We don’t have time for Teachers to be neutral in the classroom. That shit is a luxury of your privilege. Black people are dying and here’s what you should do about it.
Part 1: Tell ‘Em Why You Mad Son, Tell ‘Em Why You Mad
Your neutrality is killing us.
I’ll tell you why I’m mad. First things first. I ain’t talking to the teachers who support racism. Fuck them. They are probably reading another blog post, or lurking with no intention of changing their ways. Bye fragile Felicia. I am talking to those in the middle. Mr. “All I teach is content” and “I don’t bring politics into my classroom.” You. I’m talking to those who claim to be “colorblind,” who think “we talk too much about race anyway” and the teachers who say “all lives matter.” Hey, not-so-neutral centrists, your neutrality is fucking killing us. Slowly and quickly.
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi writes in his powerful and now more palatable book, How to Be An Antiracist, “There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.” It’s time to rip the damn mask off. Shout out to Future. Mask off. Spoiler alert: schools are not neutral either. They are full of racism. And it’s time to kick that mangy racist cat out the bag.
I was reminded of this ubiquitous racism, yet again, all summer long. I thought I was managing my emotions as best I could, after witnessing COVID-19 ravage the Black community just as other ailments have done before. I was holding it in as best I could when I learned about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the institutional cover up. I was still standing when I heard about Amy Cooper’s, wielding her weaponized whiteness in attack of Christian Cooper, which went down in the same place as the Central Park 5 *trumped* up case. But when I first saw the image of a white police officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck, I fell to the floor, frozen.
I am trying to pinpoint the emotion I felt. It was a deep sadness. Pit in my throat. Deep sighs. Y’all I felt that shit in my soul. It hurt. It was as if my spirit left my body for a second, connecting with all the spirits of Africans who died too soon at the hands of devilish Europeans, all throughout history. When my spirit returned, I was still numb.
On his neck?
His knee, on his neck?
They were all just watching?
So he’s dead?
Not to mention my father’s name was Floyd, and he died too soon at the age of 34. The loss of Black life hits me. This murder was too much for me. And I’m grown. I have multiple degrees, financial security, and a pension. It rocked me. But I wasn’t done with pain, because our community wasn’t done.
I actually started this blog piece during the summer of 2020, but shelved it. I wasn’t ready for some reason. Actually, I was shopping it around to a few media outlets, but I didn’t want to water down my language or whitewash my message. I also like to talk my shit, how I like to talk my shit. After the attempted murder of Jacob Blake, and actual Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, and so many more, I had to resurface and finish this piece.
In recent weeks, I’m sitting here watching my brothers and sisters release so much pain and emotion. We are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Hearing Jacob Blake’s sister, Letetra Widman say, “We don’t want your pity, we want change.” or Kimberly Jones say, “You lucky we don’t want revenge.” We are seeing brown men and women crying on TV, telling their story, pleading for humanity. Coach Doc Rivers’s interview especially got to me, where he said, “It’s amazing how we keep loving this country, but it doesn’t love us back.” He ain’t lying. Cue the Rose Royce, “You abandoned me, love don’t live here anymore, just a vacancy, love don’t love here anymore.” I’m tired y’all. Tired, tired, tired.
And I want to be clear that, just because we see folks grieving, it doesn’t mean that we done fighting. We ain’t. You never know. Our new civil rights activists and Black Lives Matter movement might just go super saiyan on yo ass. Hope I live to see it. But first, we need to release that emotion, instead of letting it embed itself in the body-what Therapist Resma Manekem describes as racialized trauma. Just starting to dig into his book, My Grandmother’s Hands, and it arrived in the mail right on time. Despite the weight of systemic and everyday racism, as a Black man in this racist country, I have to make sense of it, and use it to fight harder. Otherwise, it will tear me apart at the seams. And we ain’t having that.
I have noticed the tension increasing in my lower back, my IT band, and in my shoulders. I’m sure this is the result of too much sitting in front of a screen during distance learning and the stress of trying to lead in times of a pandemic. The night sweats hit me right on time, as we were starting back up. But this tension is also a result of the trauma of racism in America, one that is ferocious if you are a Black man. I have been thinking a lot about this recently as I discussed lower back health with my homie Carlos Teasdale and I use my foam roller. I try to breathe and meditate while I roll around my living room on a lacrosse ball. The parallels between antiracism, healing, wellness, and exercise are too deep.
In related Black man news, my temper has been flaring up, all over the place. In my home with my kids.Gotta remember my three year old is *three years old.* The thing about oppression and dehumanization is that it gets redirected anywhere it can go; at home or at work. When you don’t have an outlet every place is the outlet. And don’t get it twisted. Just because I’m an adult with a position of authority, it doesn’t mean I don’t feel rage and uncontrollably project it at times. Blowing up in a meeting, sending an email with way too much side eye. Or fighting a battle like it’s a war, because this racial battle fatigue feels like a never ending war. Shit is real.
