By: Ravae Duhaney
This February, my preschoolers joined their peers across the country to celebrate Black History Month. Though we celebrate the accomplishments of African-Americans every week, that month is special. We engaged in a Black Musician Study, with students investigating instruments, genres, and artists, reading books on Black musical legends, and comparing their lives to our own. A lot of these books are set in the past and focus on the hardships of segregation and unfair treatment.
Recently, during a read aloud about Ray Charles and the challenges he faced as a person of color, one of my students exclaimed, “I don’t like white people!” I seized this as an extremely important teachable moment. We went on to discuss why he felt that way, why his emotions were justified, and why he shouldn’t discriminate or generalize an entire group of people, the way people had against Charles. We thought about people in our school who care about us, help us, and happen to have white skin. This reminded me that if three, four, and five-year olds are able to comprehend hatred and disgust, the pain that is soaring through older children and adults across the country, especially in light of recent events, could not be more searing.
In the face of these realities, we have no time to waste. This school year marked the first in which the majority of public school students are minorities. Our generation has a responsibility to work to ensure that each and every one of them is moving through a system that affirms their identities, shows them they’re valued, and allows them access to the opportunities they have been denied for far too long.
While the “whites only” signs of the 60s have come down, the reality of separate and unequal endures. Alongside glaring gaps in educational, employment and economic opportunity, people of color in this nation face a variety of subtler, no less damaging assumptions. A successful black lawyer hears whispers of affirmative action. A young black boy on a corner is seen as “lurking,” while his white peers “hang out.” A black college student is asked to give “the black perspective” to a seminar full of white students who are never asked to speak on behalf of their entire race.
When my kids hear or see these injustices happen to the people they know and love, they think about what it means for their own futures. Recently, a male student in my class stated “I want dreads when I grow up,” to which a female student responded “you gonna go to jail.” My heart dropped. My co-teacher and I were shocked and saddened to see the stereotypes so internalized in these four- and five-year-old hearts. Leaving school that day, I knew I had to work even harder to affirm their self-worth and the value of our history.
I joined Teach For America to help students who look like me — plain and simple. But now that I’m in the classroom, I’ve found that my students are helping me just as much as I am helping them. At such a young age, they reflect the honesty and challenges of the world, and help me to understand how the world perceives people that look like me and how I perceive myself. They help me to recognize the magnitude of the educational inequity, lack of opportunities, and institutionalized racism across America. And they help me to see the importance of having caring, dedicated individuals fighting these injustices in the classroom.
We have a long way to go as a country before we truly achieve justice for all. To fix the systemic oppression that has created the gross inequality of the present will take the hard, dedicated work of countless leaders and changemakers. We must work toward these long-term changes as well as the immediate, urgent opportunities to change the way our students view themselves and their futures.
As teachers, we can play a central role in this. Every day, we can remind our kids that their thoughts, ideas, identities and opinions are important. We can share our own stories so that when our kids look to the front of the room, they see a little bit of themselves reflected back. We can remind them that they matter, that they always have and that they always will.
Ravae Duhaney is a 2012 graduate of UMBC and Teach For America-Chicago alum. She teaches Pre-Kindergarten at Herzl School of Excellence in Chicago.