White Kids Need Black History, Too

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It’s Black History Month.

 

That means your local public school is pulling out all the stops.

 

We’re making murals of artists from the Harlem Renaissance. We’re jamming to jazz, blues, R&B and hip hop. We’re reading excerpts from the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.” We’re writing journals about what it means to be the people we are and to come from wherever we come from.

 

In short, we’re having a lot of fun.

 

But each child responds differently to the siren call of Black History – especially when the person making the call is a white teacher, like me.

 

Today I asked my classes of 7th grade students – most of whom are impoverished and/or minorities – “Would you like to talk about some Black History?”

 

And the responses I got were all over the place.

 

Some of the children enthusiastically took to their feet with a robust “Yeah!”

 

Others nodded. Some were merely quiet as if they didn’t think I were asking a real question. And some honestly ventured “No.”

 

In one class, a white student got so upset at the suggestion we spend valuable class time on Black History that he fell to the floor and almost hide under the table.

 

I’ll admit I was somewhat shocked by that.

 

What was he so reticent about? I mean I know the kid. He loves black culture. We all do. What does he have against learning about black people?

 

He’s a big heavy metal fan. What’s heavy metal without Jimi Hendrix?

 

He loves standup comedy. What’s standup comedy without Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy or – heck – even Steve Harvey?

 

And didn’t I see him the other day watching the preview to Marvel’s “Black Panther” with baited breath?

 

“What’s wrong?” I asked him on the floor.

 

“Mr. Singer, I really don’t want to learn about Black History.”

 

And it was on the tip of my tongue, but I didn’t say it – “Dude, if anyone needs to learn Black History, it’s you.”

 

I patted him on the back and told him he’d survive. But I let him stay on the floor.

 

Then we moved on.

 

We watched the video for the song “Glory” by Common and John Legend just to set the mood.

 

The kids were almost hypnotized. I’m not sure if it was the images from the movie “Selma,” the gorgeous singing and piano playing or the unexpected joy of hearing someone rapping in class.

 

When it was over, most of them couldn’t wait to talk about a few well-chosen people of color.

 

We started with the black power fist from the 1968 Olympics, talked about Tommie Smith and John Carlos, why they did what they did and even how it related to modern day protests like those initiated by Colin Kaepernick.

 

This got kids asking all kinds of questions. We talked about the origin of the slave trade, the science behind melanin and skin color, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and (in one class) we even took a deep dive into the lyrics of the National Anthem to discover why some people find it to be racist.

 

In short, it would be difficult to find a more productive 20-30 minutes. Kids were engaged and thoughtful, many looking up further details on their iPads as the bell rang and they left the room.

 

All except the white child on the floor.

 

He had participated in the discussion – reluctantly. But he hadn’t moved from his cave.

 

“Can I talk to you, Mr. Singer?” he said.

 

I told him, “Sure.” And he went on to tell me the kinds of things his grandparents say about black people.

 

He told me about their virulent opposition to Kaepernick, how they though black people were just whining about nothing and that racism had been over for fifty years.

 

It’s a hard position to be put in by a student.

 

You don’t want to contradict their folks, but you can’t let untruths pass by either.

 

I asked him what he thought about it. He wasn’t so sure.

 

So I told him just to think about what we had said. I asked him to keep an open mind.

 

For instance, I said, if Kaepernick shouldn’t take a knee during the National Anthem, when should he protest?

 

“How about with a sign in the street?” he said.

 

To which I responded that black people have done that and been told that was just as unacceptable.

 

By this time another student came back into the room and walked up to us. She was a white girl who’s usually very quiet.

 

“Mr. Singer, thank you for talking with us about all that stuff today,” she said.

 

I told her she was welcome and asked her what she thought about it.

 

“I just wish all this stuff wasn’t happening,” she said.

 

I asked her to elaborate.

 

“I mean that black power fist thing you showed us, that was like a hundred years ago.”

 

“Fifty years,” I corrected and she repeated me.

 

“And it’s still happening,” she said. “I just don’t understand why. Why can’t we all just live in peace?”

 

I smiled at her and the boy who had been quietly listening.

 

We spoke a bit further and they walked off together in deep conversation.

 

There are many great reasons to talk about Black History.

 

For children of color, it shows them that this nation wasn’t built entirely by white people, that they too are a part of America, that they have much to be proud of and to aspire to.

 

But that’s not the only reason to teach it.

 

Black History is important for white kids, too.

 

It teaches them that the world isn’t just about them, that we’re stronger together, that our differences aren’t something to be ashamed of but something to be celebrated.

 

But especially white children need to learn about their responsibilities as white people.

 

They didn’t start racism. Neither did I. But it has been practiced in our names and we have benefited from it.

 

If we don’t want to be a part of it, we need to recognize that and take a stand against it.

 

I acknowledge that’s an uncomfortable truth for middle school students. And it’s something I can’t simply sit my kids down and discursively tell them.