It’s important for me to reflect on these effects of racism as I prepare to lead my school. I must contextualize my pain so it doesn’t red giant my whole life. I have to direct it intentionally.
We want our students to direct their pain intentionally too, even though they shouldn’t even be in that position. Where does this pain come from and what is our responsibility as equators?
Part 2: What’s Racism Got To Do With Schools
In response to the terroristic murder of George Floyd, like I usually do, I took to Twitter to process, profess, and provoke. After my thread about #TheAmyCooperTeacher, I started a thread thinking about the rage that some students of color bring to the institution of school, and the common pain we feel as adults and children of color. With students and BIPOC in general, there is a common resistance, defiance, bravado, swag, confidence, and shine in our eyes. (I’ll use both the first and third person, since I am also a member of the BIPOC). This swag comes from generations of being subjugated, discriminated against, murdered, and oppressed.
Let’s talk about the #AmyCooper Teacher in schools (thread)
— Joe Truss (@trussleadership) May 27, 2020
The kids may be new and young, but they are connected to a larger energy that is the product of collective trauma. Going back to Resma, this is the contextualized trauma and legacy of empowerment that we hold. We carry the spirit of survival. It is in our blood, some would say in our DNA, or as Dr. Joy DeGruy asserts, a product of post traumatic (en)slave(d) syndrome. This fire of resistance and constant affirmation burns within our souls. Even if students aren’t aware of all your fancy words like “institutional oppression,” “critical race theory,” and “hegemony,” they know the shit stinks. They tell us this every day.
And, as much as people want to isolate this problem with students of color, the truth is that our system is not working for any of our students. Yes, the white ones too. They are being disrespected every day, and are made to feel like shit. Perfectionism cuts white folks too, but they hold race privilege and benefit from the white power structure. In general, school is daily dehumanization in 50 minute doses. It is punctuated by factory bells and delivered by correction officers in teacher clothing. There’s a reason we tell kids, “Oh college is so much more fun.”
But our students, especially our most marginalized and oppressed students, experience the dehumanization differently. Our BISOC lack access and privilege. So they often lack hope for changing the system. They don’t have many opportunities to take action against a racist system. So teacher, they coming for you. And they operate on you-the closest authority figure they can see, in an institution that is set up to assimilate them into white dominant culture. And they know it.
Students of color may not have the fancy language, but they know it. It doesn’t matter if you try to justify your actions, saying things like, “You’re going to need this in the future,” “I have to prepare you for the real world,” or “I am doing this for your own good.” Our students of color can see through the thin veil of bullshit. They are the canaries in the coal mine, being pushed out of the schoolhouse. The canaries are slowly dying because your neutrality is killing them. Killing us.
We can see that you are complicit in the process of forcing our round pegs into your square holes, or should I say our brown bodies into your boxes.
I am reminded of stolen and enslaved Africans, in the 1600s, after surviving the slave dungeons of Ghana’s Cape Coast, physically forcing themselves through the ‘Door of No Return.’ The door was very narrow and some had to starve themselves to make it through, before boarding hellish slave ships, bound for a new, but stolen world. Perhaps that all was a foreshadow of the continual assimilation that Black students now experience in the US, 400 years later.
Truthfully, the strongest of students fight back, resist, walk out, and vote with their feet, by not showing up. Many times, these are our students of color, because they know that maintaining their identity is more important than the delayed gratification of becoming part of y(our) broken society. don’t want your fucking arsenic laced marshmallows. They know it’s poison. BBD told them about it in the 1980s. Seriously though, they are not interested in moving up 1 rung on the 100 rung ladder of racial hierarchy, where whites sit at the top. Not when they can be shot in the street like dogs, or killed in their sleep. Not interested.
The more you assert your authority, even softened with fake positive-reinforcement school bucks, the harder they push back. Dena Simmons said, “What’s the point of teaching children about conflict resolution skills, if we’re not talking about the conflicts that exist because of racism or white supremacy? Without that nuance, she says SEL risks turning into “white supremacy with a hug.” Palabra. We don’t want them hugs or the white supremacy culture. Students can feel that your authority is confirmed mainly through the maintenance of their inferiority. Our students of color and their families don’t have as much access to the system, which they know was set up to fail them. So they take it out on you. Questions. Challenges. Defiance. When students of color go off on you, refusing to follow your directives, they/we are asserting our humanity, brief moments of power, that remind us we are human, that ‘we’s free’.
