdered daily, a term Patricia Williams coined to refer to the “disregard for others whose lives quantitatively depend on our regard.” Spirit murdering occurs every single day in many of our schools, virtually unnoticed, unchecked, and all in the name of some arbitrary norm created by a white person. We have to address these forms of oppression the same way we react to blatant murder. With time, I have learned that the guises for the slow cultural genocide (spirit murdering) often fall into one of four categories: communication and language, uniformity and safety, character, and systems.
Communication and Language
“I wish I could take all of the challenging scholars from 4th grade, place them in a classroom where they can’t be let out, regardless of how their behavior is. They would have to listen and the only way they could get out is if the police come.”
- Current School Director of an NYC charter network
I want to start this section off by expressing that I have made the decision to not support cancel culture. I recognize that mistakes will be made and intrinsic bias will not be solved by allyship alone. However, I do believe that when racist and insensitive comments are casually made about the children I love and serve, racist and insensitive comments are also made to the children I love and serve and are thought about them too. The thoughts we harbor about our students and their parents inform the way we communicate to and about them, the policies and decisions made behind closed doors, and ultimately the value placed on their lives. When we refer to student behavior logs as “rap sheets” and to the students themselves as “repeat offenders,” we are perpetuating the school to prison pipeline. We are criminalizing behavior that is developmentally appropriate behavior. Behavior that is trauma-based.
I have witnessed many educators make race-based assumptions about parents of their students. For example, it is concluded that a parent must not care that much about the student’s academic performance and success if she is late to conferences or does not attend weekly parent meetings or doesn’t answer the phone when you call home to report that her son was “disruptive and defiant” for the third time that week. If you have ever found yourself doing the same, consider asking yourself questions like: Have I gotten to know the family? Have I considered that the parent may work during those times? Do I call home only to report negative aspects of the day? Do I respect the parent when they speak? Have I taken the time to genuinely learn about where my students come from and what their communities are like? When we don’t learn about the richness of the black community and diaspora, it becomes too easy to take stereotypes, intrinsic biases, and racial epithets as truth. These are then manifested in the language we use about and to our students and their parents.
Uniformity and Safety
“...it [is] a best practice to use a ‘triad concept’ to define the three main roles of school resource officers: educator (i.e. guest lecturer), informal counselor/mentor, and law enforcement officer”
Why do the vast majority of black and brown schools have officers and metal detectors present? Why don’t we see the same amongst predominantly white schools?
I have seen schools where 6th-8th graders were scanned upon every entry into the building but younger siblings were allowed to pass on through each day. Where is the logic in that if safety is truly the goal? And the sad thing is that black and brown students expect to be searched daily. It doesn’t even occur to most of them that white schools on the other side of the city don’t have this routine. Now, to be clear, I am no expert on outside threats to schools. But, I do know the following: there are more white mass shooters than black, (black) middle school-aged children and older aren’t the only ones who can bring something dangerous to school, and police presence in black and brown communities is not new.
Thus, I’m confused and deeply concerned about the hybrid vision NASRO has. What’s the point of envisioning resource officers as “educators” and “informal counselors/mentors” when in black and brown schools, the bulk of their role is rooted in mistrust: black and brown students have to be searched multiple times a day to prove their innocence? Too many decisions, rules, and policies are defended for the sake of uniformity and safety, when racism is a more accurate answer. From color requirements for student hijabs and mandating that sneakers be all black (sorry, no white Nike symbols allowed) to an overwhelming pattern of non-BIPOC in leadership positions. I urge us to reflect on the priorities in our schools and the reasoning behind our traditional rules. Do these rules impact a student’s ability to learn? Do they impinge on teachers’ and students’ ability to be authentic? Are they humane? Do they convey that students matter?
“You take a bad boy, make him dig holes all day in the hot sun, it turns him into a good boy. That's our philosophy here at camp green lake.”
- Mr. Sir, Holes
It sounds comical to include a quote from a childhood favorite, but bear with me for a moment. Telling boys they’re digging holes to build character in the book/movie Holes is synonymous with teaching character education as a life hack in black and brown schools. What good is “being gritty” when your only meals come from school or you have an incarcerated parent you barely get to see? What benefit is there to reciting the precise definition of “respect” when (not so) deep down, you can think of five examples when an adult at school disrespected you just this week?
