Two years ago, I sat in a diversity sensitivity training for new teachers led by a friend who’d asked me to attend for emotional support. The room filled with youthful exuberance and confidence, mostly white and female, would soon be unceremoniously doused by my friend’s real-life examples of grave educational injustices inflicted upon children of color and stories of parents and grandparents fighting like hell to right the wrongs.
In order to apply emphasis to certain themes and keep Gen Z-ers from dozing off, the trainer livened up the party by incorporating “what would you do?” exercises and mixed media throughout the powerpoint presentation. Near the end of the training, the trainer played a video of a young black girl speaking and sobbing at a city council meeting about violence in her community. The trainer’s integration of the video was meant to provide a real-life example of what many students deal with outside of school and often bring with them into the classroom. Further, the trainer wanted to encourage teachers to establish a practice of seeking first to understand before judging a student’s worthiness and make decisions out of frustration that could forever derail their chances at educational success. Finally, the trainer had hoped to elicit sympathy for the girl and students like her who will ultimately land their classrooms.
Because, Black Girl
After the meeting, I was asked to evaluate my friend’s performance and offer an assessment of the responsiveness of the target audience. I told her the allocated time was much too short to adequately soften new recruits to realities of inequity and violence against children. Further, while many shared appropriate concern about their potential to make a difference in a system unfriendly to children in marginalized situations, I told her, based on body language, there were a few completely disconnected from the subject. My friend agreed and added, “Did you notice any reaction to the video?” Quickly, I blurted out, “Nope.” and we both sat in silence. “Why do you think that is?” she asked. My response: “Because, black girl.”
The first 13 days of 2019 has been like watching an over-the-top production of Malcolm X’s famous quote: “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” Think Yasmine James, the McDonald’s worker accosted by an inebriated customer; the girls and women who have survived monster and R & B artist R. Kelly; and black women all over the country whose truths have been trampled on and discarded. The discussions resulting from these stories are hard and so many of my friends have removed themselves from social media to save themselves.
Black Girls In School
The most tragically fascinating part of all this is to watch grown ass folks blame children for being sexually assaulted by grown ass men and read comments blaming parents for not protecting their children from Uncle Raymond or the school’s most popular teacher. Worse than the blame is the ease with which so many turn a blind eye when harm is inflicted upon black girls. I share some guilt in not launching a local government showdown in 2016 when it was discovered teacher Jarrett Jones* made 50 videos of hundreds of images over a period of years of little girls at a Nashville elementary school. A school with 90% black students populated by the housing development located adjacent to the school. Sick people seek situations that allow them to satisfy their sickness. Jones chose to work at a school full of black girls tucked away in an impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhood. He was right, no one would know and few would care.
In another local example, last week our school district’s dysfunction was on display for the world to see — if they could stomach it. It was the first meeting of the new year and it set a catastrophic tone for the remaining twenty plus meetings of 2019. And it all started with a text. In last week’s blog, I wrote about school board member Jill Speering’s text to teachers asking them to assemble at the board meeting wearing masks to protest the employment of their boss, the director schools. The request for masks did not go over well within Nashville’s black community. Though a major player in the national civil rights movement, the city is still mostly segregated and not as progressive as it boasts particularly as it relates to housing, job placement, education, and criminal justice for its black citizens.
Black Woman’s Truth Stripped Down
However, for me, the most strikingly familiar phenomenon that jumped out from the controversy was the reaction to school board member Christiane Buggs’ response to the mask request. Buggs stated:
I’m not sure if Mrs. Speering made the connection between the masked protest encouraged here today and those of yesteryear held by the Ku Klux Klan but I did. I’m not sure if she made the corrolation and simply chose to dismiss it or if she made the decision to send the messages of how offensive it might be without ever crossing her mind. Either way both are frustrating and shed light on what many of us in the African American community deal with daily – racially motivated micro-aggressions that intimidate separate and systemically oppress us.
Buggs’ statement reminding us of the longest-running most violent domestic terrorist group in this country’s history has been bandied about and admonished for misdirection. Not surprising, as I know of no black woman whose truth hasn’t been challenged or dismissed. In this case, the real issue is Buggs, a black woman, dared to speak her truth in response to an action made by a white woman, an unspoken convention that rears its ugly head at the intersection of race and gender.
Black Girls Born Into Battle
So what does this mean for the future students who will fill the classes of the seemingly apathetic teachers who watched that video of a bawling black girl pleading for her community? It’s unfair to make a pre-mature indictment, but the right people and training for vulnerable populations may be the most important aspect of schooling. As it stands, “[b]lack girls are 5.5 times more likely to be suspended than white girls, the report found, and they’re also more likely to receive multiple suspensions than any other gender or race of students.” We need teachers, new and veteran, to see these girls, to want to understand them and set them up for success. Parents must see to it.
Black women and girls are exposed to a universal lack of respect, disparagement, and no protections. Whether we are crying our eyes out over the loss of life in our communities, changing clothes for recess in an elementary school closet, or having our agency minimized, we are forever on a battlefield fighting for respect.
*A year ago, Jarrett Jones was sentenced to twenty-four years for videotaping elementary school girls.
This was originally posted on Vesia’s blog Volume and Light.