Part 3: Teachers Take a Damn Stand For Justice
For teachers, leaders, and educators, you must understand this. Reflection and critical analysis is the job. Dr. Jamila Lyiscott writes in her book, Black Appetite, White Food, “In order to do this work, you have to be willing to sit in the inevitability of discomfort that accompanies authentic confrontation, to accept that disrupting something as abiding and pervasive as white privilege will have its costs, and to rest on the conviction that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’” And by the looks of the news, statistics, and academic outcomes, we need more bending and more justice.
Teachers, don’t set your eyes on the surface, gazing only at the behavior of your students. Go deeper. Educators must think about socio-political context. If you aren’t aware of it, read about that shit, because the kids are watching you. As much as you study your craft and are an expert on your content, be an expert on people. On power. On privilege. Study history, especially the experiences of Indigenous people, Black people and people of color. Listen to their stories, painful and joyous. Learn their stories. Go deeper than shallow culture, and get the deeper levels of culture. (Peep Zaretta’s Book) It’s not enough to be an anthropologist or to collect trinkets made by brown people to decorate your home. Let their stories change you. This will allow you to better see what might be happening in your classroom and school.
Educators, you must seek to understand, create deeper partnerships, and build solidarity in our struggles. As Dr. Bettina Love says, be co-conspirators, with us. Dr. Love writes in her book, We Want To Do More Than Survive “Use your intersections of privilege, leverage your power and support to stand in solidarity and confront anti-Blackness.” They don’t need hashtags, t-shirt graphics, or bitmoji posters that say Black Lives Matter. Get the fuck out of here with that shit. Go further. As I’ve heard Dr. Love say so many time, “put something on the line!” Yes. Use your privilege, to push the work forward.
But, I’ll tell you what I tell folks in my trainings. Just because you read or heard about Kendi’s book, don’t mean you can call yourself an antiracist. And just because you heard Dr. Bettina Love speak, don’t mean you are now a co-conspirator. Shit, you probably weren’t even an ally. We are invited into this work of justice, by folks who trust us, who want us to help. Similarly, you don’t choose to co-conspire with someone. You build a relationship, until an oppressed person pulls you in, or you are in the perfect place at the perfect time to co-conspire. I dream of days when my students feel comfortable to ask me to help as they see fit, and I hope that I come through, so they trust me with more in the future.
Because, like you, the kids are watching the news, too. They know enough about what is happening to make their own conclusions. They can smell the shit, and it don’t smell like roses. Sorry Andre 3000, it stank. Our kids don’t have time to see how it will all play out or time to wait to see if society is going to make the right call. Our kids have to survive another day of racism in America, today and tomorrow. So do I. But the kids are watching the state sponsored domestic terrorism, also called “police brutality”, also called ‘law and order’. They were watching the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. And they were watching all the other murders. On repeat.
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris describes the long term effects of childhood adversity, in her book the deepest well. This is trauma. When students of color witness people with dark skin being murdered and society debating the justification, we interpret this as a debate about our worth. How we debating that shit? And, sadly the debate often results in anti-blackness, a reminder of white supremacy.
And remember, Black students have a connection to past trauma and they know what it means to be lynched. So, the kids are watching to see what you do. They are looking to the adults for cues about how to react, and whether or not you feel their pain or care enough about it to put something on the line. They are watching to see where you place them in the racial hierarchy. They want to see if you are willing to break with your privilege, be it positionality or white solidarity-to support them.
Students want to see if you will even acknowledge that there is a hierarchy; that we are swimming in a toxic cesspool, of a fishbowl. They want to know if you are supporting white supremacy and anti-blackness or if you are an aspiring anti-racist working towards racial equity. But, homie, your neutrality is killing us. The time you are taking to consider how much to risk, what to say, and what action to take, is KILLING US.
This is more than police terrorism. Not being able to read on grade level, having gaps in our education, and being denied our true history is killing us. Being kept in remedial classes, while white students-and those deemed close enough to whiteness, or ‘acting enough’ like white folks-get access to the college prep classes is killing us. Being relegated to work force type jobs and career technical education jobs is killing us. Being constantly surveilled in the hallways by actual police offices, or staff who treat us like criminals, is killing us.
I think you get the picture.
Part 4: When We Come Back, Be Prepared To Fight
When we return to classrooms, virtual or in person, students may not say it, but they will want to know where you stand. Especially when you get uncomfortable, feel threatened, and want to send them out of the (zoom) room. Students will have experienced both the coronavirus and lockdown trauma but also another wave of police murders of Black people. They will know that the world watched image after image, videos on loop, of Black bodies dying in the summer breeze. And they know some kids are still in cages at the border. Zaretta Hammond writes about the connection between neuroscience and culturally responsive teaching. When students experience trauma, cortisol is released, and their “amygdala is hijacked”, with the result that “all other cognitive functions such as learning, problem solving, or creative thinking” stop.
