by Vernita Mayfield
“There’s a fight in the girl’s bathroom!” As a middle school administrator, I knew all too well the urgency of this frantic call. I dropped the basketball mid-game and raced toward the restroom. The assistant principal, already on the scene when I arrived, had the situation well under control with both girls spraddled, tearful, and breathless on opposite ends of the bathroom. I breathed a sigh of relief. A squabble over “talking stuff” had somehow escalated to a physical altercation that could have resulted in serious harm to one or both fighters as one of the participants wielded faux fingernails sharpened like blades. But the assistant principal had used her professional skills, personal relationships with the students, and “teacher voice” to dismantle and deescalate an otherwise volatile situation. More to the point, absolutely no one was shot or killed in the process. This conflict was deescalated without a single weapon discharged—an outcome that happens in schools across the nation.
So forgive me if I glare or grimace when I witness the bodies of children slain for behaving in a similar manner to the kids in this scenario. Yes, children killed for behaving like children: 12-year-old Tamir Rice sitting on a park bench with a toy gun, 14-year-old Cameron Tillman playing in a house with a BB gun, 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, a passenger in a vehicle leaving a party, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin hurrying home with a bag of Skittles and a soda. The victims in this uncomprehensive list had four things in common: they were all children, they were all behaving like children, they were all Black, and now they are all dead.
Spare me the platitudes about people fearing for their lives. The uncomfortable truth is that Black children are more than twice as likely to be killed by law enforcement as white children. Research also indicates that Black children are more likely to be viewed by adults as older than they actually are, and less innocent than their white counterparts. None of this is coincidental. It is, in fact, indicative of the systemic racism within our culture that demonizes and dehumanizes Black children while failing to acknowledge or attack this issue with the same calculated fervor we apply to other problems. Educators are no exception.
Educators arrive to work with a set of beliefs that are informed by their cultural values. They hold perceptions about people and their intentions, attitudes or capabilities based on past experiences, media messages, cultural narratives, or familial teachings. These perceptions manifest in their interactions with students or staff of color and in the application of policies and practices that can have a deleterious impact on the lives of Black and Brown people. Too often when the impact of these actions come to light, they are dismissed with a variation of the old “few bad apples” rationale for explaining away the tolerated misconduct and injustices directed toward people of color. However, systemic racism and its influence is bigger than the conduct of any one person or individual. It is multiple systems that operate to oppress, depress, repress, and suppress the economic elevation and overall well-being of people of color. Systemic racism is interdependent institutions that advance and tolerate practices which advantage some people and disadvantage others. The cruel truth of this system is that racial identity acts as the trigger for determining which children are likely to reap fatal penalties for merely behaving like children.
Yet even when the most blatant and apparent aggressions, policies, and sentiments are levied toward students and staff of color, far too many educators choose not to see a problem. Far too many leaders use their privilege and power to silence the voices of dissent or castrate the careers of modern abolitionists. Far too many educators fail to treat racism with the problem-solving integrity it deserves and the professional skills they already possess. Every educator is tasked with teaching problem solving to their students. Whether the issue is bringing a pencil to class, solving an equation, sharing supplies, or tackling an unknown word: every teacher is familiar with how to help students identify a problem, evaluate the breadth and scope of the problem, generate alternative solutions that will solve the problem, select the best solution, implement it, and evaluate how well it worked. Easy breezy every day. Why, then, when it comes to systemic racism do so many educators fail to apply this most fundamental problem-solving process?
Are a disproportionate number of Black and Brown students being referred for disciplinary action? Suddenly no one is sure what the problem is. Does school policy punish Black and Brown students for wearing their natural hair? Suddenly no one can generate alternative solutions that don’t punish kids for being their authentic selves. Are your advanced placement and honors classes lacking Black and Brown representation? Suddenly no one can determine a reasonable solution. Do your students or staff of color report feeling marginalized, underrepresented, ignored, or overlooked? Suddenly no one can figure out how to implement a fair solution. Are your parents of color rarely considered, consulted, and included in matters that pertain to them? Suddenly no one knows how to evaluate whether or not that is the case. Are anti-Black or anti-Asian sentiments tolerated in casual spaces or online? Suddenly no one knows. And yet educators are uniquely positioned to identify and resolve problems related to systemic racism every day. You, as an educator, can make the intentional choice to treat systemic racism as a problem with modern problem-solving skills.
- Acknowledge the problem of systemic racism. Still not sure? Do your own research. Examine the disparities in life outcomes for Black and Brown people. Explore the roots of the issues. When did these problems begin to emerge? What caused them? Trace the laws. Trace the outcomes. Trace the money. They are all related. The story of inequity, domination, exploitation, privilege, power, and financial gain is the story of America. You won’t have to look far to connect the dots.
- Interrogate your values and beliefs. Whom do you trust and whom do you fear–and why? Who is smart and who is not–and why? Who receives second chances, opportunities, and the benefit of the doubt–and who doesn’t? Who is beautiful, delicate, or innocent–and who isn’t? Whose parents do you call and whose do you avoid–and why? Ask yourself the toughest questions you can about the ideologies you’ve learned from the people you love, the movies you watch, and the books you read. What do they reveal about you? How do they manifest in your interactions with others?
- Dismantle practices that result in inequitable outcomes for your students. Like any problem, systemic racism will not go away if you ignore it, dismiss it, or passively tolerate it. You have to address it immediately or, in time, it will fester like a cancer–evolving, spreading, corrupting, destroying, and . . . killing. What steps are you taking to actively identify, challenge, dismantle, and resolve implicit bias and systemic racism in your classroom, school, district, or professional practices?
- Use your position to advocate for change. Systemic racism is bigger than a “few bad apples” and deadlier than “name-calling”. It produces trauma, pain, depression, and hopelessness. Your influence and commitment as an ally and advocate could change the course of someone’s life.
Finally, understand that as an educator you are not an innocent bystander in the fight for social and racial justice. When you hear the urgent call of distress, drop your ball mid-game and run in the direction of the fight. Your students need your skills, your support, your encouragement, your determination, and your professionalism to deescalate the aggressions they face everyday. Make no mistake: many of them are in a fight for their very lives. Your skills as an educator and advocate for the children in your care can disrupt or deescalate the untenable and sometimes tragic outcomes of systemic racism.
Vernita Mayfield is the author of Cultural Competence Now: 56 Exercises that Help Educators Challenge and Confront Racism, Privilege, and Bias. Follow her on Twitter at @DrVMayfield.