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CASABLANCA, Morocco — I grew up with a Black father of Puerto Rican and Caribbean ancestry and a white mother, in an overwhelmingly white area of Western New York. I am used to standing out. There was the bully who called me “nigger” on the playground, and the funny looks my family would get when we were all out together.
I’ve since learned to take pride in my differences and cope with the challenges I’ve encountered as a racial minority. One of the most dramatic came in high school after the administration told me I couldn’t wear an Afro because it was a “fad.” When I contested this, they “compromised” and told me I didn’t have to cut my hair as long as I didn’t use my Afro pick to comb it. They found that more palatable. I thought I just looked whiter.
Years later, as a science teacher at the Casablanca American School in Morocco, I’ve realized this suppression of my identity had a lasting impact, leading to feelings of otherness and self-doubt. The recent unrest, violence and protests for justice in the United States provide a whole new set of challenges for educators, both at home and abroad. They’ve also created a new mission for me: inspiring young people of color on a larger scale.
Like my multiracial background, my background as an educator is diverse. The experiences and perspectives of Black and Latino students I taught at a Massachusetts charter school are very different from those of my Moroccan students. These differences have been magnified since the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. As Floyd’s friends and family have pointed out, parents of Black children in the United States don’t have the luxury of avoiding discussions of racism. We are forced to have conversations about behaviors that might mean the difference between life and death when interacting with a police officer.
“Eventually, I gained confidence to sit in the front row of department lectures and seminars, taking notes and publicly asking questions. The day I graduated, I walked across the stage, locks flowing freely, in front of a screen displaying an older picture of me with my uncensored, picked-out Afro.”
Such conversations were integrated into the curriculum for my American students. However, they are not talked about in Morocco. My students see race differently. While racism exists here, it isn’t a potential death sentence to be of a certain Arabic or African race. When these students enroll at U.S. universities, they often experience culture shock. Some are surprised that their American peers see them as “Black.”
Moroccan students aren’t thinking about diversity in the same way as my former U.S. students. Take Shanté, who considered student diversity a key criterion in her college search, but eventually accepted that that any college she attends in America is going to be mostly white, with the exception of HBCUs. She will be a minority wherever she goes.
I have been afforded the privilege of lighter skin than some of my Black brothers and sisters, and yet I’ve experienced racism with both average citizens and police. If human prejudice runs that deeply in Americans and those trusted to protect and serve us, we still have a lot of work to do. In the United States, I will always worry about which police officer will see me not as an educator or a scientist, but as a suspect. Will it be the officer who killed George Floyd? Or will it be the officers taking a knee in solidarity with the protesters?
My grandfather was the first Black man to graduate from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University. My step-uncle was among the Greensboro Four, who staged a sit-in at Woolworth in 1960 after the store refused to serve African Americans at its lunch counter. These men, and many others, inspired me to be proud of my multiracial heritage. Thanks to my interracial parents — whose marriage would have been illegal just 20 years earlier — I’ve had good role models for breaking the mold.
With time, I came to appreciate being unique and wanted to show it with pride. After graduating from high school, I let my hair grow out. By college, I was wearing my naturally forming locks as a proud display of my ethnicity. My locks clear up confusion or ambiguity about my race and have become a symbol of my strength and identity, though sometimes they inhibit my progress.
During my undergraduate and graduate research at Carnegie Mellon University, I at first couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t belong in a lab doing research alongside professional scientists. All were white, except one Black Ph.D. student who mentored me. I thought about cutting my locks but realized my hair and racial identity were irrelevant to the quality of my work and my ability to prove myself to my colleagues.
Eventually, I gained confidence to sit in the front row of department lectures and seminars, taking notes and publicly asking questions. The day I graduated, I walked across the stage, locks flowing freely, in front of a screen displaying an older picture of me with my uncensored, picked-out Afro.
After overcoming self-doubt as a research scientist, I faced more hesitation as I prepared for a job interview at Roxbury Prep, part of a network of successful charter schools with a fierce mission to close the socioeconomic achievement gap. As it turned out, my hair gave me common ground with the predominantly Black and Latino students I taught. Many had hair just like mine.
Surrounded by people of color in the workplace, I felt as though two worlds I had kept separate could finally co-exist. I could wear my locks proudly and be both a working professional and a role model as a chemistry teacher. This helped my students understand me, and I worked hard to gain their confidence and help them develop their own.
“More than half of K-12 students in the United States are people of color, yet only about one fifth of teachers are. Students of color are underrepresented at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and across the fastest-growing STEM professions.”
That meant moderating discourse on the connections between Albert Einstein and hip-hop legends N.W.A., whose music inspired protests against police brutality in the 1980s and 90s. It meant helping my students craft elegant poetry infused with messages of social justice as their spoken word poetry coach. And as a science teacher, it meant teaching students about brilliant, successful scientists of color who were featured on posters throughout the classroom.
More than half of K-12 students in the United States are people of color, yet only about one fifth of teachers are. Students of color are underrepresented at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and across the fastest-growing STEM professions. Just 8 percent of engineering students are African American and 11 percent are Latino, with even lower percentages in mathematics, computer engineering and health care. Last spring, as I watched our founding senior class at Roxbury Prep graduate, I wondered if I had succeeded as a science teacher in helping narrow these disparities.
Someday, I may wonder the same thing about my own children. It’s difficult enough addressing George Floyd’s recent death with my current and former students. I can only encourage them to stay safe in protests and get involved politically. I urge them to vote. We’ll need their brilliant minds to enact reform of the criminal-justice system.
I’m thinking about Yinessa, one of my top students at Roxbury Prep. Yinessa felt more comfortable in our chemistry classroom because we wore our hair the same way. I supported her courageous choice not to straighten her beautiful, naturally curly Dominican hair, as her friends had done. She saw part of herself represented in me and grew proud of her roots. I also supported her college applications. She will continue her education at Brown University this fall.
Like Yinessa, I continue to wear my locks proudly, showing my community that people of all backgrounds can achieve excellence. I look forward to empowering more students of color at the university level when I begin my Ph.D. The United States will need us to promote representation in higher education and turn the tide on systemic racism.
This story about a science teacher and Black role models in science education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Collin Cherubim is a physics teacher at Casablanca American School in Morocco.