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Is Your School Affirming Institutional Racism During Black History Month?

—Adrian Hillman/Getty

You can’t teach Black students while refusing to engage with their culture

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Have you ever sat in a staff meeting where the tension was so thick you could cut it with a knife, where you were not sure if a comment would spark an all-out race riot among teachers? Several years ago, I sat in that type of meeting as Black, White, Latino, and Asian staff had a face-to-face discussion about Black culture, White privilege, cultural appropriation, and what it really means to celebrate Black History Month. In the midst of Black History Month, this is a discussion I believe all schools predominately composed of Black students should be willing to have, no matter how uncomfortable people are talking about race.

Three years ago, at my former school during Black History Month, my colleagues and I attempted to pull out all the stops to celebrate Black history and culture. Unfortunately, it was only the Black staff members working together to put on various events to mark this celebration—a fact that it was and still is disheartening. To my increased dismay, it was also mostly Black staff that participated in the events.

Rather than allow speculation and unhealthy gossip about this lack of participation to fester, our principal listened to the concerns of Black teachers and decided there needed to be an all-staff meeting to address the frustrations. I still remember the day when we all gathered in the school library and how upset I felt as I looked around the room at my colleagues who had not taken part in our school’s celebration of Black History Month. Do non-Black staff care about Black culture? I wondered. If they don’t care about Black culture or history, how can they say they love or care about the kids?

The principal called order to the meeting by sharing his heart and apologizing for not supporting the Black History Month initiatives. He also acknowledged how his lack of support might have felt to staff and students, especially coming from a White male. Once he opened the floor to staff, a number of my colleagues spoke honestly about their concerns.

Reflecting on the poor participation in a celebration that called on teachers to wear clothing honoring Black culture, one White staff member expressed discomfort wearing something that could be perceived as cultural appropriation outside the school building. That is a valid point, I thought to myself, but who cares what others think? You teach Black children, and you’re celebrating their culture. The meeting continued, with an increasingly heated debate about the significance of clothing reflecting African-American history and culture.

When White staff member defensively announced she did not need to wear a “shirt” to show her love for the kids, I could no longer sit silent. How could anyone teach in a community that is predominately Black and think that they did not need to participate in activities that celebrated the culture and history of the people they are serving, I asked the group. As a Black man, I could never teach in a predominately Latino school while refusing to engage in their celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month; I would feel like I was disrespecting my students’ history and culture. The only thing that would allow you to do such a thing, I told my colleagues, is White privilege.

As the tension continued to build, our principal called the meeting to a close and pushed us to reflect on what we heard from each other.

Galvanized by the painful staff meeting, many of my colleagues and I came together to ensure broader staff participation in Black History Month and move the school community beyond this incident.

First, we created a Black History Month planning committee. With greater leadership team and staff collaboration this time, we were able to ensure that a group of racially diverse staff and student volunteers participated. This approach had a lasting impact: When it came time to plan Black History Month programming the following year, the principal explicitly sent out a call for wide participation to the entire staff.

This time around, we focused on creating a space where teachers were comfortable talking about race and asking questions. One of the tensest moments in the all-staff meeting came when a White colleague expressed unease with all-black clothing styles popularized by the Black Panthers because that group was viewed as a terrorist or nationalist group. In the moment, the remark prompted impassioned responses from both Black and White staff members disputing that negative characterization of the Black Panther Party.

As a Black man, I could never teach in a predominately Latino school while refusing to engage in their celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month.

In the aftermath of the meeting, our new planning committee reflected on this comment and opened a schoolwide conversation to educate those who have been misinformed about Black history and culture. In their PLCs, teachers read articles related to race, racism, and microaggressions. During content-planning meetings, there was a greater emphasis on including topics that related to the Black experience in America, which allowed space for teachers to talk and ask questions.

We extended this emphasis to instruction as well as professional development, by planning a teach-in week where all content teachers taught a lesson that was connected to Black history or present-day concerns. Schools looking to do the same can consult the website Black Lives Matter At School, which offers ideas for a teach-in or a week of action. This resource has been embraced by many school districts across the country while planning Black Lives Matter Week programming during the first week of February.

Finally, we called on all staff to visit community sites that our students frequent. This was important for staff to see the rich history of local places that our students valued. During designated professional development days, we visited a local boys and girls club, recreation center, restaurants, and other important cultural hubs.

I hope that any leaders reading this will recognize the nuances in celebrating Black History Month. When educators are passive or sit out activities that recognize or celebrate the history and culture of their students, they could be empowering institutional racism. I implore everyone who works with students to have the courage to push their colleagues to have courageous conversations and take concrete steps to do better.

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