Seeing Racism

Note: I have included several links in this post, but I am not reading my references to them in the audio version.

I’m reading Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime with my seniors.

I read it the first time myself back in August, when I had just taken my current teaching position at a charter school in Detroit.

Trevor Noah tells his story of being born during Apartheid in South Africa. His very existence was illegal– his father was a white European and his mother was a Black South African — and it was against the law for whites and Blacks to have sex with one another. Because he grew up facing extreme racism and living with few resources, I felt that my students might resonate with his story. I hoped they would find the story engaging and inspiring.

We couldn’t get to it right away, though. All fall we were busy playing catch up. My seniors had not taken the SAT, so we had to do some super fast prep work and bring them all to the building — six feet apart — to take the test in person. We also spent several weeks researching, learning about, and applying to colleges. Many of our students now have acceptances and some are working through the financial aid process. For a school that had fewer than 10% of its seniors go on to college last year, the progress we have made (during a pandemic no less) is remarkable.

Anyway, back to Trevor Noah.

Before the second semester started, I made sure that each of our seniors had a copy of Born a Crime along with a composition book and a set of highlighters. My goal for this semester was to engage these seniors in the types of activities I have used in the college freshman composition courses I’ve taught. I’ve made some adjustments, like adding supports such as guided note-taking and using the Audible version of the book along with the text. I’m also using a pace that is approachable for seniors who are not only logging in to school via Zoom but who are also, due to educational inequity, not familiar with the rigor that seniors in other districts might be.

Some of you may wonder what I mean by ‘educational inequity’.

You can check out these statistics at your leisure, but let me summarize: students of color have been historically and perpetually underserved by the public educational system of the United States. This is a symptom of systemic racism. During slavery, one way of maintaining the hierarchy of the forced labor system was to prohibit slaves from learning to read and write. Later, when Blacks were allowed to go to school, their buildings and materials were intentionally substandard. This inequity was not resolved by Brown vs. the Board of Education–this landmark legislation did not create equity in schools. In fact, in some ways it made the experience of students of color worse. (Check out this podcast for a discussion on how Black educators were disenfranchised and students of color were henceforth educated mostly by white teachers, much to their detriment.) In 2021, African American students are still less likely to have access to college-ready curriculum, are located in schools with less-qualified teachers, and are concentrated in schools with fewer resources. To put it in simple terms, the seniors I teach in Detroit are years behind the seniors in the Ann Arbor schools where I live. Why? The perpetuation of systemic racism. (To read my blog post comparing education in the communities where I live and where I work, click here.)

So, it is with these students, most of whom have been schooled up to this point in the Detroit Public Schools or charter schools in the area, most of whom read below grade level, most of whom will do well to score 800 on the SAT, most of whom have been poorly educated and are ill-prepared to succeed in college — it is with these students that I am reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime.

Over the last two weeks as we’ve listened to Noah narrate his story of being hidden by his mother, of the ways she had to sneak around so as not to be caught, my students have been shocked. They can’t believe it would be illegal to have an interracial relationship. One student said, “Can you imagine your mom going to jail just for having you?”

When they learned that a Black person who was involved with a white person would go to jail for five years while the white person was given a slap on the wrist, I asked, “Have you ever seen that kind of inequity in policing in the United States?” When I showed them on the map how Black South Africans were moved onto Homelands far away from the whites who lived in the cities and were later allowed to live in slummy Townships nearer to the cities so that they could provide labor to sustain the lifestyles of the whites, I wondered aloud, “Have you ever seen this kind of segregation in the communities where you live?”

I’ve asked these questions, whose answers seem obvious to me, and my students seem to have no comment. They are tracking the story of Trevor and his mother and their escapades in South Africa, but when I challenge them to connect the racism the Noahs encounter to racism here in America, they remain silent.

Instead, they want to know if there is still racism in South Africa. They want to know if interracial relationships are still against the law.

I’m struggling for ways to talk about how long it takes to change the kind of thinking that would intentionally subjugate whole groups of people for the benefit of another group. I mean, I can tell them that Apartheid was declared a “crime against humanity” in South Africa in 1998, but I have to also add that that decision did about as much to eradicate racism in South Africa as the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did to eradicate racism in the United States.

I’m trying to lead them to make connections themselves instead of giving lectures on the history of racism in America, but I’m getting the feeling that their 17- and 18-year old selves aren’t much more aware of the impact of racism on their lives than my 17- or 18 – year old self was.

Is that possible? Is it possible that my Black students who have grown up in Detroit don’t fully understand the power and impact of racism? Is it possible that they don’t know that their socioeconomic status, their substandard schools, and the incidence of crime and policing in their communities are all a function of systemic racism? Having lived in their communities all of their lives, are they even aware that communities outside of theirs are so different?

I don’t think I was. I was mostly oblivious to racism at their age. I knew that slavery was wrong, but I couldn’t see the systems that were continuing to advantage me, a middle class white girl, over another human, a middle class Black girl. I could call out the hate behind the Holocaust, but I didn’t see the hate that drives inequity in health care or the entertainment industry.

I think I assumed that my students would be acutely aware of racism’s impact on them, but you know, I am starting to think that they are not. And, I’m not sure I –a middle-aged, white woman — should be the one to connect all the dots. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.

My students know their own experience. They know what their schooling has been like. They know that money is tight, and that shit goes down on the street where they live. They know that one of their classmates was killed by gun violence a little over a week ago, but I’m wondering if they know that that doesn’t happen in the lives of most white students in America. I am wondering if they know that they are a few years behind their white peers. I am wondering if they know that they haven’t been adequately prepared for college.

And if they don’t know, they are about to find out that their experience has been very different than the experience of much of white America. And I’m afraid that blow is gonna hit hard.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they know — fully know — all about racism and how it’s held them back. Maybe they’ve been knowing, and they are pissed, and they’ll be damned if they’re gonna talk to some white teacher about it. That’s possible, but I’ve been doing this gig for a minute, and I know how to read a room, even it turns out, a Zoom room.

I don’t think I’m wrong, so what I’m gonna do is to continue to build relationships for as long as I have these seniors. These few short minutes a few times a week, I am going to show up and give them my best. I’m going to read Trevor Noah with them and let them interrogate the racism of another culture, one that is removed and therefore easier to fully see. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll build some muscle that will give them the resiliency to one day interrogate the racism of this culture that has done them so wrong.

Lord, have mercy.

If my people who are called by My name humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sins and will heal their land.

2 Chronicles 7:14

4 thoughts on “Seeing Racism

  1. I think we can go back to accounts in the Bible and learn from them .. without reading the book (which sounds like a great read) this came to mind: the woman who was caught in adultery … was going to be stoned to death … where was the man??? In any case, it was Jesus who set her free.

    Liked by 1 person

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