Racial Education done Right-ish

While it may be difficult to look back to a time before Covid-19 and the most recent Black Lives Matter boom, let me take you back to the start of the year. Doctor Adolf Brown, yes Adolf, was coming to Mount Greylock for what was presumably meant to be an informative performance on race and privilege (ironically a majority of our school is rich and white.) However, many students of our high school were unable to look past Doc Brown’s scandalous and frankly sexist treatment of women during his performance, while many others became concerned about the cost of the endeavour and questioned the purpose of inviting Doc Brown to Greylock in the first place, while an entirely separate contingent of students found his actual message to be worth the money and the time, the problems found within it by their peers simple distractions from his desired point. The bottom line is, his message wasn’t for many of us, as the level headed among us pointed out. Everyone was distracted by something, rightly so, and any possible good of Doc Brown’s message was lost in the weeds.

Fast forward nine months. Millions of people across our nation and the world have been stuck home due to the outbreak of a novel coronavirus, communicating through electronics to stay sane. And then, halfway between Doc Brown and now, George Floyd was murdered on video by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. We all saw it. We were all enraged. And suddenly the electronic world we had been curating for a good few months to supply us with the correct memes and provide us with a base level of sanity was turned on its head. In a time of outrage and seclusion, the era of online–and in-person–activism exploded. As rioters began to burn down cities, as peaceful protests began to chant out demands, as the All Lives Matter folks pushed back, our country split down the middle. Did I mention we have a presidential election in just a few weeks?

This chaos, this division, this movement is the backdrop for Jason Reynolds’ virtual read aloud, a session every single student at Mount Greylock tuned in for on October 9th. Our attendance to the read aloud was paired with an announcement from Mrs. Barrett and the administration that every student in the school will read Jason Reynolds YA adaptation of Ibram X Kendi’s book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. And while my computer doesn’t think that “antiracism” is a word, we have all been trained in the past nine months to know exactly what it means. It’s been on everybody’s lips or Instagram stories lately. We should all understand that word by now. It’s about being more than not racist, it’s about fighting back.

While I found Reyndold’s breakdown of the three types of racists a tad confusing, I think because of the virtual nature of the conversation, this is what I wrote down in my notes during the read aloud: Segregationists are the old fashioned racists who want to keep the different kinds of people apart. Assimilationists are a more recent form of racist whose goal is to merge every culture together to amass one colorless form. And antiracists are what we want to be, what many of us have been trying to be; the black squares on Instagram, the donation links in the bios, etc.

I’m not sure how well this breakdown represents the racism we face in this country, or if it presents the best solution to fix it, but I do know a couple things. Racism is very real and very bad. I don’t really feel like that point needs much clarifying. Additionally, having a school wide conversation about being an antiracist is good. Especially at our school. For all the same reasons that Doc Brown’s message went over many of our heads (richness and whiteness), this message is tailor made for Greylock students, especially now. 

Let’s get something straight guys. I don’t think Black Lives Matter is really about black people anymore. At least not in this town. I remember being a seventh grader when Dylann Roof killed nine church going black Americans at a worship session in Charleston South Carolina. I remember Black Lives Matter then. It looked like me standing at the town rotary holding a sign. While my dad and my brother weren’t there, many of the town’s few minorities were. There were white people at the protest, lots of them, and in no way am I saying their attendance was wrong or that it would ever be better to have segregated lanes for discourse. But I can’t help but focus on the difference between my feelings then and my feelings now. Then, as uncomfortable as I was, I knew that Black Lives Matter was about me, or people like me. All I had to do was look at the signs or listen to the chants. Now I feel just the opposite. My brother and I drive by the vigil at the rotary every Friday night on the way home from soccer practice and I look at the faces of all the white people holding up signs that should make me feel like I matter. But I always feel the same as I do when I walk into a diner with my family and see all the eyes flick up to us at once. Out of place.

And I think that’s how I am going to feel when I read Stamped. I’m sure it’s great. I’m sure the message will mean something to somebody and that is all that a book has to do to be worth reading. But I don’t think it’s really for me. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t have to be who the book is for, I’m not that selfish. But it seems weird that a movement called Black Lives Matter, and the media it has spawned, are leaving certain black people behind. 

Maybe it’s my own fault. Maybe I’ve done too much to diverge the way I think from the majority of people in the town, white or black or otherwise, or maybe not. Maybe a movement which has been taken over by white people is starting to produce media for white people.