To compound this past trauma, the classroom can be a place where cortisol continues to be released in response to punitive discipline, microaggressions, eurocentric curriculum, powerhoarding, and stereotype threat. Dr. Shawn Ginwright, professor at San Francisco State University talks about the need for creating what he calls a healing centered engagement in learning spaces. This, he says, is political, cultural, and affirming.
This is why we cannot be neutral in the classroom. Students of color and other oppressed groups are not treated in a neutral way. Society is not neutral. Nappy roots ‘hell nah’. Neither current events nor history are neutral. (double checks CNN real quick, yup still not neutral) Oppressed students know this. Your neutrality is akin to compliance and complicity. And it’s racist. Because your neutrality preserves a white power structure, that skews curriculum and instruction for the benefit of whites, your neurtrality disciplines students based on white norms, and keeps you in the what David Stovall calls the school to prison nexus if you/we don’t comply. These are the many examples of white supremacy culture in schools, a topic I love to get busy with.
And be prepared for white rage to creep in. Once you start taking stands, saying Black Lives Matter, and leveraging your privilege, white rage will show up. Trump hats, confederate flags, and other oppressive “free speech.” The kids will push back, but the parents will push harder. Anthony Muhammad calls these folks the traditionalists, and they are holding on a tradition of white supremacy. Be prepared for white folk to *act* fragile, then get enraged, and then try to assassinate your character. They will pull out contract clauses that serve their needs of preserving their privilege and power. These traditionalists will say that you are being “reverse racist.” (Dwight Schrute ‘false’ meme) They will come for you and if they can’t find HR (racist) regulations to ding you on, will find other ways to stop the bus from moving. They will try to get you out of power you may be gaining or already have. Be prepared for them. Why do you think they call it the “blacklist?” Welcome it and (winks) welcome to the resistance.
Instead of being neutral, decolonize your curriculum with ethnic studies, diverse voices, and interrogate the privileged voices. Flatten the hierarchy in your room and center the experience of oppressed students. Instead of differentiating between students or adding engaging activities to give “those kids” access to the norm, place marginalized students at the center of everything. Instead of pushing them out, or fixing them, bring them in, and let them lead things. Don’t plan for them or empathize with them. Let them design. Give them the keys, the tools, and the paint brushes. Let them build and make art. We could only dream what that might look like, if we allowed our most oppressed students to manifest their dreams in schools and in society.
Plan lessons for them, incorporate their interests into everything, let them lead your class. You have to actually ask them. Dr. Chris Emdin calls this creating cogens and its possible when we decenter whiteness and stop hoard power so damned much. Elsa, let, it, go. Build deeper relationships with students because you can’t restore partnerships that never existed in the first place. And don’t try to all of a sudden start talking about racial justice and systemic racism if you ain’t never talked bout that shit. My god, and do not play videos of Black people being killed. Immediate stop.
But wait, there’s more, so much more y’all. Teach ethnic studies all year long.
Remember, the kids are watching. Remember that you are working to make up for decades, if not centuries, of broken promises and exploitation. Perhaps no one told you what you signed up for, but this is the job. It is about making it right, all of it. Day by day, through the pain of murder, discrimination, and institutional racism.
We need you to take a stand. Or your neutrality will continue to kill us.
Part 5: 16 Things Teachers & Educators need to stand up for:
Discussing race, racism, and anti-racism in the classroom. Discuss it.
Grading students during or after a pandemic. Abandon it.
Teaching Ethnic Studies and the stories of marginalized peoples. Teach it.
Racist school policies. Dismantle them.
Adults using deficit language to describe students of color. Interrupt it.
Standardized testing any other drill and kill assessments. Opt out.
Grading students based on their screen sharing. Refuse it.
Teaching to Eurocentric and racist standards. Stop it.
Offering AP, Honors, and any other eugenic-inspired and college board-controlled courses. End it.
Hate speech disguised as free speech. Outlaw it.
Police in schools. Expel them.
Funding for Under performing and historical marginalized schools. Support it and triple it.
School choice systems that divert funding from poor communities and from public schools. Terminate them.
Tracking students in schools and sorting kids between schools, especially full-on “these students are better than these students” schools. Blow that shit up.
Uniforms, bells, and walking silently in halls. Stop it.
Detentions, suspension, re-entries, calling kids ‘repeat offenders’, and other penal code language. Abolish it.
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or email me your thoughts: joetruss@CulturallyResponsiveLeadership.com
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