Since I graduated in 2005, I’ve only set foot in my high school twice, both times were later that year. I’ve never had a strong desire to go “home” again.
That memory came to my mind when I read a blog post on Education Week‘s Curriculum Matters blog last week, detailing the parents’ outrage after Beaver Ridge Elementary School in Norcross, Ga. assigned students math problems about slavery. The parents’ ire was raised after students brought home questions including, “If Frederick [presumably a reference to escaped slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglass, whom Beaver Ridge Principal Jose DeJesus says third-graders were studying] got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?”
Another gem was “Each tree had 56 oranges. If 8 slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?”
Well then. It almost makes me long for the days of Chris Rock‘s black history education.
The city of Norcross is 19.8 percent black, considerably more diverse than the largely white suburban utopia (with a black population of only 1.91 percent) where I received my diploma, and that’s what shocked me. See, nothing this egregious ever happened in my schooling despite the almost complete lack of ethnic diversity in my school. I guess I was lucky.
I mean, there were black kids at my school. I didn’t have class with them — a victim of the tracking system, I was often the only black student and almost always the only black female in my accelerated and Advanced Placement classes — but they existed. They congregated on what some of my white peers, no doubt with great respect and affection I’m sure, referred to as “the ghetto stairs” in the back of the school.
That’s what diversity looked like at my high school: a system of willful and institutionally assisted segregation.
I was never forced to do slavery word problems. I didn’t have to pose in pictures to play up the school’s inclusivity for marketing materials. I wasn’t referred to as a token.
No, I just had friends who thought the word “nigger” was funny. I just hung out with guys who doubled over in laughter at the thought of a black person playing or coaching hockey (clearly they’d never heard of Kevin Weekes).
My high school had a hip-hop dance team that was probably 75 percent black. One of my friends, after walking by the room where they practiced, remarked that it “smelled like sweaty black people.”
And all of that sucked. But at least my homework, the stuff I had to do in order to graduate, wasn’t filled with such outright bigotry.
Principal DeJesus and school district spokeswoman Sloan Roach both said that the slavery math was an attempt by teachers to “create cross-curricular lessons,” integrating — ironically enough — history and math.
What’s that they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions?
This is what institutionalized racism looks like. This is the token experience. People mean well but don’t consult people of color to see if those good intentions are paired with positive action.
When people brag to me about how post-racial this country is, this is the shit I want to throw in their faces.
Yeah, we have a black president. Good for us. We also have teachers, you know, the people who are supposed to safeguard against stuff like this, inflicting it. It’s a lot more than just Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and “Free to be You and Me.”
It’s having to tell to your white friends why you don’t wash your hair every day. It’s explaining the Sickle Cell Anemia trait to your high school biology class. It’s being the only black kid in a room full of your white peers as you watch the Clayton Bigsby blind white supremacist sketch from “Chappelle’s Show” in class and trying not to vomit as you pretend that their laughter doesn’t disgust you. [For the record, I loved “Chappelle’s Show” because I got the jokes. You know the people who drove Dave crazy? The white people "laughing for the wrong reasons"? Those people were my classmates.]
And you know what? There was a teacher sitting in that classroom as my “friends” howled at Clayton Bigsby and repeated his racist rants for laughs. I’m not mad at that teacher. I don’t blame her. She was blindsided and probably as paralyzed as I was. She was like most of my teachers when it came to race: When you have only one black student in your class, you as the instructor take your cues from that student.
But someone has to educate the educators. And it’s an unfair burden to place on a 17-year-old black student, in my case, or the third-graders in Norcross.
It’s unforgiveable that a hierarchy of assumedly licensed and qualified people, people whom I’m sure meant no harm, people whom I’m sure are committed to one of the most important roles society has to fill – that of molding the minds of America’s future – allowed these word problems to appear on a math assignment. It’s no longer about the act; it’s about the unchecked process that facilitated it.
The first three years of my elementary school experience included amazing teachers, both black and white, and a wonderfully diverse and accepting school — a school named after Dr. King — and prepared me for the challenges I faced when I moved to a place where race wasn’t acknowledged, save for reading “Number the Stars” and platitude-filled Februaries. There were very few lessons of practical application and instead just a lot of refrains about the past, because for a lot of my teachers that was the best they could knowledgeably offer.
It wasn’t all downhill from King Elementary School. I had quite a few great teachers once I moved, like the seventh-grade social studies teacher who – when I did my best Julia Sugarbaker imitation during a Civil Rights Movement lesson and asked if the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People should change its name since we don’t call black people “colored” anymore (though I went to high school with a girl who thought that was the official lingo) – he didn’t shy away. When I asked this unintentionally inflammatory question, he didn’t pretend that he couldn’t hear me. This white teacher stared me right in the eye, in front of all my classmates, and admitted that he didn’t have the answer. He told me that I should go home and ask my parents what they thought.
It wasn’t revolutionary. He didn’t end racism. But what that teacher did was brave. Not only did he not make me feel bad for asking a question, he didn’t quash my desire for knowledge, and he admitted in front of his students that he wasn’t omnipotent. And in 12 years I never forgot him or his action.
And just as that lesson always stayed with me, the third-graders of Beaver Ridge Elementary School with probably never forget that they learned 56 divided by 8 equals 7 oranges per slave and that two beatings a day equals 14 beatings a week for the future abolitionist.
That’s the thing about school. It never really leaves you even long after you’ve left it.