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Private School Quotables pt#3: back to school edition (micro-aggressions & micro-healing)

Opening Statement: Back to School

School is officially in session. Many of us are transitioning into new schools, new roles, and new versions of ourselves. With that said, I am writing this piece to speak to my younger self who had very eye-opening, culturally-scarring but character-building moments in private school. In this piece, you will find statements I heard as a Black student in a predominantly white single-sex private school. You will also find my reflections about what I needed in those moments as a token Black student and some reflection about how I am currently handling these situations as an adult and Black teacher in a predominantly white school. While these comments were made primarily in school, I hope this piece inspires many dialogues at home between students and their families as well as in schools between adults and students.

Disclaimer: The needs of my younger self will not be the needs of your student(s). Remember, different people, similar experiences (maybe), different perspectives, different needs. Also, I am not a parent, and I would never conflate teaching and parenting (how rude!), so take my words with a grain of "tajin" or "Lawry's," your choice.

“You be with them white boys. You ain’t Black.”

  1. Context: I heard this comment mainly from Black kids from other (public) schools. Whether it was competing against public school students or just taking the bus home in my little preppy uniform, Black kids did not hesitate to check or discredit my Blackness. In other words, I had to deal with the police in more ways than one. Usually, this comment came from other Black kids and other POC students with whom I had little connection or rapport. Maybe it was their way of keeping their distance or making me an outsider, scapegoat, or villain in the eyes of white kids and other POC students. Maybe this comment came from a place of insecurity or ignorance.

  2. Student Needs: What younger me needed...

    1. First, I needed not to give them my energy by entertaining such comments and dignifying them with a response. I needed to further vet and carefully choose my social circles. Outside of school, I needed more representations of Blackness and affirmation of such diversity. I get it: if all you see is caricatures of your people on the glowing box, you feel as though you are left only with a box and in a box. I needed an open mind to receive and understand different representations and lifestyles of Black folks, for I was a victim and a user of such insensitive comments as well in order to give me a false sense of security. I mean I had seen middle-class Black folks only on TV, thanks to the Cosby Show, Fresh Prince, and Family Matters. Anyway, who was I to judge another Black kid in this white-ass private school for not wearing Air Jordan's and jamming Hip-Hop, even though I loved me some Avril Lavigne and wore the same pair of dusty (Black) Nike Air-Forces for years? Of course, I needed to become more secure in who I was and whom I called my friends. I wish my high school had affinity groups or spaces for some of us to commiserate, console, and converse about our respective and collective experiences on and off campus.

    2. For the well-meaning adults in my life, I needed less conversation on "not acting white" and more conversation about who I was and who I wanted to be(come) as I moved toward my goals of graduation and college matriculation. Instead of attributing certain behaviors to certain racial groups, I wish adults could have engaged and activated my "higher" self, so I could envision myself and channel my energy into achieving success instead of avoiding gross social stereotypes.

  3. Teacher Actions: what I now do as a teacher...

    1. First and foremost, I show up to school as my most authentic Black self, nothing performative, uncharacteristic, or "extra." I know I am not Malcolm X nor am I Steve Urkel. I am not trying to be anyone but myself, Mr. White. The goal is to model self-love for students. Secondly, as a classroom teacher, a faculty moderator for the Black Student Union, and just another Black person in a white space, I openly declare to any and all Black faculty, parents, and students that there is no one way to be Black and more importantly, just be yourself. When a student steps on campus, I want to welcome the whole child, not prune, punish, or privilege certain aspects of their identity. Also, I have made it a habit to greet any and all Black folx in the hallways, whether I know them or not. I want the students to see healthy interactions between Black folx on campus--interactions that are not based on roasting, teasing, or harming one another but rather checking in, congratulating, and collaborating. Also, I tell students to engage a variety of people in order to find friends who love them for them.

