All Words Matter: Not If You’re a Black Student

You are a Black woman who works for the Department of Education. You visit many schools as part of your work. It’s April and on this particular visit, you enter a middle school in a “high need” area (code for predominantly Black and Brown poor neighborhood.) Your goal is to observe a couple of co-teaching classrooms during the school day then provide some strategies for effective co-teaching in the afternoon during the teacher’s professional development time. You enter a 7th grade ELA classroom with one White male and one Latino male. You have not been introduced. Administration has not informed them that there will be a visitor there to observe them.

The Latino teacher holds the door. The kids walk in.

Some go directly to their seats while others walk around the classroom yelling to one another. You sit in the back and watch the students enter. You hear the teachers say things like, “Take off your hoodies, get your workbooks out, have a seat.”  You are waiting to hear a “Good morning. Nice haircut. Let’s get ready for class,” something a little more inviting and fewer directives. As you’re waiting for the kids to settle down so you can introduce yourself, you notice that out of approximately 25 students, 6 of them begin to do their work. You peek over the shoulder of one of the students who is attempting to do the task and it’s just some dry questions pertaining to a fictional story about some birds.

Needless to say the assignment was underwhelming.

Some kids are asking for pencils. A couple of kids slam their workbooks on the table but don’t open it. The center of the room, consisting mainly of boys, are throwing paper back and forth and are just being kids on class time.

Your attention is pulled to the front left corner of the room as you hear the White male teacher yell the following at a Black, male student:

“Something is wrong with you. You are images.pngmentally ill. Are you retarded?” 

The student is standing. He doesn’t seem to have his workbook out and he’s looking up at the White teacher who is towering over him. The student smiles, kind of like he’s not taking the teacher’s words seriously but this teacher looks pissed to the highest level of pisstivity.

You notice the other three boys at his table snickering. You didn’t see what the student has done but you assume this ain’t the first time this teacher has had an issue with him. Finally, after the teacher is finished yelling in his face, he walks away and the student just laughs it off and sits with his friends.

Meanwhile, the Latino teacher seems not to notice what’s happening as he’s trying to get the rest of the class to do a not-so-engaging Do Now which was basically completing some pages in the workbook.

You put your pen down because whatever notes you were about to take regarding the lesson will not matter at this point. You have witnessed something that not only caught you off guard, but fucked up your spirit all at the same damn time.

What do you do?

This obviously happened to me and I can honestly say that no teacher preparation or leadership program had prepared me for what I should do in this scenario.

I’m not gonna lie. I wanted that student to put hands on his teacher. I definitely would’ve looked the other way like “handle your handle bruh.” Hell, I wanted to put hands on him my damn self.  But of course, I didn’t or wouldn’t do that and fortunately, neither did the young man.

So what DID happen and what did I learn from this?

images-1.jpgThe Bystander Effect– Even though that was my first time visiting that class, I knew it had already been established that this was the way this teacher talks to kids. Not only that but the student who was being called “retarded” and explicitly being told that something was wrong with him didn’t even look fazed by it. And peep this; the other students just kept talking, playing with each other’s hair, talking to the other teacher in the room and just going about their business.

Rule #1: All skin-folk don’t inherently look out for one another.

What happened to the idea of “Am I my brother’s keeper? Am I my sister’s keeper?” No one protected that child. Not the co-teacher and not the student’s peers. Apparently, this was more than a “Bystander Effect.” This was the “Who gives a fuck?” effect. I taught at a school where if a teacher spoke reckless to a student, best believe the Principal was going to ask that teacher some questions and that teacher would be watched closely thereafter. The kids snitched all the time and there would be four or five students to corroborate a child’s story against a teacher who disrespected them. School was always about the kids first.

The classroom culture was beyond sad; it was tragic. That class and every child in there expected this White man, their teacher, to belittle them and not bat an eyelash for it. Here I was, expecting that student to have an ally or better yet, I wanted an all out riot in that class. But in that moment, that student became hyper-visible for all the wrong reasons to his teacher and completely invisible to his peers.

The Adults Ain’t Shit: This includes me. But before I get to me, I couldn’t understand how the other teacher, who seemed to have a better rapport with the students, didn’t realize this was going on. It seemed that all instruction needed to be paused so they could discuss expectations for the classroom. Because while that student may have done something wrong (and maybe not wrong enough for that racist teacher to say that to him), the majority of the class gave zero fucks about that lesson.