Now, I don’t want to belittle my guy Jason Reynolds, nor do I mean to offend any of you dear readers. I want you all on my side because we should all be on the same side about racism. Undoubtedly. But I can’t shake the feeling that this is Black-ish all over again. That this is the exploitation of the very real black struggle for the market of the very rich white hands.

And I think that icky feeling is why I am tentative to be excited about a school-wide mandate to read this book. It feels unnatural to add the same book into six different curriculums and say “Look, we’re woke, we did it!” Maybe we are woke. Maybe we did do it. But the promotion of this book alone as a guide to the hundreds of confused students trying their best to navigate the divisive and dangerous world that this school is supposed to prepare them for seems ignorant. It seems like we’ve written off all other perspectives.

And unfortunately it’s clear to me where that comes from. That’s all 2020 has been in terms of social progression, uncompromising absolutes. This or that. You back Black Lives Matter, or you must be a racist. You say All Cops Are Bastards, or you’re a part of the problem. Here it feels like the option the school was faced with was, read Stamped or continue to ignore the racial injustice in America. It will never be that simple, and if you’ve felt lost or confused or angry, as I have when faced with these yes or no questions, understand that we can change the narrative whenever we like. We can expand the parameters of our demands to include the opinions of our reasonable countrymen and women, or we can decide that those opinions are garbage and should never be given a platform to spread. But we have to decide that as a culture, as a team, and that can’t be done with binary questions.

I know this entire piece has been negative but I didn’t set out for that to happen. I wanted to support this decision, I wanted to at least be able to weigh the pros and cons. I don’t hate the message of the book. I really don’t. I think segregationists are bad, but I don’t know that antiracists are the only good option we have, at least not with the goalposts where they are now. I don’t know that replacing black shame with white guilt will do anything to help our country.

And maybe that’s not the goal. Maybe that’s just a necessary evil, a single bullet point on a list that I am focusing on more than the list’s writers want me to.  But then again, how can we say we’re making any real change if all we’re doing is playing volleyball with a lump full of negative emotions and stereotypes? One side lobs it to the other, back and forth forever. That can’t be the path we take forwards, it just can’t. We need to be able to talk about this stuff, and I don’t see how that can happen if we have only one definitive and divisive guidebook. Starting this conversation with Stamped is a good place to begin. But it cannot be where this conversation ends. We can’t have one side given the green light to reach every brain in the school and not allow other sides a chance to respond. It feels as though the introduction of Stamped hinges on an understanding that we are at the mercy of binary choices, an understanding I see to be incredibly dangerous. 

I know that this is an opinion piece, I know many of you surely have counter arguments in what I’m saying just as I do in everything I read. Good. If I can give you any advice, one humble idiot to another: open yourself up for criticism. It’s coming if you are as serious about “fostering conversations,” as these Instagram posts claim. If we really want to make change, we can’t write off all outside perspectives. We all have demands, we all have wishes. It’s naive of us to think that ours are the most valuable ones. 

I don’t want my words to add to your confusion as a reader, as a student, and, most importantly, as an American during these heart-wrenching and divisive and infuriating times. We are facing a batch of challenges vastly different from anything ever faced by a generation, and we have a lot of weight on our shoulders. I think if 2020 has proven anything, it’s that we are going to have a lot of work to do. I want the best for us, as a class, as a school and as a country, so believe me when I tell you that I wish talking about this book were as easy as saying, “it’s written from a black perspective and therefore we should listen to it.” It pains me to write what I am about to: that’s not enough. When we all read this book, we all have to decide on our own whether it should be heralded as a cure for racism.

I haven’t read it yet, and although I don’t know for sure, I have a feeling it won’t be a cure for much of anything. Few things ever are. It’s not going to be as easy as reading any one book and deciding to follow what it says, because the black experience, the white experience, the American experience is more complex than any one author can summarize. Which is why my final request of you, dear reader, is that when you talk about this book as you are mandated to do this year, do not hold back. Be bold in your classrooms and your essays, disagree with what your classmates think if you have reason to, and never let anyone tell you that your right to an opinion is less important than theirs. The only way to get a holistic view of this nation and its very real problems is to talk and to disagree and to find common ground. That can never be done if you allow yourself to be silenced. That can never be done if we allow ourselves to be told what to agree with and what to find fault in. 

The truth about the American experience relies on you as much as it does on any book we will ever read. Your voice matters. Use it.