Teaching Beyond Respectability Politics
In the wake of the deaths of Jordan Edwards and Richard Collins, two more black boys left to a hashtag, the highlighting of accolades and posturing is more prevalent than ever.
By Erica Buddington
“Silence and uniformity are not reflections of a job well done.”
I said this to a former supervisor who’d walked into a class discussion earlier that day, students laughing and intrigued, flailing their arms to be the next person to speak. He shook his head, pointed to the text that the organization abided by, and repeated, “They should be quiet. They should have their hands folded, waiting their turn. They should all be looking directly at you. There were too many voices; there was too much laughter. It should be silent when I walk into your room. Children learn and understand, better this way. They become better citizens, this way.”
I watched his pointer finger hit the desk, a brown hand that had only filled out a principal fellowship application, after teaching for six months out of grad school. I’d been immersed in a classroom or learning space for almost a decade and I couldn’t fathom how someone, who claimed to be an advocate for our children, could be so closed-minded.
It is this same brown hand that would push a contract towards me, excited about my data from the past year, with $10,000 dollars added to my salary, a promise that I could have more autonomy over my classroom, and a plea to revitalize their performance arts. I smiled and pushed the contract back with my own brown hand, making it clear that there was no money or autonomy in the world that could make me treat our children like this.
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They taped lines to the floor, so the children could walk straight, head behind head anywhere they went. Students had silent lunch, because conversations “encouraged bickering and non-academic bantering”. Communication was a privilege and used as an incentive, with three claps of the principal’s hand students were allowed to speak for five minutes and teachers were required to move about at all times monitoring the voices. Teachers reiterated this during class, “You want to speak during lunch, don’t you? Pay attention.” Students were sent home for missing uniform items or given replacement belts and shoes with BORROWED written in silver permanent marker. The irony in this could be felt in the grit of my teeth as children kicked their feet up and their punishment was prevalent on their soles. The students learned to move with military precision, on command. They learned that their voices were not valued. They learned that being perceived as good meant submitting at every turn.
During one of our “forbidden” classroom conversations, about civil rights’ leaders, a student, with his hands folded, calmly inquired, “These dudes wore suits, they went to college, they talked about peace and unity, they did all the right things and they were still killed because of the color of their skin. Can we talk about how none of that matters, when our skin is the issue?”
It was like deja vu. The year before, I’d been working at an after-school program when Mike Brown was murdered. We cannot stop the students from seeing it. The blood and body lying in the street is all over their social media. The kids wanted to do something. They wanted to protest, write articles, and reach out to the media. While planning our actions with their facilitators, a student jumped up and kicked down a chair. He yelled, “Why are we doing this? They’re just going to keep killing us and not getting convicted. None of this is working. They don’t hear us. They just see our skin.”
Perception is a hell of a thing. The calm student would have been perceived as respectable, for waiting for his turn and inquiring within preferred posture. The outraged student would’ve been perceived as unruly and disobedient. The young man in the civil rights leader conversation, fully uniformed and silent, is three grades behind, struggles to pay attention in class, and is in the dean’s office on the regular. The other young man, whose mother was required to pay for the chair he destroyed, is a 4.0 student with usually exemplary behavior. You cannot perceive who they are based on their attire, their mannerisms, or their actions in a single moment. These children both have their own crosses to bear, have different flaws, but both land on the same question. It is clear that they are immersed in the work and connected to it, despite their different responses. They have arrived at the conclusion and an inquiry that I have been asking for years, “What’s the point, if all they see is our skin?”
“Why are we doing this? They’re just going to keep killing us and not getting convicted. None of this is working. They don’t hear us. They just see our skin.”
The outraged student asks this over and over, his words mimicking my impending anxiety attack. He kneels in a corner, with his hands wrapped around his knees, and rocks back and forth. A fellow educator soothes him with the wrong words, “You’re a good kid. You keep your head down. You get your work done. You’re respectful and you dress well. Things like that won’t happen to boys like you.”
This is what we’re force-feeding our children. We are doing it in droves of systems and protocol that do nothing to answer the question. We are sending it in subliminal messages, through media headlines and depictions. We are telling these children that if they sit up straight, they will defeat and maneuver a system that isn’t designed for them.
We are liars.
I will give you these lines, before name, race, and accolades, for you to ponder.
Boy, fifteen, sits in a car on the way home from a house party with his brother and friends. Boy is shot in the back of his head, with semi-automatic rifle. Rifle trigger is pulled by a police officer.
Man, twenty-three, stands at a bus stop. He realizes the bus isn’t coming. He and a friend call an Uber. While waiting on their ride, someone arrives and stabs him.