 

But in generating these conversations between children of different backgrounds, ethnicities and upbringings, I think it provides the chance for them to come to their own conclusions.

 

It’s a dangerous place to be.

 

Allowing kids to think for themselves means allowing them to come to conclusions you might not agree with.

 

The boy from my class might come in next week further convinced of his grandparents’ prejudice. Or he might not. But I suspect he will have thought about it some.

 

That’s all I can do.

 

As a group, white people could use more of that honest reflection. As adults, we become fixed in our thinking and rarely have the bravery of giving something a second thought.

 

But children’s characters are still being formed.

 

Conversations like this one give me hope for the future.

 

Black History is not just about the past. It’s about where we’ll go in the future.

 

Moreover, it’s not just important for black people. White people need exposure to it, too.

 

I know I do.

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White Privilege, Public Schools and Ugly Christmas Sweaters

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This is one of those stories that’s been bothering me for a while.

 

I won’t say it happened recently or at my current district, but after teaching in the public school system for almost two decades, you see a lot that most people never hear about.

 

So it was almost Christmas break and my middle school students were shuffling in to homeroom.

 

One of the girls turns to me and says, “Mr. Singer, am I okay to wear this?”

 

Hold up. I teach English.

 

I am not a fashionista or even particularly clothes conscious. So this question took me by surprise.

 

In the split second it took me to comprehend what she was asking and focus my eyes on the girl, I was expecting she might have on something too revealing or perhaps had an inappropriate slogan on her shirt or a marijuana leaf.

 

But no. She had on a simple blue long sleeve sweater with a red Superman symbol in the middle.

 

I was about to say that what she was wearing was perfectly acceptable, but then I remembered the dress code.

 

It was a new directive from the school board, and it was – frankly – a horror show.

 

We used to have a perfectly fine dress code that only made students refrain from clothing that was dangerous, inappropriate or sexually explicit. But then someone on the board heard about a neighboring district that modeled itself after a private school academy – so they had to do the same thing here.

 

It was beyond stupid. Only certain colors were allowed. Only certain kinds of clothing. No designs on t-shirts. And on and on.

 

I frankly paid no attention to it. But administrators did.

 

Though they rarely punished students for being late to class, improperly using cell phones or dropping an f- bomb, they swept through the building every morning to make sure every student was undeniably in dress code – to the letter.

 

And if a child was wearing a verboten item of clothing! Heaven forbid! That child was sent to in-school suspension for the remainder of the day unless a parent brought a change of clothing.

 

The same students would sit in “The Box” for days or weeks while their education was in suspended animation because they just couldn’t figure out which clothes the school board considered to be appropriate. (Or more likely they wanted a vacation from class.)

 

So when this girl – let’s call her Amy – asked me about her outfit, it was a pretty serious question.

 

And a difficult one.

 

 

Normally the Superman symbol would violate dress code, but I remembered that since it was only a few days before the holiday break, as an extra treat, students had been allowed to wear an “ugly Christmas sweater.” It was either that or conform to the usual dress code.

 

 

So all around me children were wearing fluffy red and green yarn creations sporting snowmen, Christmas trees and Santas.

 

But Amy was wearing a big red S.

 

By any definition, that’s not a Christmas sweater, and if the administrators wanted to take a hard line on the rules – and they usually did – she was out of dress code.

 

I told her what I thought. I said I had no personal problem with it and wouldn’t report her to the principal, but if she had a change of clothes, she might want to consider using them.

 

She didn’t.

 

And even if she did, it was too late. An administrator barreled into the room and proceeded to examine each child’s clothing.

 

Amy took her backpack and put it on backwards so that it covered her chest and the offending S.

 

Even that didn’t work.

 

When the administrator got to her, he asked to see what was under her backpack. She sighed and showed him.

 

But miraculously he said, “Okay,” and moved on.

 

Amy and I both breathed a sigh of relief. She was saved and wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the day in our school’s version of prison.

 

Before we could get too comfortable though, the hushed silence was broken when the administrator started screaming at another girl in the back of the room.

 

“That is not in dress code, and you know that’s not a Christmas sweater!” he screamed, cords standing out on his neck.

 

“How many times have I told you, but you think you can get away with anything…” and he continued to yell at her as she stomped out into the hall and presumably her locker.

 

And as she left, I saw that he was right. The girl he was yelling at – let’s call her Jada – was not wearing a Christmas sweater. She was wearing a plain gray and white flannel shirt. I don’t know how or why, but I guess that violated the dress code.

 

And for this offense she spent the day in in-school suspension.

 

I guess that’s not really Earth shattering, but it really bothered me.

 

It just seemed so unfair.

 

Jada was by no means a perfect student. But neither was Amy.

 

They both frequently broke rules and did pretty much what they wanted. They both could get an attitude, be catty, and mean.

