Have you ever sat in a staff meeting where the tension was so thick you can cut it with a knife, where you were not sure if a comment would spark an all-out race riot amongst teachers?
Well, three years ago I sat in that type of meeting, where Black, White, Latino and Asian staff had to have a face to face discussion about Black Culture, White privilege, cultural appropriation and what it really means to celebrate Black History Month.
As we approach Black History Month, this is a discussion I believe all schools with predominately Black students should be willing to have, no matter how uncomfortable people are with talking about race.
The “history” behind Black History Month
Black History Month initially started off as Negro History week. The week was created by noted historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent black leaders in 1926. The goal of the week was to educate students on the achievements and accomplishments of Black people in America. Eventually, the week evolved to a month-long celebration that not only focused on achievements of Black people, but the recognition of Black history and culture.
From the start of Negro History Week, Black teachers and some progressive White teachers demanded materials to teach pupils, and Mr. Woodson supplied resources to ensure students were learning the proper information. Fast forward 90 years later and Black History Month is still relevant and much needed in American society. [Don’t get me wrong, I believe we would not need a month if our country did what was right and just included the whole Black experience into American History, rather than just focusing on slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, but I will talk about that in another article.]
Black History Month at my Beloved School
Three years ago, at my former school during Black History month we attempted to pull out all the stops to celebrate Black History and Culture. Unfortunately, Black staff would be the only staff working together to put on various events throughout the school to celebrate Black History and address current issues impacting the Black community.
The fact that it was only Black staff concerned about preparing for Black History Month was and still is disheartening. Before I get into specifics let me discuss some staff and student demographics. The student body was about 94% Black and the racial make-up of the staff may have been about 60-65% White.
There were various events that came out of the planning:
- Melanin Monday, a day when students and staff could wear a Dashiki or T-shirt that celebrates Black Culture. For staff that did not own a dashiki or a T-shirt that celebrated Black culture, our school had t-shirts made that said “Black Lives Matter” on the front and “Black Minds Matter” on the back with our school name at the bottom.
- “All Black” attire day, to celebrate the Black Panther Party and their impact on the Black community.
- HBCU Alumni Panel Discussion. Staff and guest who attended HBCU’s talked with students about the HBCU experience.
- Notable Alumni Panel- panel of former students who talked about the value of education and their experience at the school during the civil rights era.
During Melanin Monday and the “All Black” day, student participation was high, but only a few staff participated, mostly all Black staff. During the panel discussions is was mostly all the Black staff that were present. This was starting to be a common trend.
Why didn’t non-Black staff participate, why didn’t our principal or admin participate? Rather than allow speculations and unhealthy gossip to feaster our Principal listened to the concerns of Black teachers and decided there needed to be an all staff meeting to address questions and concerns.
I still remember the day when we all gathered in the school library and the various emotions I felt as I looked around the room at my colleagues thinking about the lack of participation of White staff during Black History Month.
I thought to myself, “Do Non-Black staff care about Black culture, but if they don’t care about Black culture or history how can you say you love or care about the ‘kids’?” Next, I thought, “No, they care about the ‘kids’, maybe people did not have the necessary clothing and feel uncomfortable with wearing a t-shirt that says Black Lives Matter.”
As another thought began to raise it was cut off by our principal calling order to the meeting. He stated why we were there and then proceeded to share his heart and even apologized for not supporting the various initiatives, and how that may have impacted staff and students because he is a White male. He then opened the floor up for staff to share their thoughts. Many passionate comments were made.
A White staff member expressed how they did not feel comfortable wearing a dashiki or shirt celebrating Black culture because they could be perceived as culturally appropriating when they left the school building. I thought to myself that is somewhat valid, but who cares what others think, you teach Black children and you’re celebrating their culture.
Another White staff member shared they did not feel comfortable wearing all Black, because the Black Panthers were viewed as a terrorist or nationalist group. Both Black and White staff members begin to speak up to combat that negative perception of the Black Panther Party.
While tension was still in the air, another White staff member responded in an assertive and defensive tone by saying, she did not need to wear a “shirt” to show her love for the kids. The kids are aware she loves and values them because of her being present every day, supporting them, having discussion about life during lunch and after school.
After hearing her statements l could no longer sit quietly. At that moment, I expressed that I was very confused how anyone can travel into a community that is predominately Black and think that they did not need to participate in activities that celebrated the culture and history of the people they are serving.
I stated the only thing that would allow you to do such a thing is your White Privilege. I likened it to me, a Black man, teaching in a predominately Latino and Hispanic school and not wanting to engage in their celebration of Hispanic Heritage month.
I could never do that, I would feel like I was disrespecting my students’ history and culture. My tone and comments, especially the use of the term White Privilege, made the tension even more thick in the room. I really thought it was about to escalate to something else, but our Principal recognizing the contention in the room pushed us to reflect on what we heard from each other. When I left the meeting, I knew there would be murmuring among staff and within five mins I had someone knocking on my door to come and talk to me.
A White colleague came to express that he always viewed me as a peacemaker, but he felt I was being divisive in the meeting by using the term “White privilege” and went on to explain why it was not appropriate to use the term. I listened to his thoughts but told him that I stand by what I said.
Not long after the staff meeting, we had a follow-up meeting to discuss what we need to do to ensure all staff participate during Black History Month and how Non-Black staff can be more informed on Black History and Culture.
The statement about some White people feeling that the Black Panther Party was a terrorist organization led to an important conversation on how to educate those who have been miseducated about Black Leaders and other aspects of Black culture. Here are a few things we did, that I recommend all educators do to ensure Black History and Culture is appropriately celebrated during the month of February and throughout the year.
- Create a Black History Month Planning Committee
- Ensure staff of various races and student volunteers participate in the planning
- Black staff should not be the only staff members that feel need to truly celebrate the Black History Month it should be a school priority.
- Create a space where teachers are comfortable to talk about race and asking question to ensure they are informed on Black History and Culture
- Have a teach-in week were all content teachers teach a lesson that is connected to Black history or a present-day issue that impacts the Black community
- We did this and it was powerful to see science teachers, math teachers and health/fitness teachers create rigorous skill-based lessons, but with word problems or projects that addressed issues that were impacting the neighborhoods we served.
- Visit the following website to get ideas for a teach-in or a week of action
- During certain PD days all staff had to visit local sites that our students frequent.
- This was important for staff to see the rich history of certain places in the community and the places that our students valued. We visited a local boys and girls club, recreation center, restaurants, etc.
Along with implementing these suggestions I hope any leaders reading this will recognize the nuances that exist when it comes to celebrating Black History Month. If you have staff members who passively feel the need to not engage in activities that recognize or celebrate the history and culture of their students, you could be empowering institutional racism.