When Can We Talk About Race? (Michael + Trayvon + Renisha + …)

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose, Race14 Comments

This is often the way education conversations go:

Higher-Up: Hey, so what do people want to talk about?
Teacher 1: Can we talk about teacher evaluation?
Higher-Up: Sure, what’s on your mind?
Teacher 1: Well, here it goes. [long diatribe about how great / terrible Danielson is] Higher-Up: Well, OK. Anyone else?
Teacher 2 (of color): Can we talk about race now?
Higher-Up: Sounds complicated. We need a more appropriate forum for th …
Teacher 2: But this is urgent. We’re having serious issues going on and so many of our kids are of …
Higher-Up: OK, OK, OK. We’ll get to it in a more appropriate forum. Anyone else?

Teacher 3: Let’s talk about Common Core.
Higher-Up: What about it?
Teacher 3: My thinking is [even longer diatribe about Gates’ involvement and how great / terrible standards are for kids] Higher-Up: I hear you. That’s relevant. Anyone else?
Teacher 2: Can we talk about race now? (with a little more emphasis)
Higher-Up: I still don’t think we’re ready. We’re really dealing with this issue and I’d rather we be better informed and nuanced about race before dealing with it.
Teacher 2: But half the people here don’t actually know what the CCSS is, the layers, and why they’re either for or against any of it and …
Higher-Up: SO everyone should have an opinion on the CCSS, so I allowed it.
Teacher 2: UGH!

(skip to the last teacher on the list …)

Higher-Up: Anyone else?
Teacher 100: I want to talk about the deleterious effects of poverty …
Teacher 2: OK, so are we going to talk about race here?
Higher-Up: Now, I said we needed the right forum …
Higher-Up: Now, now, let’s stay professi …

And scene …

So, not that this has happened before, but I wonder, too frequently, why people always want to wait, wait, wait on discussing issues of race, even ones as point-blank (pardon the pun) as this Michael Brown tragedy. Whether on or offline, people always want to find the “right forum” for this conversation. I get that, with some discussions, we need to have certain protocol so people feel comfortable opening up about their experiences and, in many cases, unpacking their privilege. But then it always feels like people put off certain conversations until people forget them.

All the while, I must openly question how folks can go so hard when it comes to Common Core State Standards and all the reforms that come with it, and not dedicate a few minutes of their time to learn about, if not ask those who know something about, some of the tragedies affecting our kids, both locally and nationally. I refuse to stand in solidarity with those who won’t do so with me.

Because the death of children of color at the hands of our executive branch takes more precedence than any set of standards.

I won’t wait.


photo c/o

Comments 14

  1. We don’t talk about race because it makes us uncomfortable. And heaven forbid we be uncomfortable. So, let’s just talk about poverty, It’s a much more comfy discussion. Those poor people….let’s offer free lunch and breakfast and let’s offer a discounted rate on AP tests. This will make it all better.

    See..that’s a much better conversation, don’t you think?! (this text was typed in sarcasm font)

  2. There is no panacea but…

    Children of the systematically oppressed have a chance to catch up when the trillions we spend on wars are redirected to prenatal care, infant/early childhood stimulation/education, when children of color receive 10 × the educational opportunities other children receive (e.g., keep disadvantaged children in school every day until they understand and finish their homework, 6 days a week).

    Perhaps this approach won’t eliminate racism but imagine how the advantaged would react if we really tilt the playing field.
    I wish you only the best, Jose. Keep on, keeping on.

  3. Mr. Vilson,

    I embrace and support your points whole-heartedly. My take on the matter comes from a historical and psychological perspective. We do not identify with others who we label as “them” when “they” grow up in different communities, don’t share a seat next to us in the classroom or faculty lounge, when they do not sit next to us at the doctors office, etc. The 1964 Civil Rights act came a century too late. The seeds of segregation and what many in real estate call “steering” has taken root into the infrastructure of our society at such a deep level that tacit hand-slapping such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act do not get at the core of racial divides. Complicating the issue further is the fact that disprorpionate amounts of black and latin populations in the US make up the lowest socioeconomic classes of society. The issues of crime, poverty, vocabulary deprivation and the corresponding lack of educational proficiency, follow them more so than white and Asian populations. It is much easier for predominately white teachers to complain about CCSS as a result of the related testing and APPR rankings of our “proficiency” than it is to tackle issues of poverty and race. It is uncomfortable for many and it isn’t because they are inherently racist, which is a starting point too many emotionally driven talking-heads use to explain the situation. Many white teachers did not group or currently live in racially or economically diverse communities therefore to have a real palpable empathy is much less common, which is by historical design not by some innate racist ineptitude not he part of white teachers.

    Bottom line: race is still an issue and it is closely intertwined with income. If we can discuss poverty at great lengths first, then we can introduce the idea of racial elements once everyone has bought into the conversation.


  4. Preach Vilson!!! And not just talk, but come up with real solutions and actions to combat the inequities in resources and portrayals of people of color, young and old alike. If I had reporter friends, I’d invite them to the conversation too. This was a good read!!!!

