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By Nehemiah D. Frank, founder and editor-in-chief
To Avoid Racism
I choose to teach at a charter school to avoid racism.
Not that the American society is proliferated by racist institutions where xenophobic teachers wait daily to either prey on or neglect tiny black minds in-order to prepare them for prison. No! That would make me conspiracists, right?
Though many Americans doubtlessly believe there’s a school-to-prison pipeline crisis, they’d rather place the blame and point fingers at working-class parents who are often burdened with multiple jobs.
More unfortunate, the missing accountability in inactions from those who have examined the data, listened to testimonials, and have self-implored the responsibility to the children. However, many of them have either intentionally or unintentionally ignored the core of the problems: implicit biases in education – from the teachers to the curriculum, the incredibly large absence of black male teachers and people of color.
So, how can a homogeneously-white institution close an overdue racial achievement gap with the missing variables of male educators and people of color? Logic will always tell us, you need all of the ingredients to form a well-produced and cohesive structure. Unfortunately, change can’t come soon enough when African-American students are disproportionately suspended at higher rates than their white counterparts (and I feel like I’m preaching to the choir every time I state that), and continue to perform in the double digits below white students.
Unintentional Racially Biased Teachers
Has anyone ever considered that white teachers are less-likely to suspend white students because their white pupils remind them personally of their, own, children and therefore show more compassion and mercy towards the “like” adolescent? Moreover, that it’s not a coincidence, the majority – if not all – of their neighbors and their friends’ children are white because they unconsciously practice de facto segregation?
Henceforth, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that white teachers habitually attend to their white students more because they have been shaped by their, own, homogeneously white environments and therefore are naturally adept at teaching white children more efficiently.
Furthermore, as result of their homogeneously formed environment, since birth, it would be easy to neglect the foreigner, even a child, because connecting to any outsider is difficult for the reason of competence, cultural understanding, and the level of trust building that must take place before the development of working relationship.
When one looks at the data in academic performances, and suspension rates based on race and finds little to no improvement in the closing of the achievement gap since the 60s, when one looks at the missing people of color that aren’t represented in the public education system, especially African-American males, there is only one logical decision to be made – school reform.
Just to be clear, education reform doesn’t necessarily mean more charter and partnership schools. I understand realistically, school choice can’t save the masses, but it can relieve the burden off of public schools whose problems directly correlate to the budget crisis schools are dealing with across the nation.
Hence, choosing to teach at a charter wasn’t a difficult choice, but rather a logical one based on personal lived experiences.
While growing up, I had quite a unique experience in attending public schools. I must admit, I was a military brat that thoroughly enjoyed bragging to my cousins and friends about how my parents and I lived in all four time zones in the land-locked portion of the United States. Not to mention, I took pride in how I attended 17 different (public) schools before graduating. Overall, growing up with a father in the military was the best thing that could have happened to me. I witnessed how students lived all across the country, not knowing that someday my cross-country experiences would become the impetus to my passion for education reform.
My most memorable experience and racial waking occurring when my family relocated me out of a D.C. Public School, Alice Deal Jr. High, and into the Fairfax County School District (F.C.S.D.)
It felt like I was going from District 12 to the Capital in the fictional book The Hunger Games.
When I attended F.C.S.D., it was one of the wealthiest and academically top-performing school districts in the entire nation. The school was technologically well equipped and offered Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes as well as luxury sports like gymnastics, golf, diving, and lacrosse. I joined the gymnastics team.
I had gone, from torn-coverless books and warm-humid classrooms to well-lit central air-conditioned rooms where textbooks sat so new, you could literally smell the plastic wrapping on them.
Simply put, it was next to heaven in comparison to the school I had come from. It was like the promised land every parent dreamed of their child attending.
When in retrospect, it was a cultural shock to the highest degree on daily biases coupled with the trauma I would internalize and harbor for years.
On the morning of my first day of school at James W. Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Virginia, a white kid looked me square in the eye, smiled ferociously, nodded his head upwards and said: “What’s up?” I didn’t speak back because I was shy, but I nodded in response to his greeting. Although I can admit, I was a little taken back by the white kid’s appropriation of the unspoken Afro-American physical-gesture for hello; needless-to-say, I wasn’t offended. He looked me from down-up and replied, “Cool hair.” I took his comment as a compliment, a small token of kindness. I didn’t take offense to the white kid’s “nod” either; I just figured he was trying to connect. After all, it was just the first day of school and I was looking to make friends, which I had grown accustomed to doing, considering the number of schools I attended.
