Tomorrow we will begin a formal discussion of Trayvon Martin’s murder in my classes. As all my students are of the colors that causes them to experience police harassment and distrust in lighter communities, there won’t be much need for background. We’ll read this article to establish facts, and then use the following protocol:
- Students are presented with readings (and sometimes video) on the event
- The class constructs a list of the facts of the event based on the texts and their knowledge
- The class lists questions that the event raises
- The class discusses the questions
This will allow my students concerns and voices to dictate the class, as it should be in a case like this that affects them so personally. This “class” could take anywhere from a day to a week, and that needs to be the case.
If I taught a more diverse group of students, I might use some of the readings below to help my students who don’t experience race-based discrimination on a regular basis. This reading list also serves as a good list for white teachers who might not fully understand why people are so angry (I’ve had three such conversations in the past week). Each article speaks for itself, and all should be read.
Cosby Hunt (a colleague in DC who I’ve worked with):
The detail about Trayvon’s death that stands out for me is that he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt. My youngest son, Ellington, who turns 3 tomorrow, wears his Batman hoodie with the ears as much as a he can — sometimes to bed if we’ll let him. Freeman, our oldest, prefers to battle his bad guys as Captain America.
Every night at dinner my wife and I ask the boys what their favorite part of the day was. As they get older, the dinner table may also need to serve as a place for cautionary tales.
We did not plan to give them advice about hoodies, but now I see we’ll need to have that talk, too. We will have say, “You know how you used to wear your hooded Batman sweatshirt when you wanted to fight the bad guys as a kid? Well, now that you’re older, some people will be confused and think that you are the bad guys if they see your hoodie and your skin color. It’s silly and wrong that anyone would think that you are the bad guys, but we don’t want you to be hurt. We don’t want the real bad guys or even some guy playing superhero to hurt you.”
My wife and I don’t dread having this talk, but we do need to make sure that we have it.
Jose Vilson (a colleague and collaborator in NYC):
The first step always starts with a teacher’s current crop of kids. The one question I always ask myself when students walk in is, “What do I see?” Then, “What do I think I see?” I’m laying down some of my general assumptions for me to probe, then trying to understand why I feel that way. Sometimes, these assumptions come from observations I’ve made about the world, but often, they come from hearsay and stereotypes I’ve also inherited. Red herrings like black hoodies, big earphones, and unbelted low-hung pants might tell me that the person in front of me has no respect for any classroom courtesies, but he could just as easily be making a countercultural fashion statement. He might spend as more time on the block or in his house helping his mother. He might actually care about what I have to say or he doesn’t on that particular day for any number of reasons.
The death of Trayvon Martin shows us that in life, perception is reality. In fact, reality is often times based on perception; the perception of those in control of guiding the path of society and culture, regardless whether or not that course is right or wrong.
And then there is this [conversation]: “You better smile, nod, and be quiet. Don’t look those people in the eye; they will think you are sassing them, and they might kill you. Just because you are black.”
Mamie Till gave that talk to her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, right before she sent him to the Mississippi Delta to stay with relatives for the summer. After an encounter with a white shopkeeper named Carolyn Bryant, Emmett was hunted down by her husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam. They took him to a shed, pistol whipped him, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head, and threw Emmett’s 14-year-old body in the Tallahatchie River.
My well-meaning white friends have no idea why so many African-Americans distrust or fear the police who have vowed to protect and serve. And they have no idea what it is like for black parents to have to prepare their children to deal with a public that often still judges them by the color of their skin. These friends are so committed to the idea that we live in a color-blind society that it is hard for them even to perceive, let alone to help change, the reality that impacts our lives and the lives of our children daily.