A wise teacher once told me that when kids do not feel visible, in their classroom or their school, then they find ways to make themselves visible. On the other hand, many African American students tell me they feel hyper visible when it comes to Black History month or when a story in English class features a black character or in US History class when the Civil War is discussed. Then they are asked to represent the entire community of African American people when speaking, or responding, or arguing a point.
One young man told me that the hardest thing for him, going to a predominantly white school, was that he was not believed. When he told his teachers or even other students, that he was followed in stores while his white friends were left to wander; or when he was pulled over driving his parents’ expensive car and his white friends said this never happened to them, many of the adults in his school told him that he must be imagining these slights, that he was overly sensitive.
Alternating invisibility with hyper visibility, and adding the experience of not being believed when you tell the truth, could drive a person mad. What is remarkable is that students and adults who experience all of this remain entirely sane. I am convinced if many white people had to live being second- guessed, denied, overlooked and singled out, we would not have survived.
Over the last month, as disillusioned, as hopeless, as depressed as many adults, both black and white, have felt in the news of events in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York city, it was young men and women, in colleges and high schools around the country who guided us in creating a response to these murders. It was young people on college campuses, in classrooms, in community organizations, who spearheaded the die-ins, the marches and the protests. What became clear to me here in Minneapolis was the creativity and confidence that young black men and women had in the sequence of preparation: the sign making, the quilt building, the rostrum of speakers, the music that accompanied us at the Government Center and down the streets. I have seen this in schools all my life. And, yes, young people have done this in years past: in response to Selma, in the call to DC for the March on Washington, in the Poor People’s March after King’s death. I was in college then. I remember that kind of energy it takes to have hope.
Somewhere in me, I think now, I had convinced myself t that students today had become either cynical, or had grown tired of old people reflecting on those days of protest, or had gotten preoccupied with their own lives and did not want to know all that was going on around them.
Saturday proved me wrong; made me think that maybe it was I who had given up, gotten cynical, lost hope. This time, it was the young who held up the elders. It was on their shoulders that we stood. Young black speakers and singers at the march reminded me and others around me, that our voices count. They wrote new songs, created new chants, spoke new words. They used Facebook, Twitter, Instagram to keep the momentum alive. And we played our part too, by sharing information and articles, by telling friends where we would be, what would be going on. Yet it was the new energy that provided the juice, the excitement we needed to keep us walking in the cold and wet.
I saw a newscast a few weeks ago that showed a group of students from a Brooklyn High School arguing about Ferguson. These looked to be primarily Black, Latino, Puerto Rican and a few whites sprinkled here and there. Noticeable to me was the sound of their voices: raised in disagreement, arguing their point, stopping to listen, coming back to their point. It was a “hot” discussion and the heat was what made it powerful. The experiences in the news were experiences they knew too well. It is just such vibrant, loud, emotional discussion that many white teachers are afraid of. We, who are brought up to provide order, quiet, and obedience, get uncomfortable around topics that arouse strong emotions. Yet such dialogues are just what students need: places to speak, to project, to be visible. There was not one sign of disruption in the room, each listened to the other and then spoke his or her truth. This passionate engagement can generate research, writing, deep reading, and multiple ways of understanding the world. But the conversation, the heat has to happen. The teachers, whom I could not see, seemed to be guiding from different sides of the room; they were not intrusive. The best adults provide a space for visibility through interaction and student voices and from this dialogue they develop curriculum. If we cannot get off the ground with the hot conversations, then how do we progress to the skills, the ideas, the creativity that derives from dialogue?
Because the class was a mixture of cultures and skin colors, there was did not seem to be a situation of hyper visibility. Perhaps, when demographics shift and we become a truly multicultural nation, the loneliness of the one or two kids of color in a class will be gone. Perhaps each student will feel he or she speaks from his own life, her own experience, without any representational strings attached.
I believe it will be the denial of a human being’s experience that will be the toughest thing to change. If a video showing a man taken down and asking to be able to breathe and then dying in front of their eyes, cannot bring a grand jury to indict, then racism is indeed stronger than reality. If we cannot get those gathered in one room, viewing the murder of Garner to believe what happened, then how will we finally arrive a place where white people believe the child who comes to them to tell his story? We are in deep trouble.
African Americans do not need their white allies to run the show. On Saturday African Americans were in charge. For this white lady in the crowd, lying in the street feeling utterly safe, it was the way it should be. When we cede control, in the workplace, in the classroom, in the social justice realm, we are doing our part. Whites can refuse to be the only ones visible. We can cede center stage for decades to come. We can be in the minority for a change and watch some remarkable young men and women take over.
I do not mean we cede our right to our voice, our truth, where we come from, our visibility. I do mean that we cannot dominate either with our view and telling of history, or in our opinion at meetings or in the development of curriculum in our schools. We need to see and to hear and believe. Perhaps we can go from there. Together.