 

However there was one distinguishing difference between them that immediately jumped to your attention – the color of their skins.

 

Amy was lily white. Jada was chocolate brown.

 

Now I’m not saying this administrator – who was white, by the way – was a virulent racist. I don’t know what went on inside his mind or heart.

 

In fact, I’d always thought of him as a fair-minded person who did his best to be impartial and treat students equally.

 

However, here was a case where he got it dead wrong.

 

Did he let Amy go because she was white? I don’t know. Did he come down on Jada because she was black? I don’t know.

 

My guess is that he was moving in a fog. He went to at least half of all the homerooms in the building checking each child to make sure they were in dress code. For some reason, when he looked at Amy, what he saw didn’t set off alarm bells. When he looked at Jada, it did.

 

Perhaps he remembered that Amy’s dad was a local cop and he didn’t relish having to call the police station to tell the officer that his daughter needed a change of clothes. Perhaps when he looked at Jada he was reminded of all the times she had been written up or defiant.

 

I say again – I don’t know.

 

However, there is little doubt in my mind that this is an example of white privilege – in action if not in intent.

 

The administrator gave Amy the benefit of the doubt because of her whiteness and came down on Jada because of her blackness.

 

This may not have been at the forefront of his mind – it probably wasn’t – but I believe that somewhere in his subconscious, racial attitudes and preconceptions played a part in this snap decision.

 

If I had taken him aside and mentioned it to him, perhaps he would have reconsidered. But probably not since I was just a subordinate.

 

Perhaps later after school over a few drinks he might have thought better of it.

 

 

But this kind of thing happens all the time.

 

White people make snap decisions about people of different races based on these same shadowy, unexamined racial preconceptions.

 

And in each case, the beneficiary is invariably the white person and the loser is the black person.

 

That’s white privilege. People like me and Amy get the benefit of the doubt, while people like Jada and the majority of my other students don’t.

 

It’s something we, white people, need to acknowledge.

 

I’ll say one more thing about dress codes.

 

I accept that they are necessary in a public school setting.

 

It’s difficult to teach if students parts are hanging out, if they’re displaying coded messages on their chests, have advertising or rude statements on their clothing.

 

I once reported a girl for wearing a shirt that said “WTF.” She didn’t realize that I knew what the acronym meant. Another time I reported a student for wearing flip-flops. They were dangerous because kids could trip and fall but also the incessant slapping of plastic against heels drives me bonkers.

 

 

But other than that, I rarely get involved in dress codes.

 

Frankly, I think too strict a restriction on what students wear and too stringent enforcement of such policies does more harm than good.

 

It’s the school equivalent of broken windows policing. Instead of lowering crime by cracking down on the little stuff, too punitive severity in a dress code teaches kids that rules are arbitrary. Moreover, it creates fear and distrust of authority figures.

 

And – intentionally or not – it is a mechanism for enforcing white privilege.

 

Anytime I’ve had to oversee in-school suspension, there have been a disproportionate number of students of color in there for dress code violations than white students.

 

I know that’s not scientific, but it’s the data that I have.

 

In fact, I strongly suspect that discipline based on dress code enforcement is rarely reported to the state or federal government because it would show a major uptick in discipline against black students. It would further prove that minorities are written up more than white kids and get more strict punishments.

 

Standardized dress is as bad as standardized tests. We shouldn’t demand all our children dress alike and conform to a nonsensical norm.

 

Especially when the norm is whiteness.

 

Ugly Christmas sweaters, indeed!

 

I mean how white can you get?

Black Progress Does Not Come At White Expense

People of different races hold hands as they gather on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridge in Charleston

 

Relax, white people.

 

Take a breath.

 

It’s okay.

 

America survived its first black President.

 

You didn’t have to freak out and elect a neo-authoritarian-pseudo-populist!

 

Holy Crap!

 

Donald Fucking Trump!

 

Talk about an over-reaction!

 

But I get it.

 

You’re scared.

 

You’re used to the faces of authority being white and male. Yet for eight whole years you had to endure Barack Obama – a far from perfect neoliberal politician, who none-the-less gave the U.S. the most stable two terms in decades.

 

And then you were asked to vote for a white face (sigh!) that unfortunately was attached to breasts and a vagina! Oh the horror!

 

Seriously, white people. Sit the fuck down and listen to some sense.

 

You don’t need white supremacy.

 

You don’t need male supremacy.

 

You can function just fine in a world where people of color and women have the same rights as you and yours.

 

I know. Sounds crazy! But it’s true.

 

Think about it.

 

Let’s say unarmed black people were no longer killed by police at a higher rate than white people.

 

Would that hurt you?

 

I don’t think so. In fact, it might actually help, because then we could focus on the fact that police in this country kill far too many unarmed people – of any race – than they should. In most countries, they make lots of arrests but kill almost no one. Here, they kill hundreds – thousands!

