While teacher unions and others have often used the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others to make a point about the need to address racial violence in schools, research suggests that to highlight anti-Blackness in schools and make meaningful change, educators need to go back to the “mundane” of teaching and learning – and that includes a great deal of self-reflection.
In a recent article, published in the Northwest Journal of Teacher Education, Karen Zaino, lecturer in English Education at Queens College and doctoral candidate in Urban Education at The CUNY Graduate Center, and Jordan Bell, instructor of English at Dutchess Community College, argue that teachers need to consider their own roles in how they and their students can produce anti-Blackness.
Drawing from several sources, including the work of African American scholar and historian Saidiya Hartman, Zaino and Bell highlight and expand on the three specific areas in which teachers play a role in the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness in the mundane routines of teaching and learning in schools.
– Empathetic identification: in which students are “felt for” in order to deserve rights, which Zaino and Bell point out can erase and diminish the uniqueness of the Black experience.
– Paternal benevolence: often reflected in the gaps between a school’s mission of equity and justice, and its racially exclusionary experiences, often manifested in the school’s accountability and disciplinary systems.
– Burdened individuality: in promoting that individuals are equally able to achieve success, teachers and schools are not considering how disciplinary policies that target Black students and the use of racist eugenics-based high-stakes testing disproportionally places blame on Black students while instilling pride in white students.
To illustrate how this can manifest in the subtle ways a teacher might contribute to anti-Blackness in schools, Jordan offers the following example.
“For many white educators to actually see Black students, they feel they have to find a situation or experience that is relatable,” said Bell. “The challenge is that when they only focus on relatable experiences, the question becomes: are educators actually seeing students or are they just seeing themselves in students? If educators only see themselves in students, then this act of attempting to find commonalties is anti-Black in and of itself.”
So, what’s the solution? What should white educators think about when addressing anti-Blackness in schools? Zaino and Bell offer the following suggestions.
Teachers who identify as non-Black can explore their own identities related to race, ethnicity and class, and using the lens of racism and sexism, examine how their own standards for excellence and achievement influence how they engage with their students.
Zaino and Bell also challenge teachers to reflect on their feelings about their role as teachers – the “feel-good” side of why people are drawn to teaching. They call for teachers to re-examine their own motivations and complicity regarding racism. In doing this personal “deep dive,” Zaino and Bell suggest that white and Black, indigenous and people of color or BiPOC educators could have a deeper understanding of their Black students and, more specifically, how they might show solidarity.
“Using incidents of ‘spectacular violence’ and its ‘undeniable immorality’ to highlight anti-Blackness in schools might shake our sensibilities,” said Bell. “But we can’t allow these scenes of explicit brutality distract us from the important work of addressing the subtle threads of anti-Blackness that pervade contemporary schooling. It’s work that calls for a great deal of soul-searching, and it’s work that is difficult and painful. And to be truly meaningful, it’s work that abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore points out ‘must change everything.’”