I am a White Social Studies Teacher, and I am a Coward

For three consecutive Black History Months, I have picked up and then quickly put down the Black Lives Matter at Schools resources.  Why? Because I was scared.  I was worried that my white colleagues might think of me as radical. I was concerned that white students would grow uncomfortable and declare “that all lives mattered.” I fretted over the possibility of the Step Team, for which I advise, would be even more marginalized. And, if I am candid, I didn’t want to be called an imposter.
Although I have participated in three beautiful nights of celebration of Black History Month, I have skirted around the most meaningful conversations. I supported my students’ poems, songs, and performances, but I didn’t share resources with them.  Why? Because I was scared.  I was concerned that the administration (which has been incredibly supportive) might see the BLM materials as agitation. I did not fully appreciate the Black Lives Movement’s messaging. I worried that some people perceived the BLM as instigators of violence.  
Even though I recognized that the Step Team was barely scratching the surface of systemic racism, I was not indeed “woke.” Maybe, as a white person, I can never fully appreciate my role in our country. I was what Dr. King denounced as the “white moderate.” Why? Because I was scared.  My mother frequently told her children to “roll em up, and lock em up” when driving in specific neighborhoods. I was taught to fear people of color, especially black men, on a dark street. I am ashamed to admit that I have clutched my purse one too many times. I never had a friend of color. I grew up with white people telling me either to fear people of color or “to be color blind.” Either way, racism was whispered like the word cancer used to be. I attended white, well-funded, public schools in the suburbs of Syracuse, NY. I may have had classmates of color, but they were not people with whom I shared a social life.
I was taught to fear people of color, especially black men, on a dark street. I am ashamed to admit that I have clutched my purse one too many times. I never had a friend of color Click To Tweet
Seventeen-years-ago, however, I began teaching in a more diverse setting. My interaction with students of color and students with different stories than my own changed me, incrementally. I didn’t try to be racist or anti-racist, but through the Global History Curriculum, I was forced to teach hard history. I taught diverse students, and their stories became part of me. The messages from my youth no longer rang true. My fear began to dissipate, drip by drip. 
When I agreed to advise the Step Team in 2017, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were household names. I cried when the team performed “Colors on the Ground,” wearing hoodies and carrying skittles in their pockets. In 2019, the students performed a lyrical number about slavery. In 2020 (pre-pandemic), the students made speeches and read poems about racism.  
The students have been showing me that they want to express the layered experience of being black in America. I, their white advisor, have been such a coward. I believed that the Black History Month Celebration, including both positive and negative topics, might impact progress in a nice, friendly way. Kind of like how Dr. King and Rosa Parks are whitewashed, Black History Month Celebrations can be as well. I thought I had recognized my students’ experience in my piece, “They Already Don’t Like Us,” but that was only the beginning of my journey.
Growth does not come with comfort. Click To Tweet
Growth does not come with comfort. The recent events involving Ahmaud Arbery, Chris Cooper, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have made me uncomfortable. And sad. And angry. Moreover, they have exposed my fragility and my cowardice. It takes strength to change. Hopefully, the protestors and the victims will give me the incentive to explore ways to become braver, and truly earn the title of our school mascot, warrior.

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