Opinion

How can we show disenfranchised, black students that they matter when everything else is telling them otherwise?

A Yale educator who grew up and taught in the Bronx reflects on U.S. race relations

As an educator and as a black woman from the Bronx, I do not know how to begin to process the state-sanctioned murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling — or the killing of five Dallas police officers. I worry about my family and me. I worry about our safety obsessively. I worry about whether the world will nurture me, us, as we mourn the many lives we have lost this year. I have been feeling suffocated with grief by the senseless violence in our country, in our world, and by the devaluing of black and brown lives.

Six years ago, I sat next to a man who was reading an article on New York City’s downtown 6 train. The article’s title assaulted me — “America’s. Racial. Time. Bomb.” Compelled to respond, I softly muttered, “interesting,” hoping for dialogue yet unsure at how the man next to me would react to my verbal intrusion of his space. “Yeah, this article is about the religious prophecy of the future race riots,” he shared confidently. I was wary; the pretense of the article seemed too sensational, too melodramatic. He continued by mentioning the strengthening of the white supremacist movement after President Obama’s elections. I listened to him intently despite the skeptic in me.

Today, six years later, I cannot help but think of this man on the 6 train and the prophecy about which he spoke, wanting nothing more than for this prophecy never to come true.

Yet, Freddie Gray comes to mind. Tick. Then, Eric Garner. Tick. Tick. Trayvon Martin. Tick. Renisha McBride, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Sam Dubose, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling. Racial. Time. Bomb. Tick. Tick. Tick.

I want to stop listing names, but the list grows larger day by day.

I ask myself: if these individuals were not Black, would they still be alive today?

If I were in their exact situation, would my name be on that list?

Would yours?

We have lived in a society where black and brown people do not have the privilege to drive, to walk down the street, to play, to be intelligent, or to exist in the comfort of their own skin without being presumed dangerous, incompetent, and worthless. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of the arc of the moral universe. He said it was long, but it bends towards justice. And while we, as a nation, have made strides since King’s assassination, some days that arc seems longer than ever.

Even with the election of our nation’s first Black president, the war against blackness is alive and well. It has been highlighted in the mainstream media by the events in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, Dallas, Baltimore, Staten Island, Ferguson, Charleston, and Cincinnati. As an educator, researcher, and activist, I think about how these events are being digested by people, especially young people.

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I think ceaselessly about black youth and young people of color learning about themselves, about their lives. Many consume narratives of violence everyday, living this violence the same way I did as a child in the Bronx —  through police brutality, poverty, gentrification, and systemic injustice. They learn very early that their personhood is suspicious and terrifying. They are constantly on the verge of becoming Aiyanna Stanley-Jones or Tamir Rice.

And this terrifies me.

When I served as a middle school teacher in my hometown, the Bronx, I would use statistics to engage my students in conversations about race and activism. A 2014 study by the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Education revealed that black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. Additionally, multiple studies have also found that Black students receive harsher punishments than their white peers for the same infraction.

This continues into adulthood. Black people comprise nearly half of the 2.3 million incarcerated Americans and are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.

I would look at my beautiful, curious students in my classroom, and I would want to damn those statistics.

While I could not control the chaos of my students’ lives — the instability of their homes, the uncertainty of their next meal, and the loud neighbors that kept them from sleep, I knew that I had to provide them with a safe and loving classroom where they could not only learn, but also thrive. I taught them necessary survival skills like code-switching, writing and speaking persuasively, and understanding how data and media can be manipulated. I taught my students how to create meaningful actions to challenge and change the problematic systems that they inhabit. And, I equipped them with love, kindness, and acceptance so that they could mediate the violence many of them were already experiencing.

Importantly, I showed my students that they mattered despite everything else in their lives that told them otherwise. I answered the phone when they called; I listened when they needed someone to listen; I stayed after school when something I taught earlier was still confusing to them; and I told them I loved them every opportunity I had. I also taught my students how to seek support and advocate for themselves — and for others. I included their narratives and stories into my lessons so that they learned how to value and love themselves, so that they felt proud to be who they are, and so that they did not have to endure the trauma of having to erase themselves like I did.

But this wasn’t enough. I continued to fear for my students’ lives, on every level, at home and in school. And, this is the central fear that motivates my life’s trajectory to ensure safety for all. It is the reason that I researched teachers’ preparedness to confront bullying during my doctoral studies. It is the reason that I now travel the country and world to equip adults and youth with the skills of emotional intelligence through my role at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Our mission there is to use the power of emotions to create a more just and compassionate society. It’s why I’m writing this.

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And, as heavy as I feel with the trauma of recent events, I believe there is room for healing, room for growth. As a result, I strive to do work that empowers others to realize their value and potential and to fight for justice, but I am tired. The emotional labor of being black, of mourning black lives regularly, of proving my humanity, our humanity, and of fighting to be valued feels like too much. Sometimes, it feels as though that prophetic racial time bomb is about to explode. I hear the ticking a bit too often.

This work for racial justice should not rest solely on my shoulders or the shoulders of other people of color. This work is all of our work; it is a collective struggle for our shared humanity. Racial equity is a national imperative that requires purging our embodied hate towards blackness and revising the way our country functions. There is no silver bullet response, but that’s no excuse for inaction or silence. Already, tens of thousands throughout the nation have engaged in peaceful protests to demand justice and to stand up for humanity. Many have penned heartfelt responses to recent events on the Internet. Others have raised funds to support the families of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. At work, in schools, and in our homes, we can begin to process and manage how we are feeling and what more we can do for equity and peace. We can ask questions, support each other, and devise meaningful action collectively.

In sum, we cannot shy away from painful and difficult discourse about racial injustice. These conversations have the potential to enlighten us about ourselves — and importantly, about others — so that we can prevent doing inadvertent harm through ignorance and implicit bias, so that we can see, truly see, each other, and so that we can begin to heal.

We cannot afford to carry on with our comfortable lives. None of us, especially those in power, have the right to be comfortable. It is in moments of discomfort that we learn and transform most. We need action too. We need to reflect on our power and privilege and be aware of when we are abusing it. We need to be vigilant about our bias against black people and, black people, we need to love ourselves unapologetically so we model how others should love us.

In the end, we, all of us, must be compassionate. We must be open to other experiences, and we must learn to accept others and ourselves for everything we are —and everything we are not. We must fight for ourselves and for each other. And, we must begin to shift the violent course of history to one of peace, love, and mutual understanding. I have faith in us. My task is simple: it is for Black lives to be seen, to be human, to be treated with dignity. Our shared humanity depends on it.

Dena Simmons is an educator, activist, and scholar. She currently serves as the Director of Education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The Center, along with conducting cutting-edge research about emotions and emotional intelligence, works with schools throughout the nation and world by supporting educators to be more emotionally intelligent. Parts of this piece were originally published in a Middlebury Magazine article.

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