February 24, 2021, will forever be etched in my memory. We were nearly an hour into the ninety-minute presentation when I began to see the trolls. There were so many coming at once that I couldn’t keep up. I will never forget the first appearance of the bright red Swastika. The words “Fuck Niggers” slowly faded into view, and dozens of “George Floyd Deserved to Die” sentences rolled across the screen into what seemed like an eternity of hate. Those five to ten seconds felt like they went on forever. I immediately shut down the video and proceeded to kick out over a dozen names, inadvertently kicking out a few parents whose names I did not recognize in the process. My hands still shaking, I took a deep breath, said a prayer, and pressed play exactly where the video left off. My email and phone were going crazy with alerts. My co-sponsor, our vice-principal, the mayor of our city, the president of our African American Student Union (AASU), parents, and other community members all had witnessed this racist cyber-attack.
I was so overwhelmed by the amounts of texts and emails saying the same phrase, “I’m so sorry, are you ok?” I literally checked out. As a Black educator in a suburban school, I had seen more “isms” than I care to re-hash, but this new digital world had brought out a different breed of hate that caught me off guard. The cowardice behind the hate raging in this new virtual realm was something I had never experienced and was something I did not know how to fight. I felt, and still feel, such a rush of emotions when I thought about yet another incident of racism at our school. I hate that I still allow myself to get emotional after all these years. Disappointment, anger, and sadness all were battling to be the dominant feeling that I was fighting to not let overcome me. I wanted to cry, scream and curse all at once! Sigh, I am not sure I will ever get “used” to hate, but I had to stay strong for these kids. Finding strength for others when you are still searching for strength is an everyday struggle for teachers of color.
There is a new face of hate raging in these newly embarked upon virtual realms.
Our district’s IT department, the police department, and even Zoom all have been trying to find the perpetrators. They could not rule out potential students, but due to how they bypassed enabled security features and the fact this had happened to other virtual Black History Month Celebrations across our state and other parts of the US, it could have even been someone outside of the country.
The sheer exhaustion exuded from the downtrodden voice of my senior, who had gone through literally thirteen years of seeing blatant racism go unpunished day after day, year after year. “Why do they hate us?” The sadness that emanated from this century-old question brought tears to my already red and swollen eyes. “I wonder why my family even brought me here…” This was from one of my Latinx students who bravely joined our AASU, wanting to step out and use her voice for change.
“I have had to look the face of my oppressor since the first grade.” This one hit me the hardest. I looked around the Zoom room and saw more agreeing nods than I could count. “I’m just so tired…” The words from a leader in our AASU broke my heart. My co-sponsors words as she recounted another experience of racism broke my Spirit even more. ”The saddest thing I ever had to tell my student was the same thing my father told me two decades earlier, and the same thing his father told him…this won’t be the last racist experience you will have.”
We had put on one of the most diverse and eclectic Black History Month Celebrations my co-sponsors, and I ever had the pleasure of facilitating. African Americans, Africans, Asians, Asian Pacific Islanders, South East Asians, Latinx, Whites, White Passing Persons, you name it, we had it represented. I was so proud! We pre-recorded and took every Zoom precaution that we knew to at the time. I still feel guilty thinking about what else I could have done to have prevented my students from experiencing the level of hate bestowed on us that day.
“Why?” I had no clear answer for my students who were so hurt that someone would target the incredible event they had worked so hard on. Thirty-six multicultural, diverse, and eclectic videos filled with celebrations of how Black History and the African Diaspora influenced the entire world. There were two beautiful female students whose faces were behind those hateful images and words that were screen-captured, and thankfully were not widely shared on social media platforms. I again looked around the Zoom room at the forlorn faces that broke my heart as an educator, as a parent. This might have been the most blatant form of racism some of them had ever experienced. It shook me to my core, which is even more evident because it has taken me over a month to write these words.
I took another breath and said another prayer for the right words to ease my student’s deep hurt. “You guys have two choices: you can either join the ignorance of hate, or you can be moved to activism.”
“But what can we do?”
“Will it even make a difference to speak up?”
“Does anyone even care?”
These questions made me think back to so many times I felt like my voice wouldn’t make even a ripple of difference in the seemingly never-ending sea of hate. No matter how many accolades I received, I would still be “that black teacher” to some hateful person. I knew I had to demonstrate the strength I was asking them to find deep inside themselves. “Use your voice. Speak your truth. Fight for change.” Slowly, I saw a few nods. I knew that righteous anger was spurring something else inside them.
These brave students began to show up and show out. Some who had never spoken in the past attended and spoke at school public forums to demand change from administration and teachers. Some suggested new anti-racist policies that led to the establishment of semi-anonymous (due to it being in email form) tip lines that never existed before. The next weekend, one of our speech and debate members won first place with her poem “I Am a Brown Skin Girl” at an invitational tournament. This horrendous act sparked a fire in our students that I am not sure will be squelched until real change happens.
Like so many other teachers of color, I have had many experiences with blatant racism, but this one was different. They targeted my kids. I felt their pain on a level that even surpassed my own. But I had to again lead by example and use that pain to amplify the need for change at our school and our district. Too many instances have been swept under the rug. There have been too many who have never been held accountable. Too many alumni share stories eerily similar to ones my students still experience today. The whispers of hate have become a deafening roar in this even more powerful way to spew racism in the virtual realms we now all reside in.
Will change come? Only time will tell. Until then, I pray that my students will continue to use this experience as a springboard to channel every emotion they felt in reaction to this hate crime and use those emotions to change the world. It has already begun. They now understand the purpose behind their pain. They have found their voice, and so have I. This has further awakened the “Mama Bear” inside of me. I have written more in the last two months than I have ever in my life. My students have begun to write poems, spoken word pieces, and speeches to be delivered on many platforms advocating for change. We have all started to think of real anti-racism solutions and consequences developed at our school and in our district. We have vowed to write, propose, and adopt clear-cut anti-racist policies that will hold people accountable. My students were bent, but not broken, injured, but also inspired. Their pain will not be in vain. Their courage in the face of adversity will inspire generations to come. This virtual act of hate has had unintended consequences racists should fear: the fire has been lit, the activism has begun, and change is inevitable.
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