I Know My Rights: A Teacher’s Journey

It isn’t a secret, that if you speak up for the rights of your people within any institution, your livelihood is in jeopardy. Last week I did a restorative justice circle on race and society with my students. After setting the groundwork for the discussion, students were shown two Youtube videos that focused on a specific aspect of race in society. The first titled, “Because I’m Latino I can’t have money” Kids on Race, depicted children around the age of 12 discussing how race impacted their lives while the other, a clip from “Black-Ish”, showed Anthony Anderson’s reaction to Trump’s election. And then I followed up with these questions:

  • What is the hardest part about talking about race?
  • Think about a time when race impacted your life. What moment came to mind & why?
  • How can someone make sure they are open-minded about race?

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For 45 minutes students struggled to describe how race impacted their lives. Out of 30 students present, 10 said they couldn’t relate because they were Latino, 5 spoke up regularly, 10 stayed silent and the remaining 5 spoke once or twice. The talking piece for the circle seemed more like a hot potato the way students passed it so quickly.

After reflecting on the discussion, I realized that there are limited times within classroom spaces in which students are able to discuss race. I also realized that we are reminded of how detrimental and delicate the discussion can be when bombarded with media representations of people of color speaking up and being reprimanded. Students may feel unsafe discussing race and that is partially our fault, considering some of us are fearful too.

2017 has helped to solidify that as people of color, if we want to continue to be upward mobil, we need to assimilate rather than attempt to dismantle the “system.” Recently, the Roots published, “Black Public Figures Are Being Silenced for Calling Out White Supremacy,” which is a reminder that between Colin Kaepernick, Jemele Hill and Munroe Bergdorf, no position is safe from White supremacy and its necessity to control the speech  and actions of people of color. 

As a teacher in the public education system, I’ve come to recognize that the desire to protect my well being leaves my students at a disadvantage.  The constant stress attached with trying to maintain my own material security will never create change. In fact it acts as a protector for the continuation of the system in which all of us who seek permanent shifts in the education of students of color, loathe.

At some point, you have to ask yourself, “Am I willing to rock the boat?” even if you know it will capsize.

There are consequences for questioning the system. However, there are also gains, one of which I’ve come to understand as “losing our chains.”

Although there are clear examples that we can lose our jobs for speaking up or being leaders of uprisings, there is also concrete evidence that there are people out there who are really about progression, who would love to have employees from entry level to executive suite who are focused on change.


Since Colin Kaepernick took his first knee, he has yet to receive a quarterback position in the NFL but his Know Your Rights Campaign, continues to donate to numerous organizations and ongoing support for the movement has helped him carve out a permanent space in history. Munroe Bergdorf’s comment that “all white people are racist” resulted in being fired by L’Oréal, only for her to be rehired by the rival brand. In actuality, despite our innate desire to uphold the status quo, there is space for us as teachers to develop lessons that are honest about the current cultural and political landscape. Because if we do not speak up, we’ll constantly be reminded through micro and macro aggressions that the system of White supremacy will maintain its position.

Our…well the current President has taken White privilege to a level that inflicts anxiety to watch but is a perfect example of how comfortable it is for the oppressor to speak up. From “Mexicans are rapists and gang members” to his latest Twitter tirade, which included a GIF of him smacking Hillary Clinton in the back of the head with a golf ball, nothing’s off limits. He secured the presidency despite his constant sexist, racist and misogynistic speeches/rants. So in the words of 45, when it comes to educating students on race and the true history of America, “what do we have to lose?”

Often times, people question why so many Black teachers quit and opt to be a part of the corporate or non-profit sphere instead. The truth is, more than 80% percent of America’s classrooms are filled with White teachers and therefore the rest of us are struggling to teach our own in highly oppressive environments. In one of my favorite Malcolm X speeches, he says, “Why would you let the enemy teach your children?”

Since I started my teaching journey in 2014, I’ve been trying to figure this out.

It is not that my pro-Blackness equates to being anti-White. It isn’t that I have yet to come across White allies who are focused on doing this work. It’s more to do with the fact that the education system has continued to function as a failing system. And I initially felt a need to police my language, mannerisms and cultural norms because I knew they wouldn’t allow me to “Teach Like A Champion.” 

I do this shit for the culture.

I’m currently starting my fourth year of teaching and I’m in awe at the reality I face. My 16 and 17 year old students do not know how to talk about race, they don’t know how it affects them, they’ve adopted various forms of internalized racism that block them from building relationships with others and are struggling with coming to grips with the structural forms of racism that they face on a daily.

They are silent and silenced.

As are we.

The bureaucracy of the education system is STILL forcing teachers to cower out of fear. In our public school system many teachers can be ostracized when they attempt to go against the grain, while our colleagues in charter school networks could face unemployment.

Well, after participating in culturally responsive trainings (CCER / Woke Cypha) and download.jpgdeveloping lessons on racism, HipHopEd, school-wide Black history month lessons, lessons on cultural appropriation, placing Black Lives Matters/LGBT banners in our main hallway despite staff concerns  and a long list of other things I’ve done, I still received tenure.

download-3.jpgAnd though I’ve always been one to push the envelope, I realize now that the only place for me is a place where I can 100% explore various ways to liberate myself and the minds of my students. Because there is really nothing to lose but our chains. 

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be reading Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race. Because even though my students probably took a sigh of relief once the bell rang last Thursday, little do they know, we are doing a circle on race and society again.

And this time I will be even more prepared.


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