A few weeks back, a fellow teacher phoned my room during a passing period to ask about some headwear one of our students had on. Our school has a hat policy (not allowed). Our school has a far more nebulous policy regarding head coverings.
I had seen this student in a previous hour, and I had witnessed the headwear. In my day, it would have been called a do rag, but my day was many days ago, so I have no idea if that’s what it would be called today. When I saw it in my classroom, I let it go. My colleague, however, had asked the student about it, who of course responded with something along the lines of, “Well, I just got out of Brehm’s class, and he didn’t say anything.”
I explained my reasoning to my colleague, but I won’t explain it here, because it’s always possible the student in question might read this and I have no wish to call out or embarrass that young person; their story is the introduction to what follows, but it isn’t the point of this post. The point is what happened at the end of the phone conversation with my colleague. This was a few weeks ago, so I’m certain I’m paraphrasing, but she said something close to, “Well, I thought I would ask you, since you seem to be the most ‘woke’ person who works here.”
While it might seem paradoxical, to me ‘woke’ has one notable thing in common with the word ‘racist,’ and that is, I don’t think you get to decide for yourself if the term applies to you. Someone else gets to determine if you happen to be racist, and someone else gets to decide if you’re woke. But that one word – ‘woke’ – changed the entire tenor of the conversation. Instead of talking about a do rag (or whatever it’s called), we were suddenly talking about race.
(We interrupt this post to consult the internet, to ascertain whether my line of thinking is at least a little bit correct. There, I learn the article of clothing is indeed still called a do rag, or a do-rag, or a durag, which came from dew-rag, where ‘dew’ was a euphemism for sweat. Also called a wave cap, it is designed to accelerate the development of waves or dreadlocks, or to keep waves or braids from shifting while asleep. And yes—the point I really wanted to make sure I made correctly—the garment is traditionally associated with African-Americans, with a history going back to slavery, through the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Power movement, and into today. Even history teachers should double-check their history, from time to time.)
I am white. The colleague on the other end of the phone that day is also white. The student wearing the head covering in question that day is also white. But my colleague’s use of the word ‘woke’ got me thinking. Would I have asked a black student to remove a do rag? No. I never would. So did I act correctly in also not asking a white student to remove it, and therefore made a good decision? Or, had I allowed a young person to engage (perhaps even unknowingly) in cultural appropriation, and therefore made a poor decision? Weeks later, I still don’t know the answer to that question.
But I do know how I felt at the end of that phone call, because this marked the first time someone else had applied the word ‘woke’ to me. I won’t lie; I felt complimented. I felt good about that. When it comes to race, I would like to be as ‘woke’ as I can be. But the feeling didn’t last, because I don’t believe I deserve the term. I don’t think of myself as woke. At best, I’m still trying to wake up.
I work pretty hard to include race relations as an essential part of my U.S. History curriculum, and I hope I do a passable job. At the Freshman level, our portion of U.S. History basically covers the 1890’s to Whatever-We-Get-To, which in some years has been Nixon and in some years has been Trump and in some years has fallen in between. But my students cover Plessy v. Ferguson. They’re tested on Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois and Ida Wells. We go over the Great Migration and Black Wall Street and race riots and the KKK in the 1920’s. We talk about sundown towns and the Tuskegee Airmen, about the Democrat/Dixiecrat divide of 1948. By this point in the year, I am routinely about two weeks ahead of my colleague who also teaches U.S. History, and when we chat about it, he’s not worried, because we both know he’ll catch up due to the time I take going through the Civil Rights Movement. I am a white educator attempting to do a passable job of teaching black history; I can always do better, but I promise you, I try.
As someone who tries, I have kept my eye on the Black Lives Matter movement for some time now; basically since its inception following the homicide of Trayvon Martin. Since then I’ve learned other names, of course. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Jacob Blake. And I am wise enough to know there are many other names that I have not learned.
For many years now, I have placed a Pride flag on my classroom wall. It heartens some people, and offends others, and sometimes I am asked why I have it up there at all. My response is always the same: “A lot of students come into this classroom, and some of them are gay.” A lot of students come into my room, and some of them are black, but I never put a Black Lives Matter flag on my wall, until this year.
For the record, it lasted almost a full month before I was ordered to take it down. And for the record, when I was ordered to take it down, I took it down.
Monday is February 1, the beginning of Black History Month. The week of February 1-5 has been designated by the National Education Association (NEA) as “Black Lives Matter at School” week, designed to explore topics of racial equity in education. On top of all that, a few weeks ago a colleague called me ‘woke’ when I am unworthy of the title.
So for a little while, this blog will be turned over to issues of race. Trust me, I know, I get it—we don’t need another white guy trying to teach us about race in America, so that’s not what I’m trying to do. Instead, I’m trying to tell my side of one particular story. It’s a story where black lives matter, and where I am absolutely not the hero. Perhaps it’s a mea culpa regarding the way I wish things would have gone.
While ultimately, I still think it’s for someone else to decide, maybe—just maybe—I might be waking up.