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An Anti-Racism Journey: Part 1

This is a slogan that I'd love to adopt. However, I don't think it's accurate. Because there is no time in the history of America when everyone agreed that racism was wrong.

It's easy to see it now: Trump is stoking the fire of racism and bringing racists out of the woodwork! Why can't things just go back to the way they were before him?

The problem, of course, is that racism was still around before that. Yes, even when Obama was president. It was just easier for white people to ignore. I know it was easy for me to ignore, right up until I started teaching Black and brown kids and saw it up close. And I will always regret not realizing sooner that not only was racism still present, but that our country was founded on it. That this IS who we are and always has been.

I found a picture of myself during my first year teaching. I was 24 and looked about 15. I was surrounded by five boys: three Black kids and two Vietnamese kids, all in my first-grade class. I had a bad haircut and some fading acne scars and look very pale. I also look absolutely shell-shocked.

I remember taking that picture, probably in my first month of teaching ever. My shell-shocked look was not because the kids were acting up in that moment or because I had no white kids in my class. It was because I was realizing how very different their childhoods were from mine, and how people were going to treat them for the entire lives. I was realizing that this kids were going to deal with racism for their entire lives.

That was a hard enough realization, even though it was one I feel I came late to, at 24. But there were a lot of things I didn't know at that point. I didn't know that I would have all five kids in my third grade class two years later, which was wonderful, because we already had a bond. I didn't know that the next year, the school was going to put one of the Vietnamese kids in first grade again, trying to make him repeat the grade because of a clerical error, and that his parents didn't know their rights and didn't know how to find it. If his friend hadn't told me and I hadn't corrected it, he would have repeated for no reason.

I didn't know that one of the Black kids in that photo was going to drop out of school after fifth grade, never entering middle school, and that I'd never find out what happened to him. I didn't know that another of the kids would have a beautiful baby girl and send me photos. And I didn't know that the final kid in this photo, a wonderful Black boy who was so smart that he made another teacher give him multiplication problems (in first grade) when he had a time out with her, and told me that when he got angry I was the only one who could calm him down... I didn't know he'd die in his early 20s, after being incarcerated and while trying to leave a gang.

If I had known these things, I couldn't have kept going, because I loved those kids so much. And even realizing that racism was alive and well and hurting them was a hard enough realization that I look like a deer in the headlights in the photo.

Realizing that racism still exists, however, was obviously not nearly enough.

Part two coming soon... but I'd love to hear about what it was like for people to realize racism if you want to share!


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