EP20: In this episode, I’m digging deep into the systemic issues and misplaced outrage that are holding back our youth in impoverished communities. Learn what you can do to make sense of what’s happening and educate your students about it, too. These issues affect ALL of us, and we all have the ability (and responsibility) to work for change.
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is essentially a talk radio show that you can listen to online or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. Learn more about the podcast, view blog posts for all past episodes, or subscribe in iTunes to get new episodes right away.
In this week’s episode, I’m taking on a topic that is by far the most controversial I’ve ever tackled. And it’s a longer episode than ever before, because this is just too important and too complex to tackle in a couple of minutes.
The issues I’m talking about today are the ones that keep me up at night, especially since this latest incident of rioting in Baltimore after Freddie Gray’s funeral. I’ve seen things on the news and shared on social media that make me sick to my stomach. I can’t sit back and not say anything any longer. If I’m not speaking up, then what am I doing with this blog and this podcast? It’s one thing not to get into arguments with strangers on Facebook, but it’s another thing to have a platform and not use it for issues that really matter. I’m talking about all the other issues that are destroying our schools but I’m not talking about poverty? I can’t feel good about that.
And I haven’t even been staying silent because I care about offending people. Honestly, if people want to unfollow my blog or unsubscribe to my podcast or not have me come speak at their schools or conferences because I’m speaking on social justice issues, I’m okay with that. There are a lot of little battles I’m not willing to fight in education and just kind of let people believe what they want to believe about pedagogy and classroom management and instructional strategies. But this is a hill I’m willing to die on.
I have to, in order to be true to myself. I taught in high poverty urban schools by choice for 8 years because that’s where my heart is. Now I do instructional coaching in high poverty schools in New York City. I lived in Maryland for many years and have very good friends who are born and raised in West Baltimore; their kids were affected by the riots. And I married a black man who grew up in Harlem and the South Bronx and has lived many of these struggles himself. I know my children are going to be half black.
So I don’t live a life that allows me to turn a blind eye to issues of race and poverty. They’re a big part of my life. I don’t know the struggle firsthand, but I see it firsthand, and it moves me, deeply. This is just too important to me not to speak up on.
I’ve not kept silent because I’m afraid of offending, or because I don’t care. I’ve kept silent because I don’t feel qualified to speak on it. The intersection between my life and issues of race and poverty have been by my choice. I’m white and I grew up middle class, and I don’t ever want to appropriate other people’s experiences which I can never fully understand.
Part of me says, Who am I to claim to have anything of value to say here? But a much bigger part of me is saying, Who are you to keep silent? Who are you to look in the face of such grave and widespread injustice and say nothing?
There have been a lot of incidents recently that infuriated me, depressed me, and made me feel outrage. But the last straw for me, the impetus for me to finally decide that I need to start speaking up, were the people and media outlets that seem to be more outraged over some toilet paper being looted from a CVS than they are about black lives being lost.
If there is even an acknowledgment of Freddie Gray at all–and often there’s not–the attitude seems to be, Yeah, it’s kinda sad that kid who wasn’t committing a crime mysteriously died in the care of officers who are paid to protect and serve the community, but the REAL tragedy is that CVS that burned to the ground. The kid had a criminal past, right? He deserved it. Those stores didn’t deserve it.
My friends. Perspective here. CVS has insurance. They will rebuild. This young man’s life is gone, forever. That family is destroyed. Where is the outrage about that?
Can we muster up even a quarter of the indignation over toilet paper being stolen and channel that toward concern or empathy over black men and youth who have died at the hands of law enforcement?
I’m not excusing the kids who were throwing rocks at police officers. As community organizer Deray McKesson said, “I don’t have to condone it to understand it.” But again–look at the big picture. The rioters are not the root of the problem. Riots and looting are symptoms, not the disease.
It’s kind of like the way teachers are being blamed by so many people and media outlets for all the problems in schools. They don’t understand–we are the victims of an unjust system that is not designed to support us. Our protests, our opt-outs, our constant insistence that we won’t be silent about the horrendous things happening with testing and evaluations in our schools– that’s not the the problem. We are not the problem. The system is the problem. The system needs to be fixed. And until the system is fixed, we won’t be silent, and we’re going to take increasingly drastic measures to make our voices heard.
The difference between us and these kids rioting are that the youth have no voice. We are adults, we’re middle class, we’re safe in our communities, and we can advocate for ourselves. These kids are being crushed under the weight of poverty. I’ve been in that area of West Baltimore and I’m telling you, if your children or mine lived and went to school in those conditions with no real hope of ever having more, you better believe we would be angry, too.
Get real here–would you want to trade lives with these kids for even a week? Would you want to be born into those conditions and have no outlet for that anger, no obvious way of affecting change? You and I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to be in their shoes. Disempowerment and helplessness create all kinds of emotions and behaviors that are difficult to fathom otherwise.
