Do Good
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Being Black at School: A Teacher Creates a Better Classroom

tuenight first job black at school kelly wickham

I was born in Chicago, raised on the south side and Hyde Park, and finished high school in the south suburbs. My upbringing was so diverse that there didn’t appear to be a dominant culture. It wasn’t until we went to the suburbs that I asked my white mother, “Where did all these white people come from?” My dad is Black, and all our friends were a blend of countless cultures.

In that very white environment, I found myself searching for any kind of color and I also began to hear, for the first time, about how proud the people were for being colorblind. It’s funny that I’ve only ever heard this expression from white people who use it as a way to let others know how great they are for not considering color. It’s even funnier that they never notice the absence of color when they’re surrounded by homogenous populations.

After graduation, I continued south to college and then again to start my career as a high school teacher. My first professional job came about because I was Black. I didn’t know it at the time, and it took several months for the English department chair to tell me that when we met she hadn’t perceived me as Black. When I introduced myself to her, she assumed I was a white woman with a tan. For them, I “counted” in their minority hiring numbers but in name only. There wasn’t much support that came along with that. The district didn’t know me nor I them, but I didn’t put much thought into it until I witnessed a friend having an important discussion with her daughter.

I have spent the better part of two decades realizing that what people don’t know about me is that I am always going to stretch boundaries about issues of equity and race. I’m perfectly happy having difficult discussions. I’d argue that school systems should be glad people like me will challenge them within the system.

Alas, that was not the case.

Instead, I’ve been labeled as ”difficult” and ”hard to manage” when, in truth, the only managing done to me was to move me forcefully to different schools. That’s happened twice in my career. Yet it always came without bad evaluations or disciplinary letters in my file.

So, two weeks ago, I quit and started working on an initiative to respond to Illinois Senate Bill 100 on restorative justice. My reasons for quitting are complicated, but one was that I felt motivated to come up with actionable items to tackle systemic racism, something that SB100 seeks to address by responding to how we as a school system unequally distribute discipline for Black and Latino students.

Here’s the problem: Schools are ill-equipped to tackle issues of race because many don’t want to address the bias surrounding why Black and Latino students get the bulk of disciplinary consequences. It’s a bandage on a broken arm that won’t set the bone or correct the skeleton.

People who don’t see a need for this right now may be missing the larger picture of the seismic shift our nation is in currently.

My new job is an initiative, Being Black at School. It is a response to a need for schools and parents. This work is what I’ve been doing on a smaller scale by making a dent within the system. It fits where I am in life right now, too, because my disdain for being labeled the “Angry Black Woman” was growing quickly. An old boss once called in our district human resources department because my boss didn’t like talking to me since she said I got “so mad and upset,” her covert way of lobbing a racist microaggression at me while painting herself as the fragile white woman.

My work relationship mirrored that of the students I was advocating for in the first place. Consistently, as a nation, we suspend and expel Black and Latino students far more frequently than their white counterparts but rarely implement interventions that combat it. We’re missing this compassionate empathy piece of allowing black and brown children to be the adolescents they are, developing and growing and learning proper behavior in schools. Instead, we tend to punish them quickly while throwing up our hands as to how to stop it.

I started Being Black at School to embed a framework into school systems to disrupt them — much like how the Black Lives Matter seeks to disrupt racist institutions that marginalize Black Americans. Why now? Well, mostly because it’s long overdue but also because I’m sick and tired of trying to make a difference as an employee with very little power within the school system.

People who don’t see a need for this right now may be missing the larger picture of the seismic shift our nation is in currently. But ask any parent of a student who has been arrested by police officers within a school building and who has endured the ensuing legal fees that come with it how much they want advocacy and support. Ask any Black student who has been denied accessibility or entrance into higher-level classes based on arbitrary reasons if they think they’ve gotten a fair shake in school. Ask Black educators about their experiences in mostly white institutions, including the 40,000 Black teachers who were laid off after Brown v. Board of Education since white, newly-integrated schools refused to hire them.

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(Photo: Stocksy.com)

Filed under: Do Good

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Kelly Wickham

Kelly Wickham is a social activist who does that work in a middle school as an administrator, as a writer, and as a speaker. She writes about education, race, and being a single teenage mom. Kelly has a combined family that includes 6 adult offspring. Her writing has appeared in Yahoo!, Huffington Post, and she's been a guest on NPR. You can follow Kelly on Twitter at @mochamomma.

1 Comment

  1. Sharice says

    You courage, bravery and vision and a blessing to our flawed educational system. Any help or assistance you need, please let me know.

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