Now I’m gonna dig in my own ass because I was disappointed for not coming to that student’s aid in a more visible way. I went over to his table after that performance of teacher-to-student degradation and I sat with him and his friends. They were reading something about birds and how they protect their young. I introduced myself to all of the students and asked them what they were working on.

What I liked most about this student was not only his smile but the way he still worked on his task and worked with the other boys right after this incident happened. I would’ve shut down for life. That teacher would’ve been dead to me and while I admired his willingness to do his work, I wondered how long had he heard these words about himself that he could just appear to be indifferent to them?

All I could do the rest of the period was listen to him, ask him questions and affirm him. The White teacher didn’t come back to that area for the remainder of the period. When the bell rang, I let him know that he was brilliant and that I didn’t want him to get in any more trouble. He smiled and said, “I got you Miss.”

But I still felt like shit, cause I couldn’t say “I got you” in return. I had already proved through my silence, that I didn’t have his back or anyone else’s in that class. I felt that I should have spoken to the teacher after the kids began working and asked him to try and re-establish a connection with the student and find out what the student could’ve done to get that kind of response.

The kids and I were just niggers: How do I know this? How can I not know this? Not only did he call a child retarded, that same afternoon, he came to the PD I was leading that was supposed to be focused on teacher development and the ways to make the best use of two teachers in the classroom and commenced to tell me about how “these kids” don’t ever come prepared and “these kids” aren’t organized. He came to vent and tell me what he really thought about “these kids.”

So I pushed back and said, you knew what you were signing up for when you came to teach at this school. If all the kids were perfect, they wouldn’t need you. He rolled his eyes and I continued talking to the other teachers who side-eyed him but remained mute.

Rule #2: When wanting to determine if you’re a racist, just ask yourself, “Would I think or say this offensive thing to a White person?” If not, I’m racist.

The thing that stood out most to me about this White teacher was the amount of anger and disgust he seemed to have for his students. He was actually turning red when he spoke in front of me and his colleagues. I needed that dude to take a walk. I could’ve sworn this dude was turning into a serpent cause I’m convinced that he hissed when he said “thessse kidssss.”

Rule #3 and this is more like a simple formula When White folks say “these kids,” just substitute the word ‘kids’ for ‘niggers.’ I promise you there’s really no difference in the message.

Example: These kids never come prepared.
Translation: These niggers never come prepared.

Example: These kids don’t want to learn.
Translation: These niggers don’t want to learn.

The rule also works when White folks call themselves being sympathetic too.
Example: These poor, poor kids don’t even have notebooks.
Translation: These poor, poor niggers don’t even have notebooks.

Example: These kids just need a little love.
Translation: These niggers just need a little love.

Pause. My mama love me.

This is the type of thinking and comments that are rooted in stereotypes and racist ideas; Black kids don’t want to learn. We don’t value education. Our families don’t love us.

I call bullshit on all of this and White people irk me with this.

Needless to say, after some reflection and self-talk, I said something to administration. I told the Assistant Principal, a Latina, that I wasn’t comfortable with the way this teacher spoke to kids in his class. I showed her my notes and I wrote what he said verbatim.

The AP simply said, “Yeah he does that. He speaks down to the kids a lot.” (Awkward silence)

Oh so y’all know all this and he still works here?download.jpg

Duly noted.

I’m not about taking bread out of anyone’s mouth. I’m not saying this teacher can’t be a good teacher. I just think he can’t be a good teacher with THAT mindset in THAT school community. Maybe that was worth discussing.

Lastly, as I stated earlier, neither teacher was introduced to me before their class started. They didn’t know who I was or why I was there but that teacher decided that he wasn’t even going to pretend to be decent in front of company. He was going to show his entire ass. I concluded that whatever he thought about “those kids” was pretty much what he thought about me.

Just another nigger.

Now what educators?

  • As people of color, we have all faced the dilemma of, do we call out racists and their racist ideas and if we do so, what’s the L that we gotta take?

We are afraid that if we speak up about an injustice, we will be disliked, ostracized, targeted, fired and lose our benefits. But we have to begin to call things out. It doesn’t have to be a Love and Hip Hop sit down. No one has to throw any glasses of water in anyone’s face. But we can hold on to our principles AND keep our coins. #PrinciplesAndPaychecks.