    2. Though I do not identify, I have witnessed the bullying and self-hate that ensues for mixed-race, multicultural students. Unfortunately, the hate comes from many places and sometimes the most from Black communities. I teach students that the social construction of "Blackness" is based on local (mis)understandings and mainstream media, so it is a losing game to try to live up to archetypes of Blackness created by and for whiteness to profit off and provide as propaganda to the masses. There's a reason why major record labels and production companies put hundreds of millions of dollars behind "gangster" music and culture and pump that shit to Black and or impoverished youth instead of putting hundreds of millions into schools, college scholarship funds, and federal work programs.


  1. Context: White kids will eventually say it, just to hear it and just to feel the way the word makes their lips curl up. Quite frankly, non-Black people will probably say the word more than Black people. Some teachers may even think it (and say it) or allow kids to read it aloud in class. As both a teacher and student, I have been told that it is fine to read this word aloud. Supposedly, we can’t and shouldn’t censor iconic, canonic literature. I call BULLSHIT.

  2. Student Needs: What younger me needed...

    1. I needed teachers and adults who understood the importance of ongoing discussion about racial slurs and overall hate speech in our curriculum (and our country). I needed someone to explain to my classmates the experience and feeling of seeing, reading, and hearing that word. Yes, I understand the double-standard but non-Black people don’t get to police my body and my words. I needed to consult my parents and ask for their guidance instead of holding in such quiet anger, hidden behind eye-rolls, frowns, or even fake smiles. I needed teachers who knew to and knew how to put their students’ well-being first, over their literary reverence for some book. I needed classroom norms and language around setting safe space. I also needed to identify and name the specific emotions and the power this word had over me. As well as watching my so-called friends, I needed to watch my own mouth, just to make sure I didn't pop off or give the impression that I was cool with people's casual use of the word.

  3. Teacher Actions: what I now do as a teacher...

    1. This discussion is not just about the N-word or censorship. It is about all of the slurs we come across in our Humanities courses and the need for ongoing discussion around language and belonging. I understand that authors are products of their time, so I don’t fault them completely. As a teacher, I have to consciously and conscientiously set up community and context in my class, especially for content that may be potentially contentious and caustic.

    2. I straight-up say that no hate speech is allowed in my classroom. Of course, I give time, space, and the tools to unpack thoughts, feelings, and questions around language, for I am an English teacher and words matter. I encourage all of my students to listen to understand and listen to care rather than listening to respond or dispute. I understand why and how these conversations can go awry because teachers and young people may not have the language, the facilitation moves, the willingness, the emotional bandwidth, the sense of community, and quite frankly, the care to have such tough conversations.

    3. And yes, I have no problem addressing white students, specifically, about the use of the word; sometimes, I am blunt; many times I am conscious, careful, and socratic about the way I invite them to this discussion without centering white experiences (and white voices) but with them centering the experiences of those most affected and most disempowered.

    4. Not to make it "about me, Mr. White," but to take pressure off of my Black students who may be tired of defending themselves, I do share how that word has affected me as a person, as a student, and as a teacher in and outside of white spaces. Leveraging my own student experiences in private school, I share openly and vulnerably with my students in order to put things into perspective and further protect our community safe space. Now, I am not recommending teachers take up too much space and or share when the space isn' there; I want to challenge myself to find different ways of being an ally with and role model for my students.

    5. Lastly, because of my teaching experience, I make these conversations a key thread throughout the entire unit, curriculum, and school year, so that no one is surprised or reactive but more so proactive, pensive, and pragmatic.

Any talk of "slavery" in class

  1. Context: Yes, slavery is a critical part of this country's past (and present), and not talking about it does not mean it didn't happen or that it went away. It's not the topic itself, but more so the classroom experience when the topic comes up. Teachers will mention this peculiar part of history and (un)consciously stare at you, the token Black kid, out of guilt and or discomfort. As the token Black kid in class, you look away or at the teacher with an annoyed face as if to say "for real?"

  2. Student Needs: What younger me needed...

    1. I needed teachers who could identify and speak to the multifarious effects of slavery in history and in our present-day interactions on individual, interpersonal, and institutional levels. "Slavery" should not be just one simple static unit in a Humanities course. While mainstream history curriculum (back then and still today) make it seem as though slavery is a relic of the past and a series of unfortunate events, I needed a more critical and politically-conscious teacher who could be honest, truthful, and real about the insidious mutations of slavery throughout history.

