In 2018, Echo Park Elementary School teacher Qorsho Hassan, a Black Muslim woman, was pulled over in Minneapolis for having prayer beads hanging off her rearview mirror.
The police officer commented that an audio recording of the Quran, which Hassan and her mother were listening to, was too loud and then gave her a ticket. It was a story Hassan recounted in detail to her 4th grade students this school year when, just 17 miles away from where she was pulled over, police shot and killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man. The incident left her with a sense of panic and doom that came “full circle in a really bad way,” she said.
“It was incredibly triggering to hear about Daunte Wright’s murder, but then also realizing the fear and the sense of doom that I felt when I was pulled over made sense,” she said. “That I wasn’t irrational to feel like my life could potentially end as a police officer who was white was smiling at me while putting his hand on his gun and talking to me in a very demeaning manner.”
In the aftermath of this week’s guilty verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, a white, former Minneapolis police officer accused of killing George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, thousands of teachers across the country are discussing with their students systemic racism, white supremacy, and Black people being killed by law enforcement.
Hundreds of teachers said in a recent EdWeek survey that although they try to find ways to discuss national politics in the classroom, especially as it relates to race and immigration, it can be challenging. Teachers of color are more likely to bring up these “controversial issues” and to share stories from Black or Latino perspectives, according to a report on civics education from the RAND Corporation.
A recent bill introduced in eight states, however, aims to ban the teaching of “racist and sexist” concepts deemed “divisive” by the Republican senators who drafted it. The draft of the legislation copies sections of former President Donald Trump’s now-rescinded executive order from September 2020, which banned federal trainings designed to confront racism, sexism, and bias.
Two Black teachers in Minnesota, which has been the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement and the location for several high-profile shooting deaths of Black people over the past year attested to the need to discuss police brutality with their students. Although it is emotionally exhausting and they risk facing backlash from parents or their district, both teachers said not addressing systemic racism is doing a disservice to their students and to themselves.
Abdul Wright, a Black 8th grade English teacher at Harvest Academy, a Minneapolis charter school, also believes it’s important to have conversations with his students about the killings of Black people in Minnesota over the last year to teach them about systemic racism, to give Black and brown students a space to process their reactions to violence against their communities, and to educate white students about their role in abolishing racist systems.
He isn’t playing Chauvin’s trial in his classroom because he does not want to subject himself and his students to rewatching police violence against Black people repeatedly.
“What I’d rather show is the protests that are happening,” he said.“You’ve seen us get beaten down. What I want this generation to see is how we fight back, unapologetically.”
On Monday afternoon, as Chauvin’s lawyers presented closing arguments in his murder trial, students from dozens of school districts across Minnesota walked out of classrooms in a planned protest of racial injustice that led to Floyd’s and Wright’s deaths, and to highlight discrimination within schools.
While discussing police brutality and systemic racism, Black educators also have to manage their own frustration and anger. Last Monday, Wright attended the Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis. He plans to discuss his experience there with his students, but not right away.
“The way this conversation has to happen, it always has to be from a place of being as composed as much as I can be,” he said. “I had to take a step back before I can even address certain things with them because I have to be mindful that I still want them to develop their own perspectives in their own mind.”
While Wright’s school stands by his decision to discuss these issues with his students, Hassan faced backlash last year when her class started reading the book, Something Happened in Our Town, after Floyd’s death. The book is about racial injustice from a child’s perspective.
“Using multicultural books that emphasize the importance of racial justice, and also naming, like, white supremacy, naming racism is important,” she said. “Because if I don’t, I’m erasing the experiences of my Black and brown students as well as my own.”
A parent complained to a Bloomington police officer, who posted about Hassan reading the book on Facebook, she said. That caught the attention of the state’s largest police union, which issued an official statement to the Democratic Governor Tim Walz condemning Hassan’s choice to use the book, claiming that it contains divisive language which instills fear of law enforcement in children.
“The irony is that I received such little support from my school administrators and my own school community,” she said. “And now many of the white teachers at my school and in my district have certainly realized that this book is a resource. What frustrates me is that, like, while I’m happy that they realized that, a Black person had to die yet again.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2021 edition of Education Week as 4 Ways George Floyd’s Murder Has Changed How We Talk About Race and Education