Over a week ago, our restorative justice circle developer created an activity where the students would watch a series of spoken word pieces in order to further discuss issues of race and stereotypes. The students, who are predominantly Dominican seemed apprehensive at first, however, as I mentioned in I Know My Rights: A Teacher’s Journey, many of my students separate themselves from associations with blackness so this discussions’ concentration on their culture helped to move the conversation along.
This circle conversation featured three videos for the students to discuss:
Each of the videos provided the students with an insight into how others process the question, “What are you?” and “Why won’t you straighten your hair?” Unlike the circle from the week before, the students spoke up and gave insightful answers.
The videos by Elizabeth Acevedo provided an opportunity for the students to discuss their food, their complexions and things they’ve kept hidden. Towards the beginning of the poem she says, “I hated caramel colored skin, cursed God that I had been born the color of cinnamon.” Many students referenced this part as they described how they themselves tried to separate from being Black or African American. Two student responses not only resonated with me but gave me inspiration for an upcoming lesson:
“That line resonates with me because I hide that my great grandfather was Haitian. Like I know people would look down on me if they knew that.” Another student added, “Yea, when we first moved here like I would be ashamed to tell people I would feel offended when people called me Black and I didn’t really talk that much because I thought people would make fun of the way I talked English but now Miss I don’t care, I know we (Dominicans) got that swag.” There were other students in the circle who echoed these sentiments and it helped to break the ice from the silence we experienced before.
As I reflected on the circle, I realized that the unit I created through Woke Cypha, which includes lessons on internalized/structural racism, cultural appropriation and media stereotypes, is not only needed but will help to further provide opportunities for students to learn how their self-hate is a tool used to divide people of color and solidify White supremacy in order to maintain the current structures of institutional power.
As I mentioned in The Bloody Massacre: Dominicans Who “Aren’t” Black, I created a lesson on the Parsley Massacre to help frame the discussion on self-hatred, stereotypes and skin color. The students responses to the lesson were mixed but did help to provide further insight into their thoughts and opinions on the topic.
I started out with the question, How do you define Blackness? And these were some of the responses:
Some students contributed to the conversation by adding that when they hear black they think of darkness and midnight, which many students pointed out were stereotypical responses.
As we closed the opening portion, two students (who are close friends) and were sitting across from each other began to talk and one yelled loudly, “shut up you monkey.” I of course stopped the lesson to address the statement and asked him how his comment could relate to our initial discussions on colorism or Blackness. He immediately responded and said, “Nah, miss that’s not what I meant, I didn’t mean anything by it. What I said doesn’t have anything to do with that.” Although I truly wanted to use it as a teachable moment, the student whom it was directed at laughed and joked with him by saying, “Nah nah its not like that”. When I shared this with one of my colleagues she stated that the students speak this way all the time in her classroom, “Oh you are dark as midnight” “Don’t turn off the lights we won’t be able to see _______” Although I know that culturally we enjoy “reading” each other or “playing the dozens,” I do believe it is relevant to point out to students how much of what they say is riddled with stereotypes that have become the justification for the overall treatment of them as youth and adults in society. I’ve realized through this experience though, that there’s a long way to go before I can connect both.
Two hours before this lesson, my co-teacher came up to me and said, one of our students just ask me what an inequality was.
Did I know what that meant at 16?
In learning about the Chinese museum that featured animals next to depictions of Africans I’ll be sure to share it as a Do Now next week on one of our Woke Cypha days.
We continued with the lesson and the students read the annotation on the massacre, which for some was brand new but for others, helped to further the conversation because they linked it with a book that they were reading for English called Krik? Krak! By Edwidge Danticat. Once this was introduced, a student took out the book and showed me the passage where it discussed the massacre and identified the page to the class. It was a great moment of connection because I was unaware of the stories featured in the book and it allowed other students to gain more interest in the conversation.
The remaining portions of the lesson brought out various views. As we moved into the portion on defining self-hatred and our videos, one student wrote the response above but she didn’t speak in class. This was probably due to the fact that over 50% of the class are male students who either kept stating they were distracted by her beauty or discredited her statements by commenting, “Miss I know there’s an issue but I think she was being too sensitive and overreacting. Plus she said she doesn’t care what people think but she has her hair straightened and makeup on.” So although some students may have wanted to speak, they didn’t. Those that did were once again struck by the discussion on hair length, curl pattern and used me as an example, “Miss, I use to be real ashamed to wear my hair like yours. People would comment and ask why my hair was curly and some would call it nappy and say “Are you Black?” I then stopped her and said;
“Do you feel offended when someone asks if you are Black or associates you with Blackness?” Her response was, “Nah, miss not like that.” A male student (the one who was called a monkey earlier in the class) loudly said, “why does hair being curly have to be spanish and nappy hair black?!“ Everyone in the class said their “ooooooo” “ahhhhhhhh” and we ultimately had to end with their exit ticket response which featured a clip from Malcolm X’s speech, where he asks, “Who taught you to hate yourself?”
- There are so many takeaways from this discussion. The first is the importance of setting communication protocols to ensure that everyone feels heard and dominant speakers know when/how to step back from the conversation. Currently this has looked like me checking in with students who I’ve noticed are silent or who come up to me post-lesson with either great responses or ideas that they were too afraid to share in class. I use the word “afraid” because that is their descriptor. More than 5 students have told me they are either shy or scared to state their opinion. I’m constantly trying to figure out a way to combat their desire to remain silent or decide whether it is a battle.
- Another is expectations; although I’m comfortable having these conversations and taking time to construct these lessons I recognize that the space I’m developing within the classroom may, for many of them, be the first time that they are coming in contact with certain terms, openly discussing their insecurities/family/environment with peers who could see differently than they do. This is difficult for adults to do but I will not allow their nervous laughter, awkward silence and indifferent attitudes to deter me from continuing.
The expectations for the Bad & Boujee unit I developed through Woke Cypha is for the students to further their understanding of how oppression operates both within themselves and the institutions they are currently in and will be a part of after high school and how they can dismantle these systems.
These are the first steps.