From November 2018:
Don’t do it. Just don’t.
Another day, another poor decision that breaks into the day’s news. In this case, a Missouri teacher had students dress up as historical characters that existed when constitutional amendments were passed to show the passions and opinions that were for and against them.
There was no racist intent, we are told. The student was only displaying something from history, we are told. It was part of a group project, we are told. No harm meant.
This is what privilege looks like. We have no ill intent; we only mean to look at history, examine what took place, and try to get a lesson from it. We think this is supportive of people of color. We want children to imagine how it was back then and that reenacting is the way to help students develop empathy.
We don’t stop to consider that racism is still active today and that people of color still experience it. We don’t consider that seeing someone come into a classroom in the white robes of evil will trigger passion, fear, and suffering in others.
We’re tuned into what a good thing that we think we’re doing that we overlook its effects on others, in particular, our students of color. This isn’t history for them; it is life.
I’m not a hero. Whenever I read a story like this, it sends me into reflecting on my classroom and how my interactions with students were helpful or, despite my best intentions, were harmful. As a math teacher, I have little opportunity to do something like the news story, but! what about those teachable moments that arise, that have nothing to do with mathematics, but I should not let pass? It’s easy to direct attention back to the content, but are there not times to throw the lesson out the window when something important is raised by students?
Something like this is easy to flag, address, and punish. What is harder to admit is that we don’t talk about issues of racism in our schools. We ignore it; we pretend that everyone is equal and all is fair. Whenever an uncomfortable issue arises, it is better to pretend than to begin to have painful conversations that have to start with the staff.
If we as teachers, leaders, and staff cannot talk among ourselves about difficult issues of race, how can we expect that our students will?
If we want to pretend that everything is fair, then the disparities of punishment and suspension that hit our students of color disproportionately and the hardest will go unrecognized.
Please do not quote Martin Luther King, Jr. at me. All the people who use his words to justify the ongoing inequitable systemic racism … you don’t want to hear what he would say to you if he was alive today. You lift some words out of context to comfort yourself rather than get what he really was saying.
As for the cosplay in the classroom, don’t do it. Just don’t.