  • We need to create a safe space in our classrooms. Our kids need to know that the adults will protect them not only from their peers, but from other adults. They also need to protect one another when the adults fail to do so. One school agreed that when anyone said anything offensive whether that was a teacher or a student, the students simply said “Ouch”and there was time to talk about that. This could be on an individual, group or whole class basis.

We need less rules in the classroom and more community agreements. Agreements indicate a two way street, not just what students must do while teachers don’t have to be accountable. One of my rules as a teacher came from the acronym RULES in which the L stood for Listen and leave your attitude at the door. I greeted my students at the door every day and they could tell me if they weren’t feeling well, if they were having a bad day or wasn’t prepared.

In turn, I knew to give them some space but they were still responsible for the work. I would also tell the kids when I just wasn’t feeling it and they respected that. We could add to or change our “rules” depending on what the classes needed.

The DoE needs to mimic the MTA: If you see something, say something. Personally, I’ll settle for “If you disrespect, you must be checked.” Sorry, I’m channeling my inner Johnny Cochran but you get the point.  The point is we can’t wait until things get so egregious before we decide to say something. If we check the small offenses, hopefully there won’t be big ones that have a lasting impact on students’ self-worth.

  • As Mistoiny told us in the beginning of the school year, in  “Watch What You Say to Our Kids”. Kids can tell if you rock with them and when you rock with them, they show that love right back. They make the attempt; they want to do well because they know they are affirmed, they are cared for and they are with adults who want them to succeed.
  • I’ve said this before and I can’t stress it enough: Get out of teaching if you don’t care about our kids!!!!
  • When I became an administrator, a colleague told me that we teach from our beliefs. Our practices let people know what we think about kids, what we think they are capable of and how we limit them. Take some time individually with your colleagues and with your school community to reflect on those beliefs and see if your practices are aligned.
  • Final Rule: When in doubt, just listen to Queen Maxine.

I read somewhere that when you open your mouth, your mind is on display.  Just some nourishment for the mind.

As always, we got work to do. Educators, we can’t stop, won’t stop!

To that White male teacher and those like him…y’all racist AF and I’m sorry Scarsdale didn’t want you but we don’t either.



  1. Thank you for shining the light on this issue. As the struggle continues it is comforting to know that because you bravely shared your insights and experiences we won’t be toiling in anonymity.

  2. Khalya, I’m really struggling reading about this experience and also thinking how painful it must have been for you to witness, but I can’t begin to imagine what this was like for the student, who doesn’t have the tools to process these events and determine a response. Even more disturbing, it’s not just that student. As you note, this type of exchange probably occurs on a steady loop in that classroom everyday…and unfortunately in many other spaces. What does that student walk away thinking about himself? About those with mental illness? About those with differing needs? What is the message everyone else is internalizing every single day? We’ve failed our students when it’s clear from your account that we actually equipped them with ZERO ways to challenge this interaction.

    We have to actually teach our students what a bystander is – and extend these lessons to everyone working with young people. In order to understand the bystander effect – how silence gives the power to those engaging in blatantly inexcusable behavior – we have to first know what a bystander is. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian writes about actively creating allies and one of the statements I always carry with me is, “I believe that it is difficult for young people to grow up and become something they have never heard of.” Clearly the staff at this school and the students would benefit from understanding their options in this situation, and how to make a choice that would actually disrupt this cycle. As you point out, this is a difficult role – and one we don’t always know how to fill. Yet until we start talking about options, we only maintain the current order and miss creating opportunities for people to disrupt this broken system.

    Lastly, we talk about content. We talk about effective teaching practices. But as you note, as we don’t talk about mindset. More time needs to be spent directly speaking to educators about their views of the communities and students they support. So often, teachers (such as myself) don’t belong to communities where they work and we need to actually discuss what views we bring when we walk into the classroom each day. Until we’re honest about that, we can’t make progress in challenging our notions of “these kids” or “these families” or “these neighborhoods.”

  3. Really enjoyed reading this. I don’t even remember this happening lol and you usually tell me everything. I definitely believe there are a lot of teachers who are in the wrong profession. You have to be passionate about what you do and really strive to make a difference. As far as the racist teacher you encountered shame on him but more importantly shame on the school for knowing about his behavior and not calling him out on it. They need to do better.

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