It wasn’t supposed to go this way. When I last posted on this blog, I had a plan for what came next, but that plan got cast aside due to my students. Honestly, it’s OK when things get cast aside due to students—a lot of learning can happen out there in the Land of Unexpected—but my plan got derailed, and it’s kept me from putting together the sequel to my last post for longer than I anticipated.
We started Second Semester recently. My Women’s Studies classes are only a semester long, so I bid adieu to one group and welcomed another. It’s hokey, but in each of my classes I ask students to fill out a “Getting to Know You” sheet. It’s not much—just a few questions that help me 1) learn their names and a few things to associate with them, and 2) learn the names of bands they listen to, so when we talk music I seem cooler than I am. As part of this exercise, I ask students to write down one question they would like to ask me, and then I answer that question, so they can get to know me a little bit, too. The questions are usually pretty innocent, but this time, one of the young ladies in the class threw down the gauntlet, and asked, “What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement?”
By this point, most of the students in my school district are aware of a portion of what went on with me this year. At the beginning of the year, I hung up a Black Lives Matter flag in my classroom. I was subsequently ordered to take it down, and I took it down. That’s the portion of the story they know, the same portion I wrote about in the previous blog post.
The rest of it goes like this.
I was ordered to take the flag down, and I did. I was informed that the reason it had to come down was not because whoever had given the order to take it down had anything against black people, but rather because I had—and this quote is accurate—"failed to show both sides” of the issue. Of course, I had questions, the most prominent one being, “What the fuck? ‘Both sides’?” I pondered what that meant. Did that mean I could keep the Black Lives Matter flag on the wall, as long as I added a white robe and a hood to a different spot on the wall?
Whoever gave the order for the flag to come down didn’t know this, but I used to be a drama major. I wasn’t very good at it, but I know a lot of people who were, and who went on to careers within the arts. I know at least three people with access to a university or semi-professional costume shop, and I could probably get my hands on a white robe and hood; I was willing to do that just to see if that was really what the Powers-That-Be wanted. I calmed down, mostly because I really don’t want anything to do with the KKK hanging in my classroom (or anywhere else near me, for that matter).
Instead, I filled out a form that allowed me to speak in front of the School Board and on a Monday night in late September of last year, I delivered what I thought was a pretty good speech. I mentioned the ‘both sides’ thing and told them I didn’t know what might best convey the notion that black lives DON’T matter, and I also told them that I chose to believe that showing ‘both sides’ was not, in fact, what they wanted. I talked about the School Mission Statement and whether we were living it, I spoke about my own whiteness and about liberty and justice for all… Honestly, it really wasn’t a bad speech. Well, I didn’t think so, anyway.
Public comment is just that—comment, and not conversation—so when I was finished speaking I left the meeting and went home. I don’t know what I expected to happen; I suppose I hoped that those who had decided to make me take the flag down might reconsider.
Instead, shortly thereafter I had a letter placed in my employee file. I had to attend a meeting where I was informed I was being written up for a fire code violation because my classroom walls were “cluttered” with flags and maps. I was being written up for not sharing lesson plans with my building principal indicating just how a Black Lives Matter flag might fit with my classroom curriculum. I was written up for failing to address my concerns through proper channels, and asked to reconsider how much I posted on social media. And I was reminded that I had an obligation as a teacher to teach ALL students within my classroom.
It was a non-disciplinary letter, at least. When I asked what the alternative might be, I was told the alternative was that I would be “walked outside in the rain.” I still remember that line, just as I remember looking out the window to check how much it was raining (quite a bit). I even remember thinking to myself, “Oh, shit: do I have an umbrella in my room?”
I was told I could write a reply to the letter. I was told that if I felt the need to resign my position I would not need to pay the $1500.00 required by the Employee Handbook to break my contract. I replied to the letter. I did not resign.
I had other options. Some people I knew watched the live stream of the school board meeting and heard the speech I gave, and they know some people, and before too long, I had been invited by two competing television stations to be interviewed about the incident. Everyone I corresponded with at both stations was thoroughly professional and quite pleasant, but while I appreciated their interest, I turned them down.
I turned them down because suddenly the whole situation seemed to be about ME. I had been forced to take down MY flag, and wasn’t it all an injustice to ME, and so on. I’m not saying that’s even how the people at the television stations felt, I’m just saying that’s how it felt to ME, and that didn’t feel right. I happened to agree—what occurred had been an injustice to me, in my opinion—but what about the ongoing injustice perpetuated against black people? Wasn’t that the point? Going on TV felt self-aggrandizing. It felt like I would end up as the focus, and I didn’t want to be the focus. I wanted the Black Lives Matter movement to be the focus. I felt like my own tiny issue was getting conflated with the much larger issue of the Black Lives Matter movement, and I didn’t think that was appropriate.
You may think everything that happened to me was perfectly appropriate and I deserved every bit of it. You might think the opposite. Whatever you think is entirely up to you. I will say that I have spent the past several months teaching on eggshells, afraid that whatever else I might say in support of racial justice or even about black people in history might be enough to get me “walked outside in the rain.” It’s Black History Month. I’m about six class periods away from starting our study of the Civil Rights Movement, and I don’t even really know if I’m allowed to talk about it. What happens when I say Malcolm X may have made some good points? What happens when we read the Black Panthers manifesto? I don’t know, but I keep an umbrella in my classroom.
And all of that was going through my head when I moved from one piece of paper to the next and read a question one of my new students wrote: “What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement?”
I don’t know if I was supposed to talk about it. But a student in my class had a question, and when the question got asked, I answered it. While I didn’t record my response, I recall saying something like this:
“Most of you know I had a Black Lives Matter flag on the wall this year and I was asked to take it down, and that has made this a pretty hard year for me. I put it up because I believe in the words: I believe black lives matter. They have value. I’ve had a Pride flag up on my classroom walls for the past five years, and when people ask me why I have it, I tell them that a lot of students come into this classroom, and some of them are gay. And those gay students—and trans students, and bi students—deserve to be valued and respected and appreciated as much as the straight students who come into this classroom. I put up the Black Lives Matter flag because I believe Black students—and Hispanic students, and Native students, and Asian students—deserve to be valued and appreciated every bit as much as the White students who come into this classroom. And I believe that, whether the flag is on the wall or not.”
I thought that was an OK thing to say. Some of the students agreed; a couple of them even applauded, which was nice of them.
But here I am, doing the same thing I said I wanted to avoid; I’m making this post about ME.
You want to know about me? I’m a middle-aged white guy. I have no business being thought of as some kind of champion of the Black Lives Matter movement; I haven’t gone to a rally, I haven’t taken part in a march, I haven’t sent any money, and I’m not black. I hope I’m an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement, but I could easily understand if after reading this post, people might not consider me to even be that.
Because if you really want to know about me, then you should remember that I caved. I was told to take down the flag, and I took it down. I tried to change some people’s minds about that, but when I failed, I didn’t try again. I could have taken the fight to TV, but I turned down the interviews. I could have resigned to show my commitment to the principle, but I still show up each day and go to work in a place that will not tolerate having a Black Lives Matter flag on the walls of a U.S. History classroom. Which is to say, I showed a commitment to the cause of racial justice until it became personally inconvenient for me. That’s not “woke.” That’s white privilege.
As I said earlier, there’s a lot that can be learned in the Land of Unexpected, and this 50+-year-old white guy learned a lot that day. I thank that young person in my Women’s Studies class for helping me learn I am still a long way away from the kind of man I wish to be. Maybe someday I’ll be “woke,” but not until after a lot more work.