A few years ago, I took my kids on the Hemings Family Tour of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation. We came to learn about people enslaved by our third president.
At the start of the tour, the guide asked the group to guess the most valuable slave on a plantation. I knew the answer immediately, but as part of the only Black family on the tour, I wanted to know who the white people valued.
After all the other guests gave incorrect answers. I spoke up.
“The most valuable slave on a plantation is someone like me,” I said. “A woman of childbearing age, because I can produce more slaves for free.”
It was the right answer. All I could do was grab my children and hold them tight.
I didn’t read that answer in a book somewhere. I knew it in my bones, because I’ve lived in this country for four decades and have taken in enough information to know that bodies like mine, particularly during the founding of this country, were and are valued only if we are profitable. Too often, Black students are forced to conform to white culture and be subjected to repeated incidents of anti-Blackness in order to receive an education.
Last month, just 40 minutes away from our home in Portland, Oregon, high school students participated in a virtual slave trade, where students joked about how much they’d pay for their Black classmates.
They even said things like “All Blacks should die” and “They can run but they can’t hide.”
I’m horrified that the Black students had to find out literally how much — or how little — their bodies are valued by their white classmates.
Then, just a few days later, a teacher’s aide in the same district was placed on leave after she came to school in blackface. She said she was dressing up as the civil rights activist Rosa Parks and was protesting Oregon’s educator vaccination requirements.
I wanted so badly to be shocked by this news. But I know that these incidents are ripple effects from a troubling recent policy decision by the Newberg School Board, which voted to ban teachers from hanging “Black Lives Matter” flags in their classrooms because the board sees them as political symbols.
What that board fails to realize is that such symbols tell Black students that they are seen, protected and loved. And that matters in a place like Newberg: According to the most recent public data, Black students make up just one percent of the student population.
All school leaders — from teachers to local elected officials — must take responsibility for the ripple effect of their disregard for communities of color.
The data also show that there is not a single Black teacher in the district. These facts make the flags even more imperative as they provide an easy way for kids to know who is on their side.
“Students need to know who their allies are when they feel the need to talk or a safe space just to be themselves,” MaryJane Bachmeier testified at a school board meeting on behalf of the Newberg Education Association Executive Board against the ban on hanging Black Lives Matter flags.
She’s right. Newberg’s school board members also failed to recognize that by rejecting symbols of inclusivity and antiracism, they are normalizing hateful behavior. That one vote has left kids unprotected and exposed to an increasingly racist environment at school.
What’s happening in Newberg, Oregon, isn’t an anomaly. School boards across the nation are voting against historically accurate and culturally responsive curriculums. Students and teachers are being censored from saying “Black Lives Matter.”
It’s time we recognize that these actions by public officials who seem to wish to keep systems of oppression in place are the first push of a chain of dominoes that can lead to the kinds of racially insensitive actions we’ve seen in Newberg.
Black kids will go on to internalize the values displayed by the adults around them.
Someday, they too will know in their bones what I knew that day on the plantation.
Fortunately, many people across the country are working to prevent this from happening. I am the executive director of an education advocacy organization in Oregon, and we’ve seen educators, parents, students and school board members step up to advocate for students’ rights to learn from history and feel seen in school.
This past year, we worked to elect more than 50 leaders to school boards across the state because we see how dangerous it is to have closed-minded people in charge.
Schools are the first place where we see the humanity — or inhumanity — of people not in our families. As such, all school leaders — from teachers to local elected officials — must take responsibility for the ripple effect of their disregard for communities of color.
If they don’t, we all should worry about what kind of trauma Black kids will carry around by the time they’re my age, based on the harrowing experiences they’re having today.
Toya Fick is the executive director of Stand for Children in Oregon, a nonprofit education advocacy organization focused on ensuring all students receive a high-quality and relevant education. She’s a former public school teacher and parent of two kids in public school and also serves on the board of the University of Oregon.
This story about traumatizing Black students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.