  3. Teacher Actions: what I now do as a teacher...

    1. Teacher, make the point but be aware of your body language (i.e. red face, eye contact, crossed arms); consider that all of the other kids are staring at the Black kids as well. Teachers, I am not saying be afraid or timid around the topic; just be conscious of the experience of hearing this from your teacher in a room of folks who may not fully understand slavery’s past and present effects. And not all Black kids are feeling oppressed or doing bad. Teachers, we do not have to teach with "trauma porn," as one of my kids put it years ago. We should be able to ask students when, where, and how they see slavery and its effects playing out in their lives. We can't forget, young people are observant, perceptive, and curious about most worldly topics, so we must not insult their intelligence by keeping up some facade that certain acts of mass violence like slavery are dead and gone; if anything, Black and Brown bodies are dead and gone as a result of such miseducation and or ignorance.

    2. Confession: as a teacher, I understand that discomfort, for I still struggle with asking and facilitating conversations on gender pronouns. Sure, I don't stare, but I have stuttered when asking students for their pronouns. Teaching is inclusive, as in including the need for me to do my own interior self-work. I commend my students, past and present, for their patience and grace.

“Son, are you gay?!”

  1. Context: One of my male mentors hit me with this question because I rarely spoke about women or girls in his presence. At that moment, the question felt out of the blue, accusatory, and derogatory as if being gay was a bad thing. You gotta understand this moment happened in the early 2000s between a grown-ass man and a nerdy boy without much emotional intelligence, social awareness, or language to express himself. And as a Black kid in conservative Texas, I was taught "gay was not the way." Homophobia was rampant in my high school; and to be clear, I have had to unlearn so many hurtful ideas to heal myself and support others. My mentor and I usually spoke about school and familial responsibilities, not necessarily my social life.

  2. Student Needs: What younger me needed...

    1. Sometimes, I wish that adults just be patient and available for when a young person or anyone is ready and willing to share any personal information. Also, the absence or unawareness of something does not mean the presence of something else. We, adults, must not be quick to assume or judge, for we rarely know the full-story. As no excuse but more so an explanation, I know that men can be socioemotionally clumsy but well-meaning, so I understand that this comment was made not necessarily to probe, prick, or put down but to listen and learn; presentation is key as well as word choice. My mentor and I both needed language and a safer space to enter this particular conversation. I attribute my silence about women not to my sexuality but more so to teenage privacy, my focus on my studies, and the uncertainty around ways to bring up such a personal issue.

    2. Also, I can now laugh at the fact that my mentor maybe expected me to be some sort of womanizer or at least have this swag about me while being a studious achiever in school. I could not serve two or three masters--those being my mentor, my schoolwork, and women. I needed another model or reframing around “cool” because being a lady’s man so to speak meant different priorities than being a first-generation college-bound and college-going student. The two different personas or roles require different sets of values, priorities, and skills. And at that age, I could not be (and did not want to be) both Stephan and Steve (Urkel) simultaneously, both the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Carleton, both "the man" and the "cool nerd." I am thankful that this adult man was trying to make space, but the question felt like he was trying to take space, not allowing me an organic pathway or access point to walk into this conversation with him.

  3. Teacher Actions: what I now do as a teacher...

    1. I don't dabble into student affairs regarding romance; I do push students to trust their intuition and speak to their counselor and or a trusted adult if they have one and or trust one. When approached by students, I thank them for trusting me with such sensitive information and tell them I am here to listen and soundboard, which looks like giving the student a chance to hear their own thoughts spoken back to them and so an opportunity for them to clarify and evaluate their own thoughts and feelings. Of course, I remind them that I am a mandated reporter if the student is in any physical or emotional danger. I (re)assure my students that they are no less of a person and no less deserving of love based on who they love; if anything, they are more of themselves as they acknowledge their feelings inside and toward someone.

“Look at this nerd. Bro, why you studying at school?!”