  5. We can’t talk about race because then those in power will have to take ownership and responsibility over the decisions they have made that have contributed to the prevalence of racism in our country. While it is true that every ethnic group in this country have experienced racism, none have experienced it or continue to experience it the way African Americans or blacks do today. From slavery, to the civil rights era, to the war on drugs and the rate at which we incarcerate this group of human beings over any other group, to the fact that even in housing do we discriminate (where politicians call it “gentrifying” the reality is that we are marginalizing and pushing out the poor, the minorities, and making room for those of much higher socio-economic status who very rarely represent the original demographic of that neighborhood), and the list goes on. To talk about racism and acknowledge that there is an on-going pattern in this country of killing our youth, is to admit that little is being done to correct all of the wrongs in society that have trapped these people into an inescapable cycle of poverty, miseducation, and lack of resources. Education is not it’s own separate entity. As an educator myself in an inner city, low income neighborhood, I see how interdependent school is to the community, society, and the economy. Where you have a neighborhood with little resources invested into bettering the people of that community (access to quality education, meaningful after school programs, safe parks, libraries, safe streets) you will see an increase in poverty, crime, drug use and abuse, parents who want to be involved but can’t because they have to hold down 3 jobs just to put food on the table (acknowledging the minimum wage issue is still very much an issue). Neighborhoods where the opposite is true have youth that thrive because the possibility of reaching their goals, of getting out of their situations, of seeing people succeed, motivates them to do better. In neighborhoods where there are so many obstacles to reach success or get out of this cycle, where there is no trust in the police or elected officials, where education has failed them, and these people feel worthless especially since it seems that the our leaders have forgotten about them, what do we say to theses people? How do we make them feel better about themselves? How do we make them believe that there is better out there when they haven’t experienced it themselves? All they experience is poverty, all they see is their youth being destroyed and killed each year. Taking responsibility for the fact that racism still exists is only the first step. Mobilizing people and communities in order to force leaders to try and change policies that continue to suppress our people is another job in itself. I only hope that these tragedies come to an end and that we learn and grow from these occurrences. We need to do better as a nation, become less complacent and more involved in taking peaceful action in our communities and in the government to force change.

    1. Post

      Thanks, Awilda. I appreciate this comment a lot. Far too often, I see either school as a decontextualized element of our society or as an element whose fate has nothing to do with the agents inside the building. Both of these might have *some* validity, I just don’t work this way. As you and I know, we as educators have to speak to these issues AND be the best teachers possible for our students. We can be both. How we go about that change, frankly, will be up to me and you, your mama and your cousin too.

  6. As a brother-in-arms math teacher, teaching a similar demographic and age group as yours but out West, I pick my spots in the classroom to broach these issues. Often, the best time with students is at lunch or after school outside with them. Just this past year I had an 8th grader, very large for his grade, to whom I said repeatedly how careful he must be on the streets as he will be a target (and has been) of ignorant folks in and out of uniform.

    I am blessed to be on a very small yet diverse staff, led by a principal who won’t hesitate to bring these issues up as needed, especially with she being the mother of two boys. I wonder cynically if some schools avoid staffing senior, ‘grizzled’ educators as they would be more prone to “lose dey minds up in here” like your scenario, and the trump card of their experience many administrators couldn’t counter.

  7. The U.S. has never actually addressed her racial problems. This is a country where most Indians live on reservations, most blacks live in the cities and most whites live in the suburbs. And if whites live in the cities it is in secluded areas away from blacks. This is a country where our first black President is getting more hell than all the president’s combined ever got. This is a country where urban public schools are being sold to corporations thus our urban children are being sold like cattle so other people can profit but suburban schools are not be sold. This is a country where police shooting down blacks in cold blood is normal. This is a country where the Khans are passing out information asking people to join them but the Panthers are dead or were forced to give up. But sir when do we stand up as black people and say enough is enough. Not after the bullets then we riot burning down our neighborhoods. Urban public schools are closing because parents are allowing people to take over them and they are selling their own children to them. If 68% of a population is black and there is only 3 black police the people should have demanded more black and Hispanic police officers. If crime was increasing than the people in the neighborhood should have worked collectively together the decrease crime in their area. If more blacks were being stopped by police officers protest should have started before the killing. Racism in this country needs to stop but so does the apathy on both sides.

  8. We as blacks must stop saying education has failed our children. All of us know that racism has been a destructive force in our destruction but we have to also take a look at our own input. Black youths need to go to school sit down and learn then go home and study. Black parents need to send their children to school prepared, disciplined, feed and make help them with their homework. Indians live on reservations. These are people who lived here first and they are living on reservations. We need to stop depending on the schools, the government or anybody else to do for us. We are the only nationality with our hands out. We need to get off of social media and work together to open our own businesses, protect our own neighborhoods and we as blacks need to become a major voting block this way we can control who runs our neighborhoods. Yes they owe us our reparation, but we are not getting it. We as blacks need to stop complaining and start standing and not after a shooting. I saw and heard the out cry over Mr. Martin then silence. Now the cries again and then there will be silence until the next shooting. When will we as blacks stand and never sit again.

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