Let us be

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How educators can be better allies to Black students

June 2020 was the most traumatic eye-­opening life experience for many Black youths. As we continue to recover from the fall-out of the COVID-19 pandemic, while missing milestones of our childhood we also experienced the racial trauma from the uproar of the Black Lives ­Matter movement with George Floyd. Thus, we must also acknowledge the recovery of Black youth from the racial trauma they experienced during that moment. Before their eyes, Black youth experienced firsthand what it was like for their lives to become a trend. They were bombarded with videos on social media of people who looked like them being killed by the police when they were simply looking for a way to escape and connect with peers. Being used as a Google search engine by friends, asking us “Have you ever experienced racism before?” or “What is racism?” when we cannot give a concrete definition ourselves as Black youth still trying to navigate the world, we saw our lives become a topic of debate among peers. We also experienced how performative people can be when it comes to making change for the better in our lives, and how the pressure for change slowly falters to merely a trend picked up over the pandemic. Some look to June 2020 as an eye-­opening moment for many, but that is not the case for Black people who knew this issue was already pressing our community. We see efforts of some continuing with the implementation of new policies and mandates for a more equitable environment.

But what if I say the best way for educators to be allies with Black students is to let them simply exist?

What does it mean to let Black students simply exist? It means do not look to Black students for the answers. Do not look to them as the reason why racism has not been solved in your schools because of their lack of initiative or awareness. Do not force them to be the agents of change due to their race and when Black History Month rolls around, do not look to them as living search engines of the Black experience when topics about Blackness arise in the classroom. Let Black students learn without the fear of being isolated and stereotyped breathing down their necks. It is the responsibility of educators to take the initiative to see change—for them to be aware of issues pressing Black students. Yes, this work cannot be done without the voice of Black students, but this is contingent on the tone set by educators. I’ve found that it is teachers who are already doing the work that can inspire and motivate students to be leaders in their school community. When teachers look to Black students for all the answers, we are given yet another burden—the burden of being the adult, being the teacher, when historically, due to adultification bias, Black youth are already forced by society to grow up faster and are often seen as older to begin with. No student should have the additional role of teacher, they do not have the qualifications or desire to be so. They come to school to learn and grow into the leaders they are supposed to be. So again, it is the responsibility of educators to set this tone and of the education system to give educators the proper training and resources to do so.

How can educators set this tone? In numerous ways. First, through the environment they create. Ask yourself—as an educator do you have numerous diverse perspectives in the classroom? Are Black students represented in literature read in class and not only those of past trauma but also stories that celebrate Blackness? Is their history acknowledged and recognized when discussing the subject matter at hand? Is the whole story being told? Do you acknowledge Black students’ history or issues when it is convenient for you or when only Black History Month rolls around, or is it done all year around? Genuine allyship begins beyond Black History Month; it is a state of mind, not performative actions done solely for convenience. Thus, when trying to make your class environment a safe space for Black students it should be a constant attempt, done through self-reflection of action. Ask yourself regularly, “As an educator how can I continue to include equitable diverse perspectives in my class and how does my lack of knowledge or implicit bias limit me from doing so?” Only from that point can you start and continue to gain better knowledge of how to support your students and understand what research is required to better suit the needs of students.

Educators can also set this tone in their knowledge of issues pressing Black students. Not only their identity of being Black, but also the underlying intersecting identities that coincide with being Black. Black students often find comfort in Black educators for this reason. They feel represented, they feel as though these educators won’t judge them automatically, and know the teachers have a better idea of their experience as they were once a Black youth.

Many Black students are well aware of the stereotypes and perceptions that people have of them. They know that teachers are not afraid to place them in the box as soon as they see how we dress, how we speak, and the colour of our skin. We end up feeling as if we have something to prove when walking into the classroom. Thus, Black students are dealt the task of proving that they are more than a stereotype. This leads to one of two things—students conforming to these stereotypes or trying hard to combat the stereotype they face. Both options are exhausting for Black students, ultimately repressing students’ true identity and potential in the classroom. Understanding these stereotypes and understanding some of the internal struggles of Black youth brings relief to students as they no longer worry about having to explain their very being. As an educator, by knowing how you can make the environment more comfortable for students, you ultimately let them succeed.