 

We need to demilitarize law enforcement. We need new training programs that emphasize de-escalation of violence – not a shoot-first-ask questions-later mentality.

 

And it’s hard to focus on that when racism and prejudice get in the way. We need to fix racism first. Only then can we address the root issue.

 

Here’s another example.

 

Let’s say we had truly integrated public schools.

 

No run down under-resourced schools that just happen to serve mostly students of color and yet across town we’ve got the Taj Mahal with marble columns and a broad curriculum that just happens to serve the best and whitest.

 

Instead we’d have schools that serve everyone – a broad mix of cultures, races and ethnicities all properly resourced and offering a broad range of curriculum and extra-curricular activities.

 

Would that hurt you?

 

I don’t think so. In fact, it would actually help because every child would get what he or she needs to succeed. Crime would drop, and even prejudiced and racist attitudes would begin to disappear because it’s harder to hold xenophobic views about people who you actually know because you’ve learned everything with them since you were in kindergarten.

 

There’s one thing you have to understand. Racism isn’t an ideology. It’s a sickness. It’s a virus that blinds people to real truths about the world and makes them more prone to holding views that are just plain wrong.

 

The same with sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and a plethora of modern day maladies that should have gone the way of small pox and polio.

 

Inoculating yourself against prejudice will not hurt you. Living in a society where everyone has the same rights doesn’t impinge on those you already have.

 

Yes, it will mean dismantling white supremacy. But that’s a good thing. You don’t really want the world to prize you just because of the color of your skin.

 

Do you?

 

Do you want to get into college just because you’re white?

 

Do you want to get a job just because of the hue of your epidermis?

 

Do you want the sum total of your value as a human being to be dependent on the way light reflects off your skin?

 

I don’t.

 

I’m white, and I don’t want that for me or my posterity.

 

I want people to judge me for me – not some preconceived notion of who I am based on culturally received generalities and the amount of melanin in my outermost cells.

 

Fuck that shit.

 

I’m me. And if that’s not good enough for anyone they can just go and jump in the river.

 

I don’t need white supremacy. And I don’t want it.

 

I refuse to sit back and accept things I don’t deserve while others are denied what they do deserve just so I can get some free stuff.

 

I refuse to let my society continue to be built on a foundation of prejudice and cruelty.

 

We’re all human beings. It’s time we treated everyone as such.

 

That means everyone gets the same human rights.

 

To paraphrase Oprah – YOU get human rights, and YOU get human rights and EVERYONE gets human rights!

 

For white people that means losing a certain sense of normativity.

 

White will no longer be considered normal. Neither will male.

 

It’s just another way to be – no better or worse than any other.

 

That doesn’t mean being ashamed of your whiteness. Hell. We can revel in it.

 

Imagine reconnecting with all the messy ethnicities we’ve plastered over to claim this homogenous white overclass! Imagine being Polish again, and Czech and German and Scandinavian and so many other nationalities that we barely connect with because we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves as anything other than white — That’s me. Just white. Plain white. Nothing to see here. White.

 

We’ve had to sacrifice a whole lot to get that status. But we don’t have to keep sacrificing. We can be who we are, too.

 

The Alt-Right Nazis are out there in the streets chanting, “You will not replace us.”

 

How about we replace ourselves.

 

Why don’t we redefine who we are as – who we are.

 

Not homogenous. Not white. But specific human beings belonging to various cultural, ethnic and religious groups and societies.

 

Human beings all taking part in the symphony of homo sapia, engaged in a robust love of all things people and a recognition that all people are human.

 

Think for a moment what that truly means.

 

Take a deep breath.

 

Let it in. Let it out.

 

It means letting go of this irrational fear that anti-racism is anti-white.

 

So, let me say it again – no. Black progress will not come at white expense. Nor will female progress or anyone’s progress.

 

Because we go through this life together.

 

We are one race. We are one people – though we are also many – and we will survive or perish together.

 

Take my hand and let’s build a better world for all of us.

 

Let us all benefit.

 

Let us all progress.

 

Together.

Surprised by Charlottesville? You Haven’t Been Paying Attention

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America is a funny place.

 

On the one hand, we’re one of the first modern Democracies, a product of Enlightenment thinking and unabashed pluralism and cultural diversity.

 

On the other, we’ve built our entire society on a cast system that is the basis of our economics, politics and cultural mores.

 

We’re the land of Benjamin Franklin, the Wright brothers, Duke Ellington, Toni Morrison, and Sandra Day O’Connor.

 

But we’re also the land of Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Charles Lindberg, Bull Connor, and David Duke.

 

Tolerance and love are as American as apple pie. But so are racism, sexism, prejudice and anti-Semitism.

 

“It is not as though the United States is the land of opportunity, or a hypocritical racist state,” says sociologist John Skrentny. “It is one or both, depending on context.”

 

 

So this week when people saw Nazis marching openly in Charlottesville, Virginia, the only thing that was really so surprising about it was how surprised so many people seem to be.

