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Photo by Peter Thody, from Harvard Law Review Blog

I started a new/old job recently. After leaving the classroom five years ago, I have returned to part-time teaching. I am a special education teacher, which means I generally serve the kids with the greatest needs. I also serve the kids who tend to be the most affected by systemic racism and oppression.

I didn’t want to go back to teaching, but I needed a job. I started my MSW a couple years ago but can’t bring myself to go back to school right now and rack up more debt while not making any money. So here we are.

Today was a race and equity “training.” I knew going into it that it would be a huge disappointment, but it was worse than I had imagined. Before the “training,” which I will from now on be referring to as a meeting because that’s all it was, we were assigned to watch a movie called Race and the Power of Illusion: The House We Live In. It’s an excellent, devastating, eye-opening film about systemic racism, much of it focused on housing discrimination. We were supposed to answer two questions before coming to the meeting. One was basically how did you feel watching the movie, and the other was what was life like for the people depicted in the film. I did not use question marks because those questions don’t deserve them. Those questions are bullshit.

To do any meaningful work around race as a school staff, we would have needed an agenda. Some leadership. Some activities that actually challenged people. Instead our principal opened the meeting by talking about his Italian heritage as a way of suggesting that he, too, had experienced racial bias. Very bad start. But then it got worse. Then, we split into breakout groups (this is all via Zoom).

My breakout group was all white women, not a surprise in education in general but especially in our new town, which is about 70–80% white. During the breakout session, we were supposed to discuss our answers to the “questions” we were told to write about/think about ahead of time. The general comment from most people was in the vein of “I had no idea.” One person even said, “I didn’t think it was as bad as they made it look in the movie.” As bad as they made it look?? She was one syllable away from saying “I don’t think it’s as bad as they made it look.”

A couple other people had some thoughtful things to say while most of the white women just sat there, and I said that I thought it was really important that we distinguish the prejudice that certain Europeans (like Italians and Irish people) went through from anti-Black racism (and of course anti-other groups). These things are not comparable and should not be treated as if they are. To do so is disrespectful at best, and downright violent and dangerous at worst.

We went back to the large group, where people shared what they had talked about. No one in our group spoke.

Next, we were to look at a document describing the difference between “multicultural” educators and anti-racist educators. We went back to our breakout group, which was, much to my dismay, with the same people. I opened the document and shared my screen so everyone could read it. I gave people a lot of time because no one indicated whether they were ready to discuss and I finally shared some thoughts about how our education system is deeply racist and we need to work to dismantle that racism. That’s what anti-racism means. One other person spoke and she and I had a conversation about how the goal is not to not see color, and that examining our own biases doesn’t make us bad people. And then… those fuckers just sat there.

“Does anyone else have any thoughts?” I asked. And I waited. I kept waiting. We just sat there in Zoom silence for about five minutes. Five fucking minutes of silence because none of these assholes would say a goddamn word. And it wasn’t like they were thinking about what to say. It was like they had decided they were not going to participate. My guess was that they fell on a continuum between “fuck this” and “this is over my head.” But the reason doesn’t matter.

When we came back to the large group again and people spoke about the great conversations they had in their groups, I decided to speak up.

“It’s interesting to me that you all had such good conversations,” I said, “because in our group, no one would talk. And I don’t even know what to say about that.”

I was clearly frustrated, and then left the meeting. I didn’t actually leave as a form of protest, but I would have if I didn’t have to leave anyway. The other resource teacher texted me that they were talking about what I brought up and how this is a difficult topic for a lot of people and we need to “give people grace.”

As a rule I am not against giving people grace, but you know what? FUCK giving white people grace on this topic. This is too fucking important. And this is NOT A NEW CONCEPT. The fact that these people sat there silently, disrespecting every fucking child of color who has been failed by our educational system, proved to me that this school has done jack shit around race and equity. But not only has racism been a topic, like, FOREVER, but specific conversations about systemic racism in our schools have been actively happening for at least the last eight years. Eight years ago Trayvon Martin was murdered. Black Lives Matter was born, and things in this country started to shift (in some places).

But I’m supposed to “give people grace.”

No.

People need to be required to participate. And we all need to be required to do much more than watch one video and then talk to each other about how much racism sucks. We need to take action. We need to do work around our own biases. In my opinion, no one should be allowed to work with children in a school setting unless they have done some foundational work around this.

Instead, when I call people out for being silent the response is to give them grace.

We’ve had our grace. Like wealth, grace has been passed down to white people generationally. We’ve been violent and hateful, bigoted and cruel, but we still feign ignorance. This is not to say that people aren’t genuinely ignorant. LOTS of people are ignorant. But these are teachers we’re talking about. The people we’ve entrusted with our children. The people tasked with educating future generations. These people do not get to be ignorant.

NO.

We’ve had generations of grace. Fuck grace. I fucking refuse to grant it anymore.

Written by

Co-host of the podcast “I Never Saw That.” Humor writer and satirist. Find my work in McSweeney’s, The Belladonna, Little Old Lady, etc... Twitter: @jenfreymond

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