We need to move away from the white expectation of grit for black children: checking all non-school problems at the security desk by the door, allowing your teacher and other people of authority at school to yell at you and repeatedly remove you from class (and then later wonder why you’re struggling behaviorally and academically), and not showing any visible signs of anger or disagreement when being chastised. This model suggests that having good character (aka being the black model minority) can solve all your problems as a black child. We have seen time and time again that, whether you’re sleeping, running, or a 6-year-old throwing a tantrum, it doesn’t matter how gritty you are, how many “being an upstander” role plays you did in a character education class, or whether or not you can demonstrate, let alone define, citizenship. It’s no wonder our student buy-in is low. We are teaching them that they do not matter. Children must automatically have and demonstrate trust and respect to adults at school while those adults (1) don’t have to do anything to earn their trust and respect, and (2) mistrust and disrespect the same children. Respectability politics has no place in healing and nurturing spaces for black and brown children. And isn’t the latter precisely what school is supposed to be?
Having good moral character is a lofty goal. But, are we teaching our students the skills they need to be successful humans while working on their character? Too many of our students don’t know how to delay gratification. Are we teaching them about prioritizing tasks based on long term goals? Are we teaching them financial literacy, and what credit means? Are we teaching the power of participatory democracy and youth involvement in communities and politics? Let’s work together to ensure that our theory and practice in school align with real-life expectations outside of school.
“Systems and routines wake me up each day and keep me going!”
- Current Executive Director of an NYC charter network
Let me provide some examples of systems and routines that were implemented in my last school and many across our nation:
- Reducing the time of lunch/snack as punishment for misbehavior
- Mandating that certain children have silent lunch for weeks on end
- Having a consequence system that is overly punitive
- Replacing Specials (art, music, fitness) with an additional intervention block for struggling students
- Suspensions for trauma-based or developmentally appropriate behavior
- Pressure from school leadership to suspend children more in lieu of understanding the reasoning behind their behavior and working to supplement lagging skills
How can we continue to be unhappy with the state of education and simultaneously justify the existing systems and routines in place? We can get so caught up (myself included) in daily to-dos and ensuring stakeholders are happy that we fail to notice the cyclical nature of these systems and their impact on our expectations. We HAVE to redesign systems that are made for black and brown children. These children cannot simply check their problems at the door and go on about their day, buying into the American Dream. The American Dream doesn’t even apply to all Americans. While systems and routines may drive the daily life of the (white, cis, male) Executive Director in the quote above, I wonder if he thinks about the students in his school. While he (and most of us reading this) have the privilege of creating a routine that includes a morning run, breakfast with a cup of coffee from “Starbs” or “Dunkin,” and washed/dried/ironed clothes for the day, that does not necessarily extend to our students and their families. Therefore, routines and systems only benefit those they were designed for (too often, not our students).
I will end this section with a final thought and example about routines and systems. I deem it important to note that, while routines and systems are often expressed firmly to parents and students (Corey must sit at the no talking table at lunch because he isn’t wearing a tie, Xavier was talking in the hallway so he has silent snack, it is mandatory that all parents attend the event or they must have a follow up conversation with an administrator), the same is not done within many schools. Too many key decisions about a child’s life are being made subjectively.
One example that comes to mind from the many out there: a shy black 7th-grade girl struggled in math all year (and historically at the school), but no one really tried to investigate the story behind her struggles. Instead, she was labeled as someone not high performing in math. Before state test results came back, her teachers and instructional coaches made the decision to automatically retain her. They were not pushed to provide very much documentation to support their decision-- a decision with profound academic and social implications. The decision to retain her was made in June and her mother chose to transfer her. Test results came back in late August/early September. Not only did the student pass ELA and Math, but she received the highest numerical score in both of them. Her teacher and coaches took no accountability. They simply asked one of the black Deans of Students to call and inform her mother. No apology. No recognition of the social toll on the student or hassle her mother endured to find her a suitable new school for her last year of middle school. This is the danger of not having a critical eye towards decisions made about black and brown lives and who are allowed to make them.
If we truly want to affect change that is genuine, purposeful, and equity-based, we need to start seeing our students as humans. We need to bring humanity into schools. The whole child must be considered-- from the way we think about and communicate our thoughts to said child and their parents to the policing of their bodies for the sake of uniformity and safety. From the belief that black and brown children don’t have good character to the systems we implement just for them. We. Must. Do. Better. Our children, their mental health, and their ability to thrive are at stake.
About Khristy Nicholas - Guest Author
Khristy is entering her 6th year as an educator in NYC. She has served as a classroom teacher and grade team leader and is currently a Middle School Dean of Students. Khristy is passionate about uplifting and advocating for black and brown children and challenging educational norms that impact their experience in and out of school. Her piece was written in an effort to name some issues, challenge thought processes, and provide opportunities for reflection and conversation.