Black educators and administrators, let’s remember to center and uplift Black children as they return to school
Instilling Black children with a dynamic pride and love for Blackness can help combat the effects of racism they will deal with.
by Maximillian Matthews
After arriving on the campus of Elon University in the fall of 2005, I instantly sought out the Black community in an effort to not feel isolated and misunderstood. I knew I would need Black folks in order to thrive at predominantly white institution. My need for kinship led me to Alpha Phi Alpha. Without the fraternity and the bonds made with my Black peers, my time at Elon could have been too burdensome.
Throughout the country, Black youth are now returning to schools, which we all know can be breeding grounds for racism. Rather than serving as institutions of learning and scholarship, schools are often places of torment, hostility, and antagonism for many Black youth. These spaces sadly represent the anti-Black world we live in, and it is a reality we cannot protect our children from forever.
At Chelsea Park Elementary in Chelsea, Alabama, Taylor Ambrester endured racist bullying from his white classmates. In one specific incident, one of the white classmates recited an offensive poem. According to Taylor, the poem was as follows: “Roses are red, violets are blue, I am white, you should be, too. Roses are red, violets are blue, I am white, why aren’t you? Roses are red, violets are blue, God made me pretty, what happened to you?”
Teachers and administrators can also be and often are the source of bigotry. This year, David Swinyar, a Florida teacher was suspended after an investigative report by his school district concluded that he had repeatedly used the N-word in class and called some of his students “dumb.”
Over the years, we have seen numerous reports of school resource officers policing and assaulting Black students. In 2015, Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C. made national headlines when one of its former officers, Ben Fields, threw a Black student across the classroom. Last year, the FBI and Department of Justice announced there was not enough evidence to charge Fields with any criminal civil rights violations, which comes as no surprise.
I have been working in higher education administration for ten years. I was driven to this field out of my passion for youth and desire to help them strive towards their fullest potential, and this often leads me to reflect on how my Black students are navigating our political climate.
I grapple with the actions I can take to equip them with the tools they need in this world. Inevitably, they will encounter the racist systems designed to eradicate them. As Black youth return to school, what can we do and say to encourage and uplift them?
In Christopher Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too, he mentions a conversation that he had with young incarcerated men of color who described negative incidents in the public schools they attended. One young man explained an encounter with a white science teacher who told him “he was wasting his time going to school because all he would be when he got older was a gangbanger.”
Emdin states the young man described the encounter and teacher in such detail that it was clear he was impacted by the teacher’s words. Many of us can pinpoint moments in our pre K-12 and/or collegiate years when we were impacted in a similar way.
We cannot underestimate the effects these moments had on us and how such events can affect our children. Teachers like Swinyar and the one this incarcerated brother had can plant seeds of inferiority, devaluation, and hatred, which can develop into internalized racism. We need to actively push back against those things.
Our children’s educators need to consider the weight of their words, actions, and influence. The blatant irresponsibility exhibited in educators when they are negligent and careless in their interactions with Black students is inexcusable. We need to hold these teachers accountable.
Instilling Black children with a dynamic pride and love for Blackness can help combat the effects of racism they will deal with. Through imparting such confidence, we can help them feel empowered to recognize and call out injustices when they experience them.
In 2016, a video of a young woman of color correcting and schooling her white male teacher on racism went viral. The eloquence and poise of the student indicated she was unafraid to confront the revisionism of her teacher. I want Black children to be able to do the same, just as as well, and to be able to trust their instincts.
But we have our work cut out for us because we also have to consider disciplinary practices and school policing, which disproportionately impacts Black students. Last year, the ACLU released a report entitled “Bullies in Blue,” which outlined the practice of law enforcement in K-12 schools (which originated in Black neighborhoods) and challenged the notion that school policing protects children. Its revelations were unsurprising:
In the 2013-14 school year, the most recent year for which statistics are available, schools reported over 223,000 referrals to law enforcement.
Nationally, Black students are more than twice as likely as their white classmates to be referred to law enforcement. Children as young as five are charged with “crimes” for everyday misbehavior: throwing a paper airplane, kicking a trashcan, and wearing sagging pants.
These traumatic encounters with law enforcement inflict lasting impacts on Black children and undermine their self-esteem and initiative, which ultimately increases their chances at becoming incarcerated.
“A student who is arrested in the course of schooling is twice as likely to drop out of school. If it results in a court case, their chance of dropping out skyrockets to 400 percent. For those students who do drop out of high school as a result of an arrest, the chances that they will serve time in prison increases exponentially.”
Make no mistake, police officers in schools is an intentional act that feeds the school-to-prison pipeline. The results of police in schools are clear: the maltreatment, imprisonment, and eradication of our children.
To better support Black children, we must advocate for and invest in more culturally-competent school counselors and mental health practitioners in schools, and remember that this advocacy is inconsequential if it fails to include queer and gender non-conforming children.
There are organizations in every state doing this work. For example, the NC-based Southern Vision Alliance concentrates its resources to support youth, build communities, and “aid trusted leaders of directly-impacted communities that are engaged in frontline struggles for justice, dignity, and change.”
SVA’s Youth Organizing Institute (YOI) is a leadership development program that strives to prevent racism and school resegregation, challenge the school to prison pipeline, and make schools safe for LGBTQ youth. Our advocacy should look like this because none of our children will be fully liberated until those who exist on the outermost margins are liberated.
My line brothers and I felt a sense of this liberation as soon as our probate show concluded. We were finally embraced into the safe space of our fraternity. We believed we were prepared for the challenges we would face as Black men. We were full with the knowledge passed on from those who came before us. On that day, we were unstoppable. Let’s empower Black children to feel the same in their schools.
Maximillian Matthews is a Black queer writer based out of Durham, NC. His work has been featured on Blavity and The Body Is Not An Apology. He holds a M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration from North Carolina State University and a B.A. in English Literature from Elon University. He has worked in education for over eight years and will begin studying Counseling at New York University in 2018.