by Jazmine Anderson
As a black, female educator, I am no stranger to tense conversations. When I was still a pre-service educator, I heard countless discussions centered around the topic of race and every complication that follows it. Some conversations were examples of genuine human interaction steeped in experiences we all have, regardless of the color of our skin. In these instances, I was able to hear minority educators impart advice based on lived experience and personal expertise to their fellow colleagues; community dialogues unfolded in these settings. Unfortunately, for every positive interaction, I saw three that were negative. Often times, I was the minority educator, and being just one among many strangers, was silenced. Other times, I never had the chance to speak and saw our students silenced instead. Sadly, this is not an abnormal occurrence for me.
In my formative years, I went to school in rural counties here in Kentucky where I was lucky to be one of perhaps ten minority students in a whole building, let alone in a single classroom. So, I have spent the majority of my life defending my own existence. I can recall the first time a racial slur was hurled my way. I was perhaps five years old, sitting in the backseat of my mother’s car in the parking lot of a grocery store. For our mother’s imagined slight towards an older white man, my older sister and I were verbally attacked. For the first time, I learned that my existence, in the wrong place and at the wrong time, could turn people to violent tendencies. This was simply the first of many similar occurrences. Even after I moved into Jefferson County and entered our public schools, I saw similar occurrences regularly. Perhaps not as hostile, but just as impactful all the same.
From these experiences, I know firsthand what happens to the kids that fail to connect to ideas or teacher within a school building. I know what is looks like when kids slip through the cracks. I could have been one of them. These interactions created a refusal in me to be silenced or to see other’s silenced by anyone for things that they cannot control; race, sex, nationality, or any other identifier as random as chance or hard-won as luck. When the 2016-2017 school year opened for my colleagues and me with headlines that said our school was racist, I knew it was going to be a long year. You see, my school is one of the few remaining “traditional” schools in our district. We are a school with a 47.2% minority student body in a city that celebrates diversity on the surface but is still majorly segregated. The result is that we tend to have more housekeeping, security, or support staff that are minorities than actual classroom teachers. This problem isn’t specific to my school; this is a JCPS problem. In this instance, my school is every school and what happened to us could have happened to any other school of teachers.
Before I proceed further with how, if not why, this all happened, I want one thing to be clear: Racist is not synonymous with evil. I can freely admit that some of my family members are racist, despite them counting me as one of their own and loving me. So, I have no problem admitting that I have colleagues, not just in my school, but in our district, who are racist. I say these things because I know that many will begin to read this post expecting an attack. Understand that my goal is not to attack anyone; I want to attack a problem with a solution. You see, if even one educator in JCPS is permitted to hang onto antiquated ideas of what cultural competency actually is, they endanger our kids. We all have the capacity to be unintentionally racist. We all teach with their hearts every single day and do the very best that we can for all of our students. The disconnect is a problem, but many well-intentioned people never realize their inherent biases or privileges and how those things affect their classrooms or the established and institutionalized racism this country was founded on. They’re never forced to do so, and who would willingly subject themselves to a reality they can ignore without penalty?
At the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, Attica Scott, a parent with experience in the Louisville City Council and aspirations for the Kentucky House of Representatives took a picture of our school dress code policy and posted it on Twitter. She captioned the photo with, “Soooo…my daughter had registration today and let’s just say she’s not happy about the #JCPS no natural hair policy.” The policy in question banned hairstyles favored by black students looking to wear their hair in manageable and stylish ways that do not require heat or chemicals. What was touted as racist was truly just sexist if anything. The rule Scott decided to highlight in her tweet has historically only ever applied to male students as no male student was permitted to have hair touching their eyebrows, ears, or shirt collars. Moreover, what Scott failed to publicize in her crusade to get a long-standing school policy repealed was that her youngest child had been a student of ours for a full school year before Scott ever took issue with the policy. The blowout Scott caused in August 2016 was situated halfway between the primary election, where she beat out the incumbent, and the general election, where she ran unopposed.
In response to this chaos and upheaval, I spent the past school year with my students dissecting the insanity of our world. I refused to back down from difficult conversations. I admitted my own biases and privileges. I owned them every time a student pointed them out to me. We talked about the things we heard and saw and read that never sat quite right. We talked about the painful limitations of our world as it currently exists, and we tried to see the world as it could be instead. It was a really long year, especially knowing that I was only accomplishing half of the work. My students are a stepping stone to a better school climate and culture, but they are not responsible for modeling cultural awareness, competence, or responsiveness; that is the responsibility of every educator and adult inside JCPS school buildings. In this respective, there is a lot of work to be done. But my kids are the experts. So, we are establishing a Black Student Union at our school where we will work to enable cultural awareness, competency, and responsiveness in our whole building. We want students and teachers of all races to be able to come together and speak honestly and openly about the problems our citizens and our country currently face.
We are not doing this in reaction to the nasty rumors that our school is racist, but because we know the real truth, because we are color brave, and because we know that there is work to be done. See, my kids — our JCPS kids — they work. They innovate and imagine something better. I simply have the privilege of helping them build it. Stay tuned. We are going to have an amazing year.
Jazmine is a third-year English teacher with a passion for cultural competency and professional collaboration. She is a member of JCPSVoice and KyCTEPS and is an avid contributor to the teacher leadership movement of JCPS.