On Day 10, Sherri invited the Slicing community to share a story about race. Here is my first attempt.
“Ms. Vogel, do we have YJP today?”
This is a phrase I am hearing more and more of lately.
“You know we always have YJP Tuesday through Friday, right?” I respond to EVERY student that asks, at least once a day.
“I know, but I’m just making sure. I love our YJP! I wish it was every day!”
There is a core group of girls in my extension period (more about that on this past post) that is SUPER INTO our class. And guess what: it’s about race.
Talking about race, as well as other types of oppression, is something I desperately want to engage in with ALL of my students. However, I often feel like my knowledge and skills fall short. This YJP is a new kind of experiment, with a select group of talkative, socially aware, voracious readers where we engage in what this TED Talk calls “becoming racially literate”.
I pitched the class by showing them these book covers, giving them quick book talks, and letting them choose what they’d like to read during our time together.
Now, this sounds much more streamlined than it was. I should note that while our book talks were quick, we took two days not to book talk, but to discuss them all.
Our conversations moved from discussing questions like, “Why were there Dutch people in South Africa?” (after book talking Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime). My response: “Colonialism is the short answer… Have you guys heard of the Dutch East India Company?” And a student’s follow-up, “Do they speak French everywhere in Africa?”. As I white-splained that different countries in Africa spoke languages of various colonizers, a student piped up, “They speak French in Morocco. My mom’s from there.” Note to self: Step back, Ms. Vogel. These guys have some background knowledge – let them lead.
A few books later, we got to talking about incarceration. What book brought this up, Dear Martin? The 57 Bus? Allegedly? I’m not sure.
I do know that when someone asked about how court rulings could be unfair, we started down another conversational tangent. We discussed what we knew about juries, lawyers, and how having money can give you the privilege to sway the outcome of a court decision. How bias plays a role. I’d love to tell you this is an organized conversation, but it’s something of a free-for-all, with about three students trying to start talking at once, at all times. It gets a little chaotic.
Me: A court decision can be unfair in a lot of different ways. I mean, in this country, you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but you sometimes have to stay in a jail until your case is heard. And cases rest on evidence, which can be strong or not-so strong…
“And you can buy off witnesses!”
“But you’re not supposed to lie under oath.”
“But people still do!”
“Or you can threaten them!”
Me: And did you know that juries are chosen by the lawyers overseeing the cases? So if your lawyer is better than the other guys’, you can slip in jurors that might be more favorable to you.
“But don’t they all have to agree? I saw on TV that…”
“And judges are biased! JUDGES ARE BIASED!”
“Then why don’t we just have robots be judges? They’d be unbiased!”
A light laughter sprinkles the room as we consider robot judges. Eager to ruin the dreams of children, I counter: Actually, I’ve read some articles about bias in programming, so even robots aren’t safe from bias anymore.
“THE ROBOTS ARE EVEN BIASED?!”
Then, one of my students said something that stopped all of us cold: “My dad was in jail for 7 years because he’s Black.”
Silence fell over the room.
I wasn’t sure what to say. Yes, I’ve been attempting to coach my students to speak and listen empathically, to talk about these difficult subjects, but once our talk got all sci-fi-Law-&-Order, I had taken on the role of fact-checking students. This brought me out of our hypotheticals and back to the real world: To the real pain this bias we were speaking of can cause. To have an 11-year-old girl be cognizant of this world in a way that leads her to word her statement “because he’s Black”… my heart is still breaking.
The class, meanwhile, began voicing their outrage.
“What did he do?”
And another student’s correction, “What was he ACCUSED of?”
Cautiously, I looked my brave student in the eye. “Did you want to share anything about it?” I ask her. I don’t expect anything more, but if she offers it, I know the other students will be good listeners. She has their complete and utter attention.
“He was framed by his co-workers for… what do you call it when you take money?”
“Yeah, and because he’s Black, they decided to blame him, the court agreed and he didn’t even do anything.”
The students in the class were quick to voice their sympathy, and wonder if he’d been released.
“Yeah,” my student assured them. “He even wrote a book about it.”
After searching Google for his book and finding it on Amazon, my students were sated, yet becoming quiet. I could feel the heaviness of the day’s conversation taking its toll. While it is important to have these conversations, I wanted to make sure my students left feeling something other than helpless.
“You guys know why it’s so good to have conversations like these?” I asked. Their answers were ones we’d talked about in Reading class earlier in the year, along with some even better ones:
“We have to figure out what’s going on.”
“So we can change the messed up laws!”
I didn’t have anything to add.
This is how I’ve had the best conversations about race in my ELA classroom: Examining texts that make us ask questions, and think critically about systems. I wasn’t planning on having a conversation about race this day, but I learned just as much as the students.
Author’s Note: Normally, I’d stop a Slice there: on a triumphant note. But I have to add this aside: I know I picked a not-very-risky story about race to share. You’d better believe I have ones where I felt I have screwed up big time, or failed to call someone out, or responded harshly, shutting someone down instead of inviting them into a conversation. Worse, I fear I’ve caused harm with some of my early, botched attempts at delivering a social justice education. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that I’ll never be the right person to lead these conversations, being a white woman. Through this YJP and my personal+professional work, I’ve been learning to step back, listen to the voices of my students, and call in rather than call out. I’m still working on it. Maybe later this month I’ll be brave enough to share a less rosy story, in the name of being transparent. But for today, this is what I have to offer. Thanks for reading.