I Really Am Black
As the weeks passed, I became more socially aware of my surroundings. I was only one of a handful of African-American students in the school. The majority of the students were white. So, in the classroom, I was usually one of two but sometimes the only African-American student. Perhaps, that’s the reason some of my teachers were unafraid in ignoring me, nor did they mind talking above me when answering my questions. I never complained tho,ugh. I kept in mind that the majority of the white teachers I had had in other regions of the country were extremely benevolent to me and were cognizant of my walk as a young African-American male.
Previously, one teacher, in particular, stood out above the rest, Mr. Martin Humphrey. He was from Boston, and in the south, he would be described as a Yankee white liberal who came to agitate the system. However, I remember Mr. Humphrey as the compassionate and patient white man who taught me how to read – I was in the fifth-grade. That’s right! I didn’t learn to read until the fifth grade. And today, every time I hear about teachers giving up on children, who haven’t been taught to read by grade-three, burns me up – especially when those kids look like me. Furthermore, if the teachers are white, the glimmer of hope I have for America’s public educational system dimmers each time I hear “I don’t pay attention to children who can’t read by grade-three because it’s pointless.”
But frankly, during middle school, I certainly wasn’t out looking for racially biased teachers. I hadn’t had a clue that a teacher could intentionally or unintentionally conceal unconscious racial biases towards any student of color – especially me; I was friendly. I had been conditioned, since kindergarten, that all teachers were well-intended and everything that protruded from their months was the golden truth and that to challenge any teacher would have been an infraction to how I was raised and expected to behave. For that reason, talking back to teachers rendered corporal punishment when returning home.
The Day I Became Aware of Blackness
I can remember a particular day that changed my perception of public education forever. It was a time my algebra teacher had been sick, and an older white male with gray hair was substituting. He wrote a math equation on the board I was familiar with. In excitement, my hand shot-up as fast as lightning. I was recognized and called upon. “What’s your name son?” the teacher said. “Nehemiah,” I replied. His reproach, “I bet you write just like you speak.” I smiled and nodded in approval not even realizing what had just taken place. It was a racial-micro-aggressive insult to my usage of African-American vernacular. Evidently, he had heard previous conversations I had, with other classmates, in order to come to that determination. I don’t remember the substitute’s name, but I remember the reactions my classmates had after his cynical reproach, which again, flew over my head because I laughed too. I hadn’t been taught to recognize subliminal racism.
That evening, I returned home still excited that I had been recognized and called on to solve the equation in math class. I happily told my parents the account of what happened, and after revealing the substitute’s statement, I noticed their facial expressions and moods changed. That was the day I was taught how to code-switch or “talk white.”
When I returned to school the next day, I began to play the role. I’d tell myself, “remember not to act too black,” so I could fit in. Although my mother always said to me be proud of my heritage. We even celebrated Kwanzaa. However, my desire to fit in, in my young teenaged mind, trumped whatever cultural impact my mother tried to instill in me. The proliferation of skewed European-style learning in a curriculum that had less than one percent of the African-American story, coupled with the occasional racial implicitly-biased/racist teachers was the cause of my personal downfall.
The stress to assimilate me and the fear of being criticized of my usage of African-American colloquialisms, the added fear of the possibility of being intentionally or unintentionally graded incorrectly on homework assignments all sent me into a state of anxiety. As a result, I began to skip classes and then school.
A year later, I found myself in an alternative school. It would be the first time in my life I had a Black man as a teacher. Mr. Anderson was an anomaly.
I was 19 years old and completely intrigued and enamored by his mere presence. And I was captivated by his love for teaching African-American history, which empowered me and changed my life forever. The seeds that man planted into me were so powerful that I went on to college and became the president of the academic honor society Phi Theta Kappa at Harold Washington College in Chicago, IL. Shortly after graduating with high honors, I attended Oklahoma State University where I earned a Bachelor in Political Science.
A few years later, I became a History and English teacher at an area charter were seeing well educated and finely dressed male and female teachers are the norm. At this school where black empowerment isn’t taboo, students cite poems of black excellence. It truly is a place where ambers (i.e. students) ignite the fire of passion in little black minds. The aim of achieving black excellence is a real reachable possibility at this school.
Lastly, it is a place where cultural inclusion and the celebration of the collective excellence of every culture that built this country is celebrated.