When I was young, my mother told me to always dress better than all of the other kids. She told me that I needed to speak better than them as well. She encouraged me to read. She knew that I had to try harder than everyone else. She knew that, unlike my classmates, I would always be judged.
In my backwater town in northeastern Connecticut, so small that only a few know that it exists, I sat in a middle school classroom surrounded by white children. I was exotic – one of only three kids with brown skin in my entire school district. “Can you rap?” was a common question. The whole classroom would look at me in awe, waiting to see what I would do next.
I remember a relay race where my team winning was met with the response: “You’re just fast because you’re black.” I remember a good mark on a paper where the teacher told me “you write so much better than I thought you would.” I never heard the same type of praise for any of my classmates.
In my, admittedly expensive, private school that was predominately attended by white teenagers, all minorities of color sat in the corner of the cafeteria at lunchtime – sans me. “Your hair is curly but it isn’t tight. It’s actually nice.” They think that they are giving me a compliment. “You’re not like the others,” my white friends tell me, “You speak so well!” Obviously, these are statements that my friends would never make to kids who share their skin color.
I am a young male of West Indian descent whose parentage hail from the Caribbean, specifically St. Lucia – not that anyone cared enough to ask back then. Because of my brown skin I was pigeonholed into an incredibly vast racial category: Black. This false label introduced me to the implicit racism that is often overlooked in our education system. Quite honestly, I experienced the sort of prejudice where the perpetrators are completely unaware of their own racism. No matter what I did, my actions were indicative of the behavior of every person of color. From a young age, I was aware that this world saw color before anything else, intentionally or not.
With all of the recent media attention regarding police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the 2016 presidential election, race and privilege have become very hot topics. Republicans and Democrats love to argue about the semantics of these events. But, this isn’t a blog post about contemporary American politics. Instead, I am here to point out what my own experiences have shown me: the education system is not doing enough to combat racism in schools.
In my hometown, where people knew about the Ku Klux Klan members living by the high school or their arrests a single town over, we were still assigned readings that explored race. In middle school there was Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, lessons about the Civil War, readings on Jim Crow laws, and required reading included Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Soul Catcher by Michael White. We even spent a whole day talking about The Great Gatsby and how the character Tom was terrible because of the way that he bragged about the “dominant race.” Ultimately, we were exposed to racism as an academic concept. It was something that happened in books, it was something that had happened in our past. Our class discussions didn’t extend to learning about the new forms of racism that exist today.
Yes, in seventh grade when a kid called me a nigger he was sent to the Principal’s office with no further punishment. Yes, I have been followed by security while shopping. Yes, a police officer has stopped me and asked me to empty my pockets on a rainy street two weeks before Trayvon Martin was murdered. Yes, I got into a public Facebook feud with a close friend from my hometown because she said he was a black thug who deserved it. Yes, she told me “I was different” when I recounted my tale. And yes, I’m reminded of my skin color every day. But it isn’t easy to accept modern racism if you’ve only read about prejudice’s existence up to the late 60’s. Obviously, there is a large gap between then and now. And racism always adapts new forms.
My call for a revamping of the education system is not an attack on seminal works like The Color Purple, Life and Times of Frederick Douglas, Incidents in the Life of a Slave girl, The Secret Life of Bees and the like. These books are not only must-haves for one’s reading catalog, they are also significant because of their ability to detail the prevailing racism that black people have had to endure. These literary assessments of racism are important for all demographics to become more self-aware. I believe that the biggest problem with the literary cannon is that our selection does not involve anything recent that involves race. Therefore, when high school students come to college, the importance of cultural studies is easier for them to shrug off because it was not deemed essential at an earlier age.
Other students are unaware that when they assume I am a worst writer than they are it is because my skin color sets invisible barriers that change the expectations regarding my performance. My classmates don’t understand that defining me as “one of the nice ones” sets up a dangerous precedent for what should be expected of a person of color. Most importantly, these students don’t understand how hard it can be to overcome racial barriers every single day.
The books on modern day racism are there, they just have yet to be incorporated into the cannon. Jesmyn Ward is a great example of an author who has explored modern day racial problems in her award-winning novel, Salvage the Bones. Ward’s book follows a poor black family’s who is suffering due to the aftermath following Hurricane Katrina. I know that other books like Salvage the Bones exist, and I am sure that there are other writers with just as much to say about this topic. We need to show racism in the forms in which it exists today, or I am afraid that institutionalized prejudice will continue to be ignored. Perhaps with a little bit of a push, contemporary books that explore this topic can make their way into elementary, middle or high school classes. Because it starts in the classroom.
My story battling these invisible barriers just to attend college is shared by thousands and thousands across this country. Therefore, I know that I’m not the only one who wants a more modern view of black people to be reflected in our school’s reading requirements. I can’t be the only one who wants for all demographics to understand the difficulties surrounding racial prejudice. The worst part is the way in which my life experiences has allowed me to identify this issue so easily.
But hey, what do I know? I’m just a color-blind black kid who isn’t black.