I didn’t use any bolded words or italicization in the last few paragraphs, because I wanted the ages to sink into your chest. There is little context, because I wanted the actions to resound. I wanted you to feel each movement, without bias. I wanted you to see your own sons, cousins, uncles, and whomever you loved that might not come back home.
Black boy, fifteen, 3.5 GPA and love of football, sits in a car on the way home from a house party with his brother and friends. All children had permission to go, they had permission to borrow the car. Boy is shot in the back of his head, with semi-automatic rifle. Rifle trigger is pulled by a white police officer.
Black man, graduating this week from Bowie State University, twenty-three, stands at a bus stop. He realizes the bus isn’t coming. He and a friend call an Uber. While waiting on their ride, a white man that’s a part of several hate groups arrives and stabs him.
Does that change anything for you?
Does your chest feel any lighter?
In the wake of the deaths of Jordan Edwards and Richard Collins, two more black boys left to a hashtag, the highlighting of accolades and posturing is more prevalent than ever. It is synonymous with the good-kid click bait rounds of “SMART BLACK BOY GETS INTO TEN COLLEGES,” “BLACK GIRL DOES GREAT THING!” and the like. Every time I see those things I smile at our excellence and the fact that I have always known we were excellent, but I frown at the notion that this is big news. I am not surprised by our leaps and bounds. The same way white and human equivalents are not surprised by their own children’s accomplishments.
Jordan Edwards’ 3.5 GPA and Richard Collins’ Lieutenant status are strewn through headlines, before their tragedy. They read like justifications. They read like the reason for outrage, instead of the reprehensible act and murderers that took their lives. The uniforms of the men that are responsible for these deaths did not depict the monsters they truly are. Their badges and affiliations will save them, from the labels they so rightfully earned, unlike the garbs and insignia that meld into our skin. We are walking around with acronyms, graduation robes, and respectability politics that are drenched in deep shades of brown. Our complexion is the first thing anyone sees.
According to the rhetoric of the schools that employ these tactics, Collins and Edwards should have changed perception. They did not. Uniformity and uprightness will not save our children, from the labels they’ve been given. It will not save them from the way they are perceived, because of the color of their skin.
As a child of the inner city and the suburbs, an educator in both public and charter schools, I’ve seen schools employ both tactics. Growing up on Long Island, I’ve watched more affluent schools give students the liberty to wear what they want, flail their bodies however they pleased during exciting class discussion, get as creative as they’d like, and maneuver the hallways with the trust that they have the ability to get to class. I’ve seen children that are a bit louder and more excitable than their peers labeled eccentric or unique, while their brown counterparts, a few miles away, are called disorderly and dysfunctional.
We are walking around with acronyms, graduation robes, and respectability politics that are drenched in deep shades of brown. Our complexion is the first thing anyone sees.
I’ve watched students berated for simple things, things that a whisper or a touch of a shoulder could’ve fixed. I’ve watched them be told to “get out,” long before it was a movie title phenomenon, when a tight lesson plan and engaging voice could’ve kept them in the room. I’m saddened when deans are hired to be a fearful presence, big black men that put our young men in check, and keep the women who fear little brown babies, “safe.” I listened to conversations about stripping away the arts and community, because the enthusiasm that they created was too fear provoking.
The procedures, that mirror prison practice, put in place in many inner city schools will have you believe that joy, movement, color, and crown, will stifle your child’s growth. They have created a Stepford way of being, cloaked by supremacist acronyms. Each letter stands for an action they expect from our children: sit up, look at me, fold your hands, smile. They will sit across a parent-teacher night table and tell you that your child will not assimilate into society, because they fail to render a portion of the acronym. Or they will tell you that he’s followed it to the T and he will be oppressed anyway.
These are the same acronyms that we slap next to our names, when trying to defend why we did not deserve to die. It is the implementation of such strategy in schools that follows us all the way to adulthood, pleading for our lives with our accolades in our palm.
Institutions have us telling our children to fix that tie, tuck that shirt, straighten that blazer, fold your hands, smile, ask permission, smile, ask permission to remove your wallet from your pocket, smile, ask permission to play with toy guns, smile, ask permission to smoke a loosie, smile, ask permission to ask for help, smile, ask permission to visit Walmart, smile, ask permission to exist, smile. Get you some parentheses. Smile.
But what happens when the racism is institutionalized? What happens when the institution designed to “save” you, doesn’t want you saved? Or in the words of one of my students: What happens when you wear a suit, go to college, talk about peace and unity, do all the right things, and they still kill you?
Featured image: Black Lives Matter, Creative Commons
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