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Silenced in the Classroom

By Cheryl Vines

Although the incident I am about to describe occurred more than 45 years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday. I often find myself as one of a few Black people, or the only Black person, in predominantly White spaces. From the time I was a little girl attending predominantly White schools, my mother taught me that when I left the house, I needed to visualize myself wearing invisible armor to protect myself from the mean things White people might say or try to do to me. I was not taught to fear White people, but I was taught to keep my armor on until I could discern if I felt safe or not. Some reading this might think that my mom’s advice to me was a lot of baggage to put on a child. To this I would answer that racism is real and its impact on one’s mind, body and soul can be devastating.

When I was in the 4th grade, and the only Black student in my class, the class was given a weekend homework assignment to trace our roots and do a family tree. The class was buzzing with excitement as we were told to be as artistic as possible. As the teacher handed each student a large piece of white cardboard, she stopped in front of my desk and announced to me (and the class) that I did not need to do the assignment since all of my ancestors were slaves. I felt such shame and embarrassment as my classmates laughed at me, and I reached for the paper anyway. My teacher got angry and threatened to send me to the principal's office. I was wearing my armor as I did everyday at school so I didn’t cry, at least not on the outside. I’m not sure what my teacher's intent was when she publicly excused me from the assignment by humiliating me in front of my class. But the impact it had on me was huge. I felt silenced, as if my family, and my lineage did not matter.

In his book My Grandmother's Hands, Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, therapist Resmaa Menakem discusses how the lack of “human regard” can manifest when people (usually White Americans) fail to show regard to Black humans by:

  • “Not listening or paying attention to someone, or outright ignoring them, as if Black bodies were invisible,

  • Not taking someone seriously (for example, saying ‘You don’t mean that’, or ‘You don’t really think that,’ or ‘You don’t really feel that way,’ or It’s wrong to feel that way’),

  • Refusing to acknowledge someone’s lived experience, either by denying that it happened or by fleeing into statistics or legalisms,

  • Acting visibly frustrated and impatient with someone, as if his or her presence is bothersome, or as if what he or she is saying is childish or ludicrous.”

According to Menakem "People experience these vibratory messages in their bodies. For many African Americans, they are achingly familiar". Yet again, I have feel the vibrations that Menakem talks about as people in our country are debating when, how, and if African American history should be taught in public schools. The main argument against teaching about the history of Black history and enslavement in this county is that it happened a long time ago and it makes White children feel guilty about something that they had nothing to do with. In her book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson offers the following assessment:

“Americans are loath to talk about enslavement in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world. Slavery is commonly dismissed as a ‘sad, dank chapter’ in the country’s history. It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces. But in the same way that individuals can not move forward, become whole and healthy, unless they examine the domestic violence they witnessed as children or the alcoholism that runs in the family, the country can not become whole until it confronts what was not a chapter in its history, but the basis for its economic and social order. For a quarter millennium, slavery was the country.”

My entire time attending elementary and high school were filled with examples of lack of human regard for me and others that looked like me by White adults (teachers) and my White classmates. Some of it was intentional and some was likely unintentional, but the impact on me was always painful. The issue of race was always loaded, and when it came up, my teachers and classmates often looked to me (the only Black student in the class) to represent the entire Black race. As a parent, my mother tried to give me "armor" to stay safe when she was not around. Despite this, I still carry some of the trauma and emotional scars from racist incidents that occurred in school when I let my guard down or wasn’t wearing my armor.

Issues of race, gender, class and equity are unavoidable in school settings and teachers and staff need the proper tools and training to skillfully guide students in these difficult discussions. Unfortunately, its been over 45 years and the armor that my mother taught me to wear is still necessary, but our country and all teachers should be working toward it being unnecessary. African American history is American history and should be thoughtfully integrated into all history that is being taught in schools.


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