That is the main reason I created my documentary See All of Me. During my Challenge and Change in Society class last year for my independent study unit project, I was given the task of creating a social change. I thought about the lack of awareness when it comes to educators understanding the known stereotypes and internal struggles of Black female students in particular. How many educators chalk up issues regarding Black students all together as a single representative experience rather than also looking at how their intersecting identities may bring about unique experiences within the education system. Thus, I brought together my Black female friends at school and asked them to speak about their experience in the system. Many spoke about teachers already having an idea about them when coming into the classroom. How they often are silent because of the stereotype of Black youth, especially of Black women, being too loud, or the worry of being seen as too aggressive when participating in class discussions. As well, my peers said they do not feel like their experience is represented in the classroom. One of my friends even brought to light the internal struggle that Black female students face, feeling the need to overachieve simply to prove themselves in the classroom. This ultimately has a significant toll on the mental health of Black female students.

After creating the documentary, I also hosted a film premiere and a moderated discussion with the administration at my school and with Black female students to allow the administration to hear the struggles and needs of Black female students. The panel spoke about what is needed for change in the system. The discussion was a success, but it was the feeling of support and community created from discussion for the students that was most impactful. They felt the opposite of isolation—that they belonged. And this sense of belonging allows students to succeed further. I applaud my friends for their help as it is a difficult task for Black students to put themselves out there and expose themselves to possible negative social, educational, and emotional implications.

When students speak about their experience in the classroom firsthand there is a danger of educators taking it the wrong way by going into defence mode. Although a student-led forum, it was my teacher who encouraged me during the project and gave me support that helped me make it successful. When students are given the platform, they will be students who are not afraid to let their voices be heard. Some do not want to share but still appreciate the platform; just knowing we have the freedom to be heard is sometimes enough. However, when students are asked to create a platform themselves, it at the same time places the burden on students. We now have to advocate for ourselves when we are also juggling school, extracurriculars, family, part-time jobs, and coming into our own.

Another way educators can set this tone is with respect and transparency. Respect is important for students, especially Black students. When educators ask for respect but do not return the favour it rubs students the wrong way. When you disregard our ideas when we are trying to participate or belittle us when asking for our respect it is hypocritical. Students know when they are being disrespected and this makes them only want to disengage in the classroom. It is pointless to work with someone who will ultimately disrespect our thoughts and experiences. We must make the personal decision to pick our battles for our mental well-being. Even though there is an imbalance of power, and the teacher is the authority in the classroom, educators who cannot give us respect are telling students straight to their faces that we are not worthy; moreover, we get the message that the world is allowed to disrespect us. In addition to respect, we need transparency. It is the teachers who are not afraid to show students they are themselves learning and who can make mistakes that make the best teachers. As a student, I find comfort in the teachers who are not afraid to show their students that they are human just like us and to show that they too hope to learn more from us as students. That it is not only the effort of the student that will make them successful, but it is a like-minded community effort through a partnership between educator and student which will breed the greatest success for us all.

Do not be scared to take the initiative, to try. Fear only limits the potential for change and understanding. It is the teachers and educators who are not afraid to have difficult discussions such as those around racial injustice and oppression that motivate students to fearlessly engage in important conversations. Race is not a taboo topic; you have students who experience race-related issues every day. However, when teachers and education workers do not acknowledge racial oppression, they are disregarding a part of student identity. It is not only about starting the conversation itself, but also about the content of those discussions. Understand that this is not done lightly and the work you are doing is important. Thus, the boundaries created in that discussion, the questions being asked of students, and the questions they may ask play a significant role. Educators must be trained to address and engage in discussions about oppression and racial injustice. When teachers are not trained to do so they often look to Black students to pick up the slack. The lack of knowledge and training for educators is a significant problem in adopting anti-racist teaching strategies.

As a young Black community leader and student, I can say I don’t have all the answers. I have only one perspective on the experiences of Black students all over the nation who have different lived realities than mine, all dependent on other factors, including intersectional identities. But I do remain committed to the work—I make mistakes and carry other responsibilities beyond my community work. I share the wisdom of my experiences and I learn from discussions I’ve held with my peers. I am still finding my footing in my identity when it comes to Blackness and leadership.

It was the teacher who let me exist and find my footing that I found the most helpful.

It was the teachers who were motivated themselves to make a change and wanted to help me be the changemaker I am today.

It was the teachers who encouraged my input but did not ask me to carry the full burden of running initiatives on my own.

It was the educators who were already facilitating activities and discussions on the matter that let me know their classroom is a space where my Blackness is seen not as an obstacle but something to embrace.

It is the teacher who does not police me when I walk into the classroom—that treats Black students as humans who have feelings, make mistakes, and want to grow.

It is the teacher who lets their students know that we are all human first before anything else.

Those are teachers who show me what true allyship is and allow me to continue to move forward to be a leader.

About Kayla Escoffery
Kayla Escoffery (she/her) Member of Black York Region Youth

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