By Shannon Finnegan

I am part of the problem.
I am a white woman educator. And I am part of the problem.
Three days ago as of writing this, George Floyd was murdered by 4 Minneapolis police officers less than a mile from my apartment as he said the words that have become all too familiar in this country: “I can’t breathe.”

I, like so many of my friends and colleagues, took to social media to express my outrage. Here is what I wrote:

“This. has. to. stop. These officers are not just a few bad apples, this is not an unfortunate but isolated incident,’ these events are not the problems – they are SYMPTOMS of a larger, more pervasive problem.”

As white people, we have to engage in tough conversations, we have to watch these videos
and sit with our discomfort, we have to examine our own actions or inaction, we have to know and say their names, we have to teach ourselves to be better, to act better, to fight for change, to show up for our brothers, sisters, students, neighbors, and friends.

We all have to actively work to dismantle oppressive systems that allow for these events to occur over, and over, and over again – decade after decade, century after century, in city after city.
This. has. to. Stop.
(Note: I’ve since had some friends challenge my thinking on ‘we have to watch these videos,’ I appreciate their thoughtful pushback. Read more about their reasoning here.)

But here’s the thing, white people, white women, white educators, white liberals – we are all part of the problem because we live and work within systems that benefit and privilege us at the expense of our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) friends, neighbors, students, coworkers, and classmates.
And if we don’t start working to actively dismantle these systems of oppression, including the education system; we will forever be part of the problem.

The education system helped to create this problem. This system, which has so deeply and richly impacted my life for the better, also actively works to perpetuate and permeate the oppression of BIPOC students, teachers, and staff. The education system is rooted in oppression, and in fact was designed to uphold and protect whiteness and privilege.
I have been a classroom teacher for 12 years now. At my worst, I have been an ignorant and active participant in this system. I have been complicit, a silent beneficiary. As I’ve grown in my understanding throughout my career, though, I have also worked to educate myself and my students about the inherently racist, classist, and discriminatory layers of the education system. I have learned alongside and from my students as we’ve questioned the system, poked at it, and wrestled with our own experiences within it.

At my best, I have worked to expose and change the system. And at my very best, I have been challenged to make space for my students; voices to change it, to empower them to be the change agents. My students will tell you that I always tell them to question authority and speak truth to power.

So I’m writing this because if I’m going to talk the talk, then …

 

 

The education system is the root of the problem
Over the past decade and a half, I’ve taught, visited, observed, volunteered, and studied in many different classroom and school settings from Minnesota to NYC to Ghana and the Dominican Republic. As I sat in my living room earlier this week and watched Minneapolis police respond to protestors with tear gas, mace, and riot gear (when white, armed protestors were met with no such measures only weeks ago), memories of all the classrooms I’ve spent time in started flashing through my head. A list began to formulate.

Later that night, my roommate and I decided to stop watching the news and agreed to watch Just Mercy, a powerful film that chronicles the real life of lawyer Bryan Stevenson and his battle for justice for wrongly convicted men on death row. As we watched scenes of mostly black, incarcerated men working the fields outside the prison under the watch of mostly white prison guards, I was reminded of what I teach my students:

“Slavery and racism are not over in this country, they just look different.”

So here it is (Note: for those of you ready to leave me, my solutions to these problems follow in Part 2):

We welcome them to preschool and read them picture books with only white kids in their stories Sit down, be quiet; we start testing them in kindergarten, we ask them to tell us what they know about chickens, cows, and farmers (when they live on the corner of Marcus Garvey Blvd and Monroe St) 

We punish them 3x more than their white peers, often for committing the same “offenses”.

We show their teachers data highlighting a so-called achievement gap between them and their white classmates –

we start to believe they are academically inferior (they start to believe this, too).

Sit down, be quiet

We send them to school in old, decrepit buildings with fewer resources, no air conditioning, and disgusting food that they call “free free”.
We greet them at the door with metal detectors and school police officers.

Sit down, be quiet

We teach them about the achievements of the European Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the American Revolution.
We ask them to read the Constitution and Declaration of Independence as examples of America’s “greatness”.

Then we teach them about how their ancestors were victims of slavery and colonization (never bothering to teach ourselves or them of the many forms of resistance, of the great kingdoms and empires of Africa or indigenous nations of the Americas, or of the Haitian Revolution – the most successful slave rebellion in history that made Haiti the world’s first black republic). 

We teach them that the best way to earn their civil rights is through Martin Luther King Jr’s non-violence and civil disobedience (because Malcolm X’s anger and Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power chants make us uncomfortable). 

We dehumanize, imperialize, and traumatize them with our curriculum.

Sit down, be quiet

We ask them to learn from white teachers, and report to white administrators and we expect them to respect us, simply because we’re teachers, or principals, or adults, or white.
We prepare them for standardized tests, and give them the message that in order to achieve and be successful, they have to be able to read and write (but only the way we want them to).

We teach them to code switch, we call it teaching “situational appropriateness,” but really it teaching whiteness.

We devalue and disregard their vocabulary, literature, poetry, art, expression, music, and traditions at every level (Unless we like it, then we appropriate it and take it as our own, or expect them to “share it” with us, or demand that they do)

Sit down, be quiet

We ask teachers to learn Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching, but we are only ever encouraged to use the strategies that we are comfortable with trying.

We are never expected to examine our own cultural biases or privilege. No one demands our discomfort or growth. No one requires that we seek to better understand and value the cultures of our students.

We greet them with silence and carry on with our content, business as usual, the day after
Freddie Gray
Philando Castille
Trayvon  Martin
Alton Sterling
Walter Scott
Tamir Rice
Michael Brown
Eric Garner
Jamar Clark
Ahmaud Arbery
Sandra Bland
Breonna Taylor
Miriam Carey
Tanesha Anderson
and
George Floyd
are murdered

Sit down, be quiet

We label their energy, their emotions, their language, their dress as ‘misbehavior’, we kick them out of class and then we push them out of school and funnel them into the school to prison pipeline, we blame their ‘misbehavior’ on their parents, their families, their neighborhoods, their poverty, and their choices instead of teaching them about all of the historical reasons why they so rarely are given choices.

Instead of recognizing their ‘misbehavior’ as a reaction to their systemic and consistent
oppression instead of recognizing struggles with mental health (as we so easily do in white students), instead of critically examining our own culturally based ideas of ‘misbehavior’

Sit down, be quiet

We hush their families at their graduation ceremonies, and give them dirty looks when they celebrate as their child walks across the stage.
We refuse to let them wear their kente cloth or decorate their caps at graduation.
We encourage them to go to college, when we know it doesn’t matter how educated they are – because they can all, each and every one of them, still be stopped and frisked because they “looked suspicious”, pulled over because they “fit the description” then falsely accused.
Incarcerated at rates 6x higher than white people,
Murdered for driving a nice car,
reaching for their license,
going for a jog,
selling cigarettes,
writing a check,
standing in their backyard,
sitting in their own damn house,

And then,

after all of that,
we criticize them for how they protest.

Sit down, and be quiet