What Educators Can Take From #BlackLivesMatter

Onyx Contributor:  Ryan Williams-Virden (@ryan612ne)

“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” – Frantz Fanon

Who would have thought from the obscurity of a small suburb of Saint Louis this generation’s most influential movement for justice would be born.  The murder of Mike Brown galvanized communities across the country:  they were sick of seeing their children’s lives being stolen by police once every 28 hours.  From these community’s collective pain and consciousness rose the Black Lives Matter movement.

Led by young people who came of age in the so called post-racial and colorblind meritocracy of America Black Lives Matter shatters these illusions.  They are exposing the eroding foundation of America as fundamentally built on white supremacy and incapable of reform.  They are demanding society reorganize itself, that the Racial Contract be done away with in favor of a truly inclusive and democratic one.


Of course, the movement is not without its critics, both on the left and the right.  The most common claim is that the movement does not have a demand.  Quite to the contrary the movement’s demand is actually quite clear, it’s even in the name, they want Black lives to matter.  So, what does that look like?

If Black lives are to matter it is going to begin in schools.  Currently, the education system in America is a mess of colorblind idealism and corporate interests.  It is the intersection of class and race and that intersection is a multi-car pile up.  This is due to the combination of over-saturating the institutions and curriculum with whiteness and then filling nearly every classroom instruction position with well-meaning, colorblind fundamentalist so called “whites.”  The result is an education debt and opportunity gap that is crippling every aspect of this country.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  The Black Lives Matter movement offers us the perfect opportunity to fundamentally alter the trajectory of this country, but we must take advantage of the opportunity.  Here are some ways we might begin to do that.

1) So Called “White” Educators, you are not White!

This can be a tricky one because the world prescribes whiteness and its privileges onto us.  But if the Black Lives Matter movement has done anything it has been to publicly shine a light on and proceed to undress the lie that race is an issue for people of color and that whiteness is the default.  Whiteness is something.  We must do the work of understanding what that something is and abolish it from our systems of knowing.  When we do this we realize that we are cultural beings and that whiteness is a sociopolitical arrangement with no real anchor in reality and certainly not in justice.  Here, here and here are some resources for beginning to do that work.

2) Dialogical Over Banking, Surplus Over Deficit

Another sad hallmark of our system is that it views poor students and students of color as suffering from an “achievement” gap, as lacking the necessary ability to successfully withdraw what has been deposited by their teachers all year.  This is preposterous once given more than a second to consider.  Students coming from a world marked by poverty and the violence of racism, a world that they intrinsically know was not set up for them are, of course, not going to care at all about Calculus or Shakespeare.  They are certainly going to care even less about what the unrelatable “white” teacher has to say about those irrelevant subjects.  Their lived experiences and accumulated genius are not represented or valued in the classroom so why should they value the classroom?  This has to change.  We need to recognize that every student is bringing with them a wealth of knowledge and it is all valuable.  The classroom should be an incubator for ideas meant to make sense out of the world.  Any assessment should measure the ability of young people to be creative, to critically think and to solve problems.  Anything less than that is simply not valuing their existence, their lives, and Black Lives Matter has made it clear that is unacceptable.  Paulo Freire is a good place to start for those interested in fostering this type of classroom.

Save Ethnic Studies

3) Implement Ethnic Studies Curriculum and Requirements

The second point leads directly to this third and last one.  We need to immediately implement ethnic studies courses and require them for graduation.  For too long the story of America has been of European immigrants coming to this continent, Americanizing it and themselves, all for the better.  We know this is far, far too simplistic, and often times patently false.  There are many more perspectives, many more truths that must be told for our young people to be ready for a world that decenters whiteness.  Beyond the moral imperative Ethnic Studies courses have routinely resulted in increased academic performance, something only the most vile person could suggest is undesirable.  Here, here and here are resources and information on implementing Ethnic Studies.

Ethnic Studies

Black Lives Matter has made it impossible to remain colorblind, to ignore race and racism.  They are calling a spade a spade and are demanding fundamental change.  A main battleground for this struggle is, and will continue to be, the classroom.  What an amazing opportunity we have, let’s not waste it.

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