 

“That’s not my America!” they seem to be saying.

 

To which I reply, “Hell, yes, it is! Where have you been the last 241 years!?”

 

We base our salary scales on genitalia! You think we’re really so freaking advanced!?

 

The shade of your epidermis determines the likelihood of police arresting you, charging you, even killing you regardless of your having a weapon, whether you resist arrest or simply lay on the ground with your hands in the air.

 

Regardless of the evidence, if you’re convicted, the length and severity of the sentence are all partially determined by the amount of melanin in your skin. The cultural derivation of the name on your resume determines the likelihood of employers calling you back for an interview. In many places, your rights are legislated based on whom you love.

 

Our schools are segregated. Our taxes are levied most heavily on those with the least means to pay. Our prisons house more black people today than did slave plantations in the 1860s.

 

Yet a bunch of white dudes carrying Tiki torches shouting hate filled puns (“Jew will not replace us”? Seriously?) somehow doesn’t compute?

 

Come on.

 

This is America.

 

Racism and prejudice are not threats smuggled in past border security. They’ve always been here. At least since Europeans came offering trade and peace with one hand and guns and smallpox with the other.

 

The land of the free was stolen from the Native Americans. Our national wealth was built on the backs of slaves. Our laws and electoral system were built to empower one group at the expense of others.

 

Yet reformations in this process are rarely met with celebration. Instead of memorializing the end of slavery, we embrace the institution with fond remembrance.

 

Nor did prejudice and bigotry end when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, after Brown vs. Board, the Voting Rights Act, Freedom Rides, sit-ins or civil rights protests.

 

America has always been a place hostile to the under privileged, the second sex, religious dissenters, the brown skinned.

 

At most, we had become less confrontational in recent years, but we never really changed our core values, our social structures, who has power and who does not.

 

During my lifetime, people started to equate having a black President with the end of racism. Somehow they ignored the everyday reality for most black people.

 

They ignored the constant prejudice against the poor, the continued bigotry against LGBTs, the Islamophobia, the increase in hate crimes.

 

If there has been any change during the past eight months, it hasn’t been with the degree to which Americans are prejudiced. It’s the degree with which we’re willing to hide it.

 

Whereas before racists would claim to be colorblind, that their actions were completely devoid of racial bias, today they sigh and repeat the dusty slogans of Jim Crow Alabama or 1930s Berlin.

 

And somehow people are actually surprised about this.

 

It’s because too many of us have swallowed the lies about living in a post-racial society.

 

You thought we were beyond all that. It was a brave new world, morning in America, and we were finally treating everyone equally – unless you looked at what we were actually doing.

 

Mainly this is the reaction you get from white people. They rub their eyes and just can’t believe it.

 

You don’t see this too often from people of color, Muslims, LGBTs and some Jews. Why? Because they never had the luxury to ignore it.

 

That’s what we white folks have been doing since the beginning.

 

Whenever these issues come up, we have a knee jerk reaction to minimize it.

 

Things aren’t that bad. You’re just blowing it out of proportion.

 

But, no. I’m not.

 

That’s why you’re so damn shocked, son.

 

You haven’t been looking reality square in the face.

 

So when we’ve got undeniable video footage of angry white males (mostly) marching through Southern streets brandishing swastikas and assault rifles, it catches many white folks off guard.

 

They’re not prepared for it – because they haven’t been doing their homework.

 

We’ve been living in a bubble. Especially those living in major metropolitan areas.

 

That kind of thing never happens around here, right?

 

Of course it does!

 

Just because you live above the Mason Dixon Line doesn’t mean you’re safe.

 

You have a black friend, you like authentic Mexican food and you laugh while watching “Modern Family.”

 

But you haven’t opened your eyes to the reality outside your door.

 

You send your kids to private school or live in a mostly upper class white district. You have an exclusive gym membership that keeps out the riff-raff. You work in an office where that one token person of color makes you feel sophisticated and open-minded.

 

You’ve got to wake up.

 

You’ve got to educate yourself about race and class in America.

 

Because those people you saw in Charlottesville aren’t an anomaly.

 

They are an authentic part of this country, and if you don’t like it, you have to do something about it.

 

You can’t hide behind denial.

 

You have to take a stand, pick a side, and be counted.

 

Because one day soon, the torches will be outside your door.

 

You have to decide now – do you want to brandish or extinguish them?

Dear White Supremacists: There Will Be No Race War

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This one goes out to all the white boys.

 

No.

 

Not ALL the white boys.

 

Just the ones who think being “white” and being a “boy” means the world owes them something.

 

Cause I’m white, too, and I know it doesn’t make me any better than anyone else.

 

But not you.

 

You think your lack of pigmentation is a special sign of your supremacy. As if being pale was synonymous for God’s chosen.

 

Well let me tell you something, white boy. God didn’t choose you. You did.

