“Miss, why do you always yell at us?”
“Well, Nick, if you were doing your work without talking so loudly, it wouldn’t be an issue, would it?” I retort.
“Yeah, but why do you yell at us differently than…the…the girls?”
“I don’t, Nick.” I hesitate, “Do I?”
“Yeah, they’re over there talking, too, but you always yell at us. And with that tone.”
“That’s just my teacher voice, Nick. And I need it to get your attention.”
“Yeah, but you just asked them to be quiet, not like you told us.”
Did I really do that?
I had just walked past Brooke and her friends chatting about the upcoming weekend. “Remember to stay focused,” I had casually reminded, with a smile.
And then, sternly, I had turned my attention to the other side of the room — “Nick, back to work.” I had called him out intentionally because he was the leader, and if he got quiet, the rest would.
But I hadn’t realized the difference.
By March, I was used to the typical student complaints.
“Why do we have to do this? Really, 500 words, miss? Can’t we just turn it in on Monday?”
Even at 17, most of my Juniors still looked for a way out of their work.
Such was the life of an American Literature teacher. But I enjoyed it. Even after ten years, I looked forward to helping kids learn to love a good story and express themselves better in writing.
I created units about social inequality in The Great Gatsby and Of Mice and Men, sharing my own story about growing up poor and working my way through college.
I integrated the difficult discussions of racial injustice by reading The House on Mango Street and A Raisin in the Sun, looking at modern U.S. city redlining that left our country racially segregated and divided.
These were tough topics, but I wanted to address them with my students.
But now — here I was — being called out by my own student on my own biases.
He was right.
And he knew it.
But I couldn’t admit it out loud, especially not in front of 30 other teenagers waiting for me to mess up.
So I responded, “I’m sorry that you feel that way, Nick. I’ll pay more attention to my tone. Keep on working.”
Because of my own insecurities, I didn’t say the words he most needed to hear.
I never said, “You’re right. I messed up. I do treat you differently than the rest.”
I rationalized it to myself. I was the teacher, after all. I needed to maintain control in the room. And admitting my own incorrect behavior would open me up for criticism, even if it was founded.
At this point in the school year, I just wanted to make it to May.
Was it really worth opening up this can of worms? Couldn’t I just address it with Nick later, on his own?
But how could I — the socially conscious teacher — admit to being racist?
When Nick, Terrell, and James got excited and started talking in class, how could I explain that I looked at them and thought they were too loud?
How could I apologize for seeing them not just as students but as young black men, which meant their ideas should be expressed quietly and calmly, like my white students?
Or when my non-black students got excited, I just wrote it off as a one-time thing and not part of their natural expression?
How could I vocalize that I wanted to control their black masculinity, reign it in to my standard of appropriateness?
How could I apologize after teaching about systemic racism and then perpetuating it?
How could I?
So I didn’t.
Looking back now, almost four years from that moment, Nick’s words have stayed with me. And they remind me of a simple truth.
Growing up in the United States shapes us indelibly in the image of our forefathers.
And so, the legacy of racism is intertwined within our cultural and social structures — influencing our everyday lives more than we are able to admit.
Four years ago, I was scared of admitting it. But his words haunted me the rest of the school year. As a consequence, each time 2nd period began, I was conscious of how I corrected Nick and his friends. Sometimes I caught myself in the middle of the raised tone, but I caught it.
The change wasn’t immediate. But, at least, I was aware.
And what do you think could have happened if I hadn’t modified my behavior?
Join me on a quick thought experiment.
What if I would have scoffed at Nick’s question as out of line?
Or, even worse, what if I would have resented Nick for questioning my authority?
What if I would have become vindictive and called him out even more?
And what if — after being unfairly harassed in my classroom — Nick spoke up?
What if, one day, before the end of the school year, he got fed up with my prejudiced actions and cussed me out?
What if I would have thrown him out of my classroom and referred him for suspension?
What if that suspension went on his permanent record?
Or — more likely— what if I completely forgot his comment? What if I would have brushed it off as simply another complaint? And what if I never changed my attitudes, and my disregard for Nick continued unchecked the rest of the year? How would he feel knowing that another teacher didn’t even see him enough to value him?
Imagine how it could have played out. Imagine, with me, how similar situations happen every day in American classrooms with thousands of students and hundreds of teachers.
Imagine, how that same student leaves his high school and then is profiled while shopping, while driving, while walking. And imagine how authority begins to lose power.
In fact, authority becomes the enemy.
Imagine how that same boy’s parents understand his anger and his fear. But they know they are powerless to help him once he steps out the door. Even worse, they know even in front of their home, or in their home, their child could be the target of undue police violence. Imagine the daily fear, anxiety, and worry that could consume you. And what if this was how you felt every single day of your life?
I can’t begin to imagine the trauma. But I try.
Because here I am, a graduate-degree holding teacher with 10 years classroom experience and countless sensitivity training sessions behind me, and I still hold subtle racist attitudes.
It doesn’t mean I hate black people. And it doesn’t mean I think white people are better than others.
But that is the exact danger of systemic racism in a nation — it goes unnoticed.
Until it isn’t.
That day, four years ago, I was confronted by my black student on an inequality he felt. And maybe, what he meant in his initial question, what he really wanted to say, was:
“Yeah, but why do you yell at us differently than…the…the white students?”
But even for him, the question was too loaded.
But when I looked Nick in the eyes that day, I understood him.
I knew he was hurt by me, Ms. Mendez, a teacher who hung up a sign that ALL students were welcome in her classroom.
But I hadn’t welcomed him.
Even in the midst of all my openness, these subtle thoughts and hidden biases are what black students face daily.
And before he entered my classroom, what had Nick encountered in his 12 years of public education?
What would Nick further face as a young black man?
Here I am today, facing my own racist beliefs. Because a student asked me a question.
So today, I ask you a question.
I ask you to consider what Dr. Martin Luther King wrote from the Birmingham County Jail, in 1963 —
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” [emphasis mine]
This is what racism looks like today.
We are a country who prefers a negative peace, an absence of tension, and a denial of culpability.
Because we are not slave owners. Because we are not white supremacists. Because we just want to keep things how they were.
But imagine what could happen if we — as a country — moved past our shallow understanding of racism.
To do so, each of us must consider how our personal lukewarm acceptance perpetuates violence against black men and women.
Because — just like I wasn’t aware of my own prejudices in my classroom — it’s easy to ignore the lived reality of others.
Because if systemic racism doesn’t directly affect you, it’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist.
It’s easy to live your life and greet your black neighbor or teach your black student or work with your black colleague — without ever having to place yourself in their shoes.
But what if you did?
On top of all the other challenges, imagine…
What would your life look like if you were black in America?
And — from this perspective — which social systems would you change?
Even in the face of tragedy.
Even in the face of bias.
Even in the face of outright denial.
I still have hope.
People are capable of change.
It just takes time.
America is at a historical junction.
Don’t be the bystander.
Take a firm stand against racism.
Seek positive justice for all.
Use direct action.