  1. Context: I must confess. After a few years in private school, I eventually became that nerdy Sophomore kid with the roller backpack, so you better believe that I started studying during my free periods. Sure, it was friendly-teasing, but I do want to point out the fact that my friends did struggle academically.

  2. Student Needs: What younger me needed...

    1. I didn't need much. I just needed to remember my end goal -- that being graduation. If it was going to be only me walking that stage, then it needed to be only me making the decision to prioritize my studies. I loved my homies in private school because we practically grew up together while in school. I also heard this comment used as an insult. To that, I say I needed not to feel ashamed for doing what I was supposed to be doing. I needed to remember how it took time as in years to build such healthy habits, discipline, and willpower to decline certain requests.

    2. Younger me needed friends who were studious but not overly focused or stressed out about school. I needed friends who knew when to step up and study and when to step back and chill out. A group that studies together sticks together. To my boys, we do not laugh about bad grades or poor performances. We want to celebrate good effort and achievement. I'd rather be the class nerd than the class clown. Younger me needed to know that I was not an imposter on campus, but someone who belonged in those advanced classes, that high honor roll, and that small list of students graduating Cum Laude.

  3. Teacher Actions: what I now do as a teacher...

    1. I open my room up as a study space before, during, and after school. I encourage students to find study-buddies and study spaces. I love groupwork in class in order to foster student connections outside of class. When I see students studying on campus, I salute them to show my recognition and acknowledgement of such a brave act. And for the students who do (or do not) get their work done in other ways, I just continue to encourage healthy time management skills and remind them of their end goals. The reason for that is to help students understand the (mis)alignment between their goals and their actions.

    2. And off the record, assume everyone is a nerd to some degree, just depends on the subject or topic. And don't be surprised if I roll up with that roller backpack. Then I'll really be in my bag.

Healthy Practices & Norms for Healthy Conversations

  1. Goal-Setting: Set goals as a student and as a collective family unit; remaining goal-oriented during these tough conversations or dilemmas will help everyone stay focused and avoid distractions. As we create our vision(s) and manifest, all of us must keep in mind two questions: "Who am I?" and "Who do I want to become?" Anything that steers us away from our vision is of no use to us.

  2. Constant, Clear Communication: be open and ready whenever your young person is willing and ready to speak. You can’t force teens to talk but you can create space and show them that the space is available whenever they are ready. I regret not sharing more with my parents about the highlights and lowlights in school. I could have possibly been less emotional, less irritable, and less withdrawn with my family, you know, the people who love me unconditionally and sacrificed so much for me to be in that school.

  3. Active Listening: Reassure your young person that you are listening and that you care. Hold them accountable and make sure they can state their feelings and thoughts. Provide them space to be reflective by asking open-ended questions that prompt them to explain beyond a one-word answer.

  4. Finding Opportunities: Daily conversations in the car or at the dinner table went a long way when I was a kid. Of course, I hated sharing as a kid, but that routine eventually made me open up at times, even now as an adult. It was not always about what my parents were saying but the space that they set up for me to engage and interact. It is important to give students space and invitation to share without shutting down the conversation with advice, approval, or feedback, disdain, or judgment. And to the kids reading this, respect the fact that adults will always have their two cents to put into the conversation. Whether you agree with them or follow them, assume that friendly deposit of wisdom is coming from a place of love.

  5. Asking Simple Questions & Setting Realistic Expectations

    1. What came up for you when you heard this comment?

    2. What affirmations or things can we keep in mind to keep us grounded?

    3. What can we do when someone makes this comment?

    4. How can I support you? Would you like me to just listen? Or give advice? How would you like me to show up at this moment?

    5. It is fine if you do not have a perfect response or full answer, but I would love to know what is going through your mind at this moment.

Conclusion: a call to action

Pace yourself. Every school year is like a marathon. Be ready for the highs and lows of that annual journey through the school year. To the students, initiate a conversation tonight at the dinner table about some of your goals, hopes, and concerns for the new school year. Watch your parents' eyes light up when they hear you speak. Take initiative in opening up a clear path for communication. Try it! Let me know how it goes. Parents and guardians, thank you for your partnership with teachers.

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