 

What you take for superiority is just a misguided attempt at self-esteem.

 

I’m a snowflake? YOU’RE the snowflake. Same color. Same consistency. In the first warm breeze, you’ll melt.

 

I’m talking to YOU, white boy. All of you.

 

All those melanin-starved faces wearing matching eggshell t-shirts and fat-ass khakis.

 

All those brave, young men holding Tiki torches and an inflated sense of self worth.

 

All the protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, so fearless they can spray mace on those they disagree with, so bold they can throw punches so long as they know the police won’t hold them accountable, so courageous they can drive a car into unarmed counter-protestors, so brave that they can’t even call themselves what they are: Nazis, the Klan, white supremacists.

 

You hide behind “Alt Right” as if the rest of us can’t figure out who you really are.

 

Surprise! We see you!

 

We see your twisted lips, scrunched eyes and flaring nostrils. Your hood-starved heads and sweat-gelled haircuts. Your hate warped faces spouting reheated leftovers from WWII.

 

My grandparents fought people like you.

 

They dressed in army green and hopped the ocean to pound people like you into the ground.

 

They took your goose-stepping forebears and blasted them into bits. They buried your intellectual precursors under the ashes of their eternal Reich.

 

And for my grandfathers’ sacrifice, I rarely had to deal with people like you, myself. Not outright.

 

It’s not that people like you didn’t exist. Your attitudes and beliefs still percolated just beneath the surface of so many frustrated white boys.

 

The difference was that they were too smart to actually give voice to the darkness in their hearts.

 

It didn’t stop them from acting on it. They just wouldn’t admit why.

 

Segregation, red lining, broken windows policing, and a plethora of others. It was all polite, all deniable, all just the colorblind way we do things around here.

 

But that doesn’t really work anymore, does it?

 

Times are changing.

 

The face of America is changing. And it’s increasingly brown.

 

It’s got curly hair and unexpected features. It’s fed by different foods and nourished by different beliefs and customs. And it’s often called by a name that doesn’t derive from Europe.

 

People are starting to speak up. They’re starting to call you out.

 

And you don’t like it.

 

More than that you’re scared. Terrified.

 

It’s all going to end. The lie you told yourself about being special.

 

So you huddle together with others just like you, shivering and crying and blowing snot onto each others shoulders pretending that it’s a rally for white pride. It’s really just the world’s biggest pity party for boys too scared to be men and own up.

 

You’re brave when you’re in numbers, aren’t you? With numbers or with a gun.

 

Then you can say whatever you want. You can pretend whatever racial fantasy will protect your fragile little egos.

 

You’ll whine and boast and imagine you’re winning some kind of war for survival. But we know what you’re really doing.

 

You’re on your knees. You’re begging for a confrontation.

 

You’ll do anything to provoke it.

 

It’s your only hope.

 

Push them. Prod them. Insult them until they fight.

 

Bring them down to your level.

 

Prove your moral superiority by stoking a race war.

 

Because you can battle human bodies, but you can’t stop ideas.

 

You can’t triumph over equality, empathy and love.

 

You can’t stop the tick of time. You can just hope to reset the clock.

 

Well, I’ve got bad news for you.

 

There will be no race war.

 

Not now. Not ever.

 

Oh, there may be fighting.

 

You’ll try to make it happen. But it won’t be white vs. black.

 

It won’t be race vs. race.

 

It will be your minority of cowards and fools vs. the majority of the rest of us.

 

Do you really think people like me will fight on your side?

 

Do you think I’ll stand by you just because the shade of my epidermis matches yours?

 

Hell No!

 

I’ll fight with my black brothers and sisters if it comes to it.

 

I’ll fight on the side of equality, fairness and love.

 

I’ll do like my grandfathers and smash you into the ground. We all will.

 

But I’d rather not fight at all.

 

There need be no violence.

 

And there won’t be.

 

Unless you force it.

 

You see, you can’t make a race war happen.

 

All you can do is unite the rest of us against you.

Reaching Black Students Harder for White Teachers in the Age of Trump

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“Not everything that can be faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
James Baldwin

“I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.”
Donald Trump

Mariah’s eyes were wide as dinner plates.

She covered her mouth with her journal and pointed at the wipe board at the front of the room.

On it, I had written my question for the day. It’s how I usually begin class for my 8th grade students.

It read:

“Some movies and books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” describe what life was like in the South before the civil rights movement. To do so, they use the N-Word. Is it ever okay to us the N-Word? Why or why not? When might it be appropriate if at all? Why?”

I guess I’ve been teaching this for too long, because I didn’t expect Mariah’s reaction.

Not that was she alone. Several of my mostly impoverished and black students were looking around at each other in shock.

Kendra even said under her breath, “I don’t want to do this.”

We had just begun reading the novel yesterday. I thought it was time to address this issue before we were confronted with the word in the text.