I’m confounded by the ability of some people to condemn the rioters, but say NOTHING about the violence shown by police officers, and openly applaud that video of the mom violently assaulting her son who was rioting. The same people who would be reporting that mother for child abuse in any other context are lauding her, sharing her story on social media, and urging more parents to do the same.
Screaming four-letter-words at your son and punching him repeatedly in the face is not a model of parenting that most of us would support in any other context, and certainly not something teachers espouse. We know you don’t teach a child not to be violent by beating the crap out of him.
That video was the perfect example of the culture of violence that permeates so many impoverished communities. These kids live that violence, day in and day out. They frequently experience it at the hands of people who are supposed to protect them. And when they act out what others have done to them, why are we shocked?
What I saw in the joyful sharing of that video by people who are apparently ignorant of the deeper issues of poverty and race at play is that deep down, they believe that violence is an appropriate way to keep black youth in line. It’s a positive thing for their parents to “discipline” them that way if that’s what it takes, and it’s also okay for police to use that sort of excessive force to subdue them.
So which is it, then? Can we solve problems with violence or not?
Who gets to decide when violence is appropriate?
Why is it okay for people in positions of power to use physical force to control others?
Don’t we call that bullying when it happens to us or our kids?
Clearly that video went viral because people found it cathartic. They enjoyed seeing someone they view as “the bad guys” getting what they “deserved.” But can they see that this is same the reason why some youth were throwing rocks at the police? In these kids’ minds, the police are the bad guys. The police, in their minds, are responsible for the death of Freddie and countless other people they know.
There’s so much more to this story and every other story like it:
- Are you aware that a teacher in Baltimore City is attesting that the rioting was at least partially instigated by police?
- That the youth of Baltimore city did not circulate fliers planning violence?
- Did you notice that not one of those supposed fliers has surfaced on social media?
- Did you hear that it’s a myth that gang members created a truce in order to perpetuate violence against the police?
- Have you considered that shutting down all public transportation right when school lets out and trapping kids in a neighborhood so they can’t get home might create some agitation, especially when dozens of officers who already have a tenuous relationship with the community have surrounded the area in full riot gear?
- Have you looked at anything past what you’re seeing in the mainstream media to consider other possibilities?
Listen, I don’t know everything about this situation. I just want you to understand that this is deep. Police brutality and uprisings and all the other stuff that makes the news is not a clear “good guys, bad guys” issue. Very few things in life are that way. This is not a Hollywood production where the kid comes back to life and the cop shows up on the next episode with no accountability over the life that was lost.
These are people’s children and loved ones being killed. So we need to be very, very careful about how we judge the situation, and what we post about it on social media.
Especially as teachers–we owe it to our students to be thoughtful, not only about what we share, but about what we believe. We owe it to them to examine our own worldview on race and poverty and consider our own bias and privilege. We all have bias. But we aren’t all aware of how it distorts our perception and causes us to sometimes rush to judgement or jump to conclusions too quickly.
More than 80% of teachers in this country are white like myself, and that’s who I’m really speaking to here. If we choose to teach students who live in urban poverty, I believe we have a moral imperative to serve the families in the community with dedication, empathy, compassion, and generosity. Please don’t go teach in the inner city if you don’t have a heart for serving those kids. This is real life, not Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, and it’s tough work forging relationships with kids whose world you don’t fully understand. I’m speaking from experience here–we have to know what we don’t know and understand our own bias as white people from a different economic class. It’s a real thing–trust me, your kids know your limitations and you should, too. You have to approach your role as teacher in those communities not as a savior, but as a servant. Your goals have to be to love, to connect with, and to educate kids. Work to understand the community and build relationships, and think carefully about what you choose to say and also share on social media and how it might undermine those relationships.
And if you don’t teach kids in poverty, it’s even more important to refrain from passing judgement on these communities because you quite honestly know nothing about them. You have the privilege of being in a safe, upwardly mobile community. You don’t see people in your community dying while in police custody or shot without cause. It’s not even within the realm of possibility in your mind that YOUR son might die unjustly at the hands of the police. You won’t ever know that pain of losing your loved one in that way.
Why use social media to share sarcastic memes instead of posting something that might help solve the problem? Know what you don’t know and be humble. If you don’t have something positive to contribute to the discussion, then have the wisdom to fall silent and educate yourself.
We as teachers owe it to ourselves and our students to learn about the larger, systemic issues at play here. Remember that most white parents don’t teach their kids black history, and black history is not taught accurately in most schools, especially in schools where there are few people of color. If your education was anything like mine, you learned very little about the realities of slavery, the history of race relations in the country, and the economic implications and inequities tied to slavery and segregation and everything after. I was always taught that racism was about not liking people because of the color of their skin. I had no idea about the economics behind enslavement, segregation, discrimination, and so on, affecting us even to this very day.
It’s only after educating ourselves that we can be prepared to have thoughtful discussions with our students about it. Those who work with children of color and kids in poverty need to know it. But so do those who work with white kids and middle class kids. Because if we aren’t talking to the middle class kids about this, then they’re going to see things like the riots in Baltimore and assume those kids are animals, inhuman, that their lives don’t matter. That does nothing to heal race relations in this country or eradicate poverty.
