Black Lives Matter

Black lives matter.

I recently finished reading The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. It is a haunting and beautiful novel based on real events in the 1960s at the Dozier School for Boys, a reform school in Florida. Whitehead writes in a note at the beginning, “As I contemplate how to prevent tragedies such as the one in these pages, I tumble into another, equally maddening netherworld: the one between action and de facto complicity.” In short, the book is about the Black boys at Nickel Academy. Nickel is ostensibly a reform school for boys too young to enter the adult criminal justice system. Instead, it is a hellish place of violence and abuse of power. I won’t say too much because it is worth reading in full without spoilers. But the thing that struck me most as I read is how violence can become mundane. The staff are cruel and inhuman toward the Black boys in their care. At first it is horrifying and tragic. Then it becomes normal. Eventually violence fades into the background, just another fact of life. It is shocking how humans can become inured to everyday cruelty. We see it, but it is easier to stay silent. Soon that silence becomes a habit. Then that silence becomes another piece of the structure that props up racism. Many of the boys who lived at Dozier are still alive today. I’m sure many are marching. That violence is our history. And, like much of our history, that story is often untold because the narrative is not convenient for white America.

Black lives matter.

I’m writing about The Nickel Boys today because our country has risen in protest of that same type of violence. I hope that justice will come for the killers of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. I also know that white people need to recognize the violence that has become mundane in our country. Millions of voices are sharing their experiences as the victims of state-sanctioned violence. In this moment, protest is fashionable. I hope the protests will create change. But at some point we will go back to our lives, go back to “normal.” And when we do we risk allowing that same everyday violence that has plagued Black people in America for four hundred years to become normal again.

Black lives matter.

I am a white teacher. I see echoes of that same violence play out in our classrooms. The details vary from school to school, but the story is the same. The Black students who we label as “scary” or “aggressive” or “violent.” The teachers who aren’t willing to say “Black” or “racism” out loud. The silence as another Black student falls through the cracks. The excuses or euphemisms, blaming anything but race. The pressure on teachers of color to carry the weight of equity work. We’re often willing to accept that racism exists in the abstract, yet do mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that it’s not right in front of our eyes. George Floyd’s death was not unique. He just happened to be caught on camera. In the same way, racism in schools does not present itself on a silver platter with clear-cut solutions. Racism is pernicious and pervasive, and it will take more from white people than holding a sign or chanting a slogan to dismantle.

Black lives matter.

Now is a time to speak up and speak out. But every time is a time to speak up and speak out. White folks have a responsibility to build capacity in themselves, to build capacity in others, to recognize inequities, and to use our power and privilege to do something. I’m writing today to recognize the importance of this moment, and also to remind myself of the importance of every moment. I remember the moments when I was silent. I remember my missteps and mistakes. I will remember that my privilege compels me to use my power in every moment, not only when it is convenient. Today I am challenging myself, and challenging white folks who are reading this. What will I do now, in a moment when I can contribute to a movement for long-overdue change? And what will I do when I return to school in August? How will I continue the work of speaking up and speaking out to create a world where everyday racism is no longer mundane or normal, where normal is freedom and flourishing, and white people embrace the burden of lifting up those who have been oppressed?

Black lives matter.

1 thought on “Black Lives Matter

  1. Pingback: Some Reblogging – Research in Practice

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