In all of my classes that day, students had been interested in the query. But never had any of them reacted this way.

One student raised her hand and asked, “Which word are you talking about?”

I said, “I don’t want to say it, but it starts with an N and rhymes with trigger. Do you know what I’m getting at?”

They knew. Yet in removing doubt, I had only reinforced their outrage.

I thought maybe if they tried to write an answer first, it might help them organize their thoughts and maybe comprehend the point of the lesson. But they wouldn’t be directed back to the page.

Latrell was particularly upset. “It’s not always just words against black people,” he said. “How would you like it if we talked about words against white people?”

There were grumbles of agreement.

So there it was.

My white skin was the impediment. Here I was, a white man telling mostly black students to think about the appropriateness of the N-Word. I wasn’t trying to express an opinion of my own one way or the other. I wanted them to express their opinions.

But I had taken it for granted that asking them the question was appropriate in the first place.

I had forgotten that you can’t talk about racism with just anyone. It’s the same with sexual violence or abuse or a host of other topics that are deeply personal.

You need a relationship, the recognition of shared values and the promise of safety.

I assumed that I already had provided that for my students. In most classes that understanding seemed to be there. But for whatever reason, these students didn’t feel comfortable talking about this with me.

And I get it.

It’s the confluence of skin and history. No matter what I do, no matter what I say, I will always resemble the oppressor to some people. In the age of the Donald, it’s only gotten worse.

Building walls, casual misogyny, rushed deportations, religious intolerance – all are at the forefront of our modern social discourse now. These are matters not hidden under euphemisms or disguised as well-meaning public policy. They’re commands from on high, dictates coming from a mouth in a face that looks much like mine.

No wonder these kids didn’t want to talk about hate speech with me. I resemble the personification of hate speech.

I’ve been teaching “Mockingbird” for over a decade, but this was the first time in years that I paused not knowing what to do.

Should I force the issue and push forward? Should I give in and try to read the novel without the discussion? Should I put the book away altogether and find something else to teach?

I decided to get more information.

I asked the students to tell me how they felt. I asked them to explain what they were feeling.

Many were angry with me for even asking. They accused me of being racist. They tried to make me angry and blow up the lesson.

But I swallowed my pride and just let them talk.

After each statement, I repeated what I took them to be saying and asked if that was correct.

At first, many students didn’t even seem to be certain what they meant. When I repeated it to them, they shook their heads or said they weren’t sure.

Kendra spoke, “Mr. Singer, you tell me. Why are we talking about this? It don’t do nothing.”

I said, “Can we all agree that racism is a bad thing?”

But she deflected.

“Why’s it always got to be about black people? Other people experience racism,” she said.

And I agreed. I reminded them that we had just finished reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I asked why we had read it.

At first the loudest students said they didn’t know, but then Eva said it was to try to make sure nothing like the Holocaust ever happened again.

I nodded, and repeated my original question, “So can we all agree racism is bad? Raise your hand if you think racism is bad.”

They all raised their hands.

“Okay,” I said. “Then how do we stop it if we can’t talk about it?”

Kendra responded, “Mr. Singer, when we leave this class, none of this is going to matter. People are still going to be racist. Cops still gonna’ kill little black kids. People like you still gonna’ push people like me out.”

Others chimed in with similar comments.

I nodded, and said, “You’re right.”

That silenced them.

“You’re right, Kendra,” I said. “Maybe we can’t stop racism with what we say in here. Maybe no one can. But the hope is that if we talk about it, we’ll reduce it, we’ll cut it down to size. What do you think? Do you think we can take all the racism in the world and cut it down even by just a little bit?”

She didn’t say anything.

No one did. But hands were raised in the air. No one was shouting. No one seemed angry. Several students wanted to talk, and they were looking to me to organize the discussion.

So I let them talk.

All the time I had scheduled to write the journal fell through the hour glass and then some.

And when the discussion was petering out, I promised them that I would be available after class if anyone wanted to continue talking about it.

Then we picked up the book and continued reading.

I don’t know if it was the best class I’ve ever taught.

It was disturbing and uncomfortable.

I don’t see myself as anyone’s savior. But I’m there to help. I had hoped my students knew that.

But as a public school teacher, you learn not to take anything students do personally. They’re all going through a struggle you know little about.

I don’t want them to see me as an adversary. I want them to see me as a fellow traveler, as someone on their side.

But so much has changed in the last 100 days.

It’s a different world.

Racism and prejudice are no longer at the same remove. They never went away, but now they’re an unspoken presence coiled at our feet – constantly.

I have no answers. I ask questions and try to get my students to think about their own answers.

I just hope we’ll continue to have the courage to try.

The Corporate Coup Destroying Our Schools Has Finally Come For Our Government

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First they came for people of color and I said nothing.

Because I am not a person of color.

 

Then they came for the poor and I said nothing.

For I am not poor.