We need ALL students to understand the bigger issues at play here. Black history IS American history. We need to raise this next generation of kids to understand the reality of our country’s past and how it’s affecting our future. We need to prepare ALL of our students to make changes to institutional racism, classism, and all the other -isms that will continue to spark uprisings across the country.
Those of us operating from a place of privilege have an obligation to pay attention, and we need to be outraged about the right things. We need to start doing the research to understand where this intense distrust of law enforcement comes from and why people who are not committing a crime feel the need to run from police.
We have to understand–not everyone runs because they’re guilty. I’ll never forget when one of my HeadStart students saw police officers standing outside the National Zoo on our field trip and told me, “There go the po-po! You better run!” At four-years-old, he had already internalized that the police are not there to protect and serve, and even when you are doing nothing wrong, they are to be feared and avoided. My husband has shared many stories from his childhood where he learned to never tell police anything, because when a cop showed up, someone ended up seriously hurt or dying. There are reasons that kids are taught that in some communities, and those of us who were taught to trust police officers and obey government authorities without question need to uncover those reasons and stop talking about resisting arrest as if that’s the root of the problem.
I want to be clear here–I’m not being anti-cop by speaking out against the criminal justice system any more than I’m being anti-teacher by speaking out against the school system. This is about justice for people who are being victimized, period. It’s not personal against your husband or brother or whoever that is a cop and does an excellent job at it. This is about broken systems that perpetuate injustice, and changing those systems.
I want to see outrage over the systems. Instead I see outrage over the selling of loose cigarettes on the street corner, pointing a toy gun at passerby in a park, or carrying a knife for protection in a dangerous neighborhood. Where is the outrage over the needless deaths that came out of those choices? Over the lack of job opportunities for inner city youth? Over the inequities in their schools?
Why does the mainstream media only cover inequality when it turns violent? These issues are not urban myths and they’re not nameless, faceless problems. People like Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown help put a face to the systemic issues. They’re are a reminder that these problems are a reality, for tens of thousands of young people every day.
So, we need to stop getting outraged over the symptoms and get outraged over the root problems. We need to act as if black lives matter and not co-opt these tragedies to talk about our own.
I know a large percentage of my audience are Christian teachers, so I want to really impress this upon you all from a spiritual perspective. We believe in a Bible that says these young men were created in the image of God, that He formed them in their mother’s wombs, that He had a purpose and calling on these young people’s lives, and that NOTHING they could say or do could ever separate them from the love of God. How dare we even entertain the thought that a criminal rap sheet could diminish the value of their lives. These are children of King, precious in His sight, and they ought to be precious in ours, too, no matter how they’ve behaved.
And we can’t care just about their deaths–we need to care about these kids while they’re alive. You can’t dismiss those kids as monsters. If you don’t understand why anyone would loot and destroy their own community, do some research. Riots brought international attention to the dire conditions people in that neighborhood have endured and tried to speak out peacefully about for decades. Riots are a natural by-product of injustice that is perpetuated systemically. It may feel like the only recourse for disenfranchised people who don’t know of any other way to make themselves heard.
You don’t have to agree.
You don’t have to think it’s right.
But you need to understand, because you’re a teacher. You’re an American. You’re a human being. And these issues are important to ALL of us.
I want to close by applauding the tremendous attitude of compassion and concern demonstrated by the teachers in Baltimore City schools that I connect with via social media. They’ve all had one thing on their minds after the riots:
How do I support my students? How do I keep them safe? How do I talk to them about this?
And that’s an attitude that I would encourage teachers all over the country to adopt. It was Baltimore this time, but as even a small little town like Ferguson, Missouri, can attest, it could be your hometown next time. There are huge systemic issues that need to be addressed in this country. And until that happens, we can expect to see more protests, more uprisings, and unfortunately, more senseless deaths of black youth at the hands of law enforcement. These incidents have been happening for generations and are not going to be swept under the rug any longer.
I keep hearing government leaders talking about how they want to “get back to normal.” What they don’t understand is that “normal” is not a good thing for the kids in the community. They live among abandoned buildings, violence, and drugs. A lack of protesting doesn’t mean peace. It doesn’t mean everything’s okay again.
We need to speak that and live that clearly: the normal state of poverty these kids are facing is NOT okay.
And we also need to give our students a voice. All of our children, but especially those of color, especially those in poverty…need teachers who believe in them, listen to them, empathize with them, connect with them. They need teachers who understand that putting a lid on the rage that’s boiling inside our young people is not the solution. The solution is to eradicate poverty and inequities in education.
There’s always more to the story. Question what you’re seeing in the media. Take the time to dig deeper and try to understand those who see and experience the world differently than you. We need to educate ourselves. We need to educate our students. And we need to speak up. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be worth it.
Next week: How to keep from giving up on apathetic students (Ask Angela Anything)
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