 

Then they came for our public schools and I said nothing.

Because I do not send my children to public schools.

 

Now they’ve come for our government and who is left to speak for me?

 

This is a paraphrase of Martin Niemöller’s famous lines about the cowardice of German intellectuals during Hitler’s rise to power.

 

The fascists purged group after group while those who could have stood against them did nothing – until it was too late.

 

That’s very nearly the position we find ourselves in today in relation to the Trump administration.

 

The neoliberal and neofascist façade has fallen away. And the naked greed of our runaway capitalist system has been exposed for what it is.

 

Just this week, Trump unveiled a new government office with sweeping authority to overhaul federal bureaucracy on the business model.

 

Led by the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, The White House Office of American Innovation will be an autonomous entity enforcing the president’s will. Described as an internal “SWAT team” of strategic consultants, and staffed with former business executives, the office will cut down democratic rule in favor of top-down authoritarianism.

 

And the excuse is the same one used to deny equity for minorities, the same one used to dismantle protections for the poor and the same one used to unfairly label and close our public schools – we need to run government like a business.

 

But government is not a business.

 

The goal of a business is profit for the few. The goal of government is service to the many.

 

In a private business only the owner or the board of directors reaps the benefits. But our government is not supposed to be set up that way. It’s not supposed to benefit merely all the president’s men. It’s supposed to benefit all of us – the citizens, the taxpayers, the voters.

 

This is exactly the model that has been used against our public schools.

 

We have shifted our concern away from students and parents to investors and corporations. For almost two decades, our education policies have increasingly been to reduce local control – especially at schools serving the poor and minorities – and give that control to private charter school operators. We have removed the duly-elected school boards and replaced them with appointed boards of directors. We have removed or diminished democratic rule and replaced it with an autocracy. And all the while the middle class has cheered.

 

It was a coup in plain site, and no one but parents, students, teachers and intellectuals spoke up.

 

Our voices were undercut or ignored. When we demanded equal treatment for our children, we were labeled welfare queens wanting something for nothing. When we demanded fair treatment, a safe work environment and resources for our students, we were labeled union thugs standing in the way of progress. At every turn we were tone policed into silence and passed over for the voices of self-proclaimed experts who knew nothing but what they were paid to espouse.

 

We were told that the only measure of academic success was a standardized test score. But no mention of the white, middle class standard our non-white, impoverished students were being held to.

 

When our schools were increasingly segregated by race, class and income, we were told that it was only fair. After all, it was based on choice – the choice of the invisible hand of the free market. When our schools were starved of resources, we were told to do more with less. And when our students struggled to survive malnutrition, increased violence and the indentured servitude of their parents to an economic system that barely allowed them to sustain themselves, we blamed them. And their teachers, because how dare anyone actually try to help these untouchables!

 

We allowed this – all of it – perpetrated by Democrats and Republicans, Conservatives and Liberals, because they’re all really just different dogs to the same masters.

 

We justified it all in the name of the market, in the name of economics, in the name of business. Why should we care? It rarely affected us directly.

 

White, middle class folks could get by. It wasn’t OUR schools being given away to private equity firms. It wasn’t OUR children being educated by temporary employees on the model of the peace corps with little training and no experience.

 

Those were just someone else’s children. We weren’t even sure they were human. They certainly didn’t share the same portion of humanity as we did. They were unwashed and unfed. Even if you washed them, many of them would still have brown skin. We were happy to have them as an underclass, as a cushion to stop us from falling further down the social ladder.

 

Our kids went to either well resourced public schools with fully elected school boards and shiny new facilities or else we sent our children to pristine private schools that offered the best of everything for a price.

 

But now the chickens have come home to roost.

 

Because this same model is being applied to our government.

 

Now it is us who will lose our voices. It will be our services that are stripped away as an unnecessary cost savings. We will lose our healthcare. We will lose our environment. It will be our democracy suspended to make way for the more efficient means of government – fascism and autocracy.

 

Who has time to listen to the people? Much easier to just decide what should be done. And we can justify it with our business model. No more voters and representatives. Now we will be businessmen and consumers. Nothing will stand in the way of the corporate class enriching themselves at public expense. They will be merely providing the rest of us with the goods and services of government, the bits that trickle down on our heads like rain or urine.

 

That is what Trump is attempting. He is turning the United States into a banana republic – even installing his relatives and children in top leadership positions. Our government now resembles the corridors of power in Baghdad under Saddam Hussein with henchmen Uday and Qusay in tow.

 

The question is this: will we allow it?

 

Will we continue to allow it?

 

Will we stand for it as the administration installs Trump loyalty officers in every federal office?

 

Will we say nothing as nepotism and greed become the most prized attributes of governance?

 

Will we remain silent as our public schools continue to be raided, sacked and burned?

 

Because the answer to those questions is the answer to so much more.

 

Are we on the cusp of revolution or is history merely repeating itself?