It happened on the yellow school bus. I was 9 years old, in 5th grade. I was the only Black girl to ride to North Side Elementary School. As far as I know, I was the only Black person — child or adult — in the whole school. I felt completely alone as a brown-haired and freckle-faced boy called me the N word, repeatedly. His freckled, white face was a frightening reminder of his menacing smile. He was laughing at me.
I was trapped in his hatred, locked in my place. I think my face was upset. Slowly, my white friends on the bus told him to go. He continued, but I didn’t.
In all the hand-wringing against discussion of racism in schools, the right-wing has incorrectly and intentionally mislabeled Critical Race Theory. (CRT). The focus is on white kids: what they feel and how it feels, when the truth about American racistism is taught to them. Black children are not being given the same attention: how they feel and what they think, when American racism is taught to them. ExperienceBy them.
Black children experience racism before white children learn anything about race. The victims of racist policies, systems, and people must be the focus of our national conversation about how schools teach history of racism in America. BIPOC children across the country feel real, immediate, and felt harm from racism. They suffer. They suffer.
Maxe Hinds is a junior student at George Washington University. Hinds is an International Affairs major with a double-minor in Dance and French. From 1st through 8th grade, I attended the International School of Brooklyn. “ISB was an international baccalaureate school,” Hinds explains, “which meant that I was in a French language immersion program for 8 years. Because of that, I became fluent in French at a very young age.” After she graduated from ISB, Hinds attended one of the highest ranked independent day schools in the country, The Dalton School, where she graduated in 2019.
Tragically, none of the privileges associated with her background and education created a safe space for Hinds, and, she says, “every single year that I was at Dalton, at least one racially motivated incident occurred.” When she was just a sophomore, “about 10 screenshots were sent around the school of this one White student using racial slurs. Every single screenshot contained the N-word and one photo in particular was of him impersonating the KKK.”
Because racism persists as a vile system of exclusion and degradation — and because our children are rarely given the tools to begin to learn how to successfully dismantle it — institutions like Dalton don’t have the systems to effectively manage racism, even when it surfaces in such an explicit, unambiguous way.
Hinds says, “The student was not expelled. He was simply ‘asked to leave’ and ended up at a very good school somewhere in the UK. There was no record of this indicated on his transcript since it wasn’t an official expulsion.”
Without accountability, there are no lessons learned. Learning is the whole purpose of school. More importantly, Black children bear the weight of white adults’ decisions. “I felt violated after this incident,” Hinds says, “and did not feel like Dalton made any efforts to protect their Black students.”
Dalton isn’t an exception. Racism is an inevitable part of schools, as racism is a common feature in society. This racism is a problem in every K-12 school across the country, private and public, as well as schools where adults think everyone gets along. A 2019 Southern Poverty Law Center questionnaire found that, while two-thirds of educators who responded said they “witnessed a hate or bias incident in fall 2018,” fewer than 5 percent of those witnessed attacks were reported in the news.
Hinds first experienced a micro-aggression when she was 4 or 5, and a white girl, she says, “kept pointing out how much darker my skin was in comparison to hers. Though this obviously wasn’t a racist encounter, it made me feel ‘different’ or ‘other’ at such a young age.” Hinds reflects that she “can’t even recall a distinct moment when I first experienced racism. In one way or another, it has always been a part of my everyday experience.”
Children’s experiences with racism physically harm them. In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatricians published a policy statement that declared, “Racism is a social determinant of health that has a profound impact on the health status of children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families.”
Because too many Americans try to eradicate racism, racism is deeply embedded in American schools. If grown-ups refuse learning how policies, laws, and systems have been built to subjugate Black people through time, children in school will not be able to be free from them.
Educators have been trying to do the job despite the polarizing tensions in the CRT debate. In fact, African American educators have been supporting Black children for decades before the debate began. Patricia Hogan Williams is head of the nation’s largest private Christian school with a predominantly African American population, the Imani School in Houston, Texas. Established in 1988, Imani students “have won five national speech awards, three national science fairs, two science fairs sponsored by NASA, and many state awards in math, art, engineering.” A feeder for Houston’s top high schools, Imani produces results with sound pedagogy and emotional support.
“Racism is insidious,” Williams insists. “It is transmitted by words spoken and sometimes most clearly by words not spoken. The choice of textbooks, the pictures on the walls, the songs that are sung, the history that is taught or not taught, these are parts of the ‘hidden curriculum’ that tell a student that you belong or that you are not worthy. I have a sign in the teachers’ workroom that says, ‘No malice is required to destroy a child.’ The subtle ways a teacher speaks, the way she responds when a student gives the wrong answer, these are things that often go unnoticed, and certainly not reported, but the impact is real, and it is lasting.”
Though Williams and her husband raised their three sons in Houston, she grew up in a small Texas town where, she says, “racism was like air. It was everywhere, every day. There were signs on the water fountains in the courthouse and anywhere else there was a water fountain or restroom that said ‘Colored’ or ‘Whites only.’ Boys were always told not to look at white women on the street.”
Educators from all races want to share this truth in a validating way. Shannon Macaulay, a white teacher of English in the 9th and 12th grades at Meadowbrook High School, Chesterfield, Virginia. Meadowbrook High School has 92.8 percent BIPOC enrollment, mainly African American and Latinx. Macaulay runs the yearbook and journalism programs in a classroom that reflects the school’s racial demographics.
“I absolutely do not agree that learning about racism and America’s racist history will harm white children,” she says. “I read statements about white children being told that they are bad because of our history of slavery and racism and I really wonder where that is happening or if it’s a fear that’s being pushed.”
Michele Stephenson, filmmaker, says that the CRT debate is being promoted as part of a wider movement against facts. Stephenson, her husband, and co-founder of Rada Studio, a Brooklyn-based film production company, worked with education experts to create their feature film. American PromiseBook Promises Kept.
“The anti-truth movement is the new face of white supremacy,” Stephenson says. “CRT is a new buzz word on an old trope and effort to maintain white power.”
Macaulay says, “anything that addresses cultural relevance, equity, or allowing voices other than white voices to enter the discussion is being labeled CRT without truly understanding what those things are. I am curious why so many white parents are afraid to open the discussion to all voices, and all members of our communities. We are better together, I have a hard time understanding a point of view that doesn’t get that.”
Because of exclusion and inequality in America’s schools, BIPOC have had to organize to best educate our children in both de jure and de facto segregated schools. We have done it with limited public money, locking our children in the domestic terror and violence against them for hundreds of decades.
“So white parents need to get over it,” Stephenson says. “We have no choice but to face our common history, address the discomfort and work on building a community that goes beyond individual harm. What is rarely taught in schools alongside Black American experiences is the long tradition of white abolitionist thinking and actions — others who stood in solidarity and took risks to make this country a better place. Why can’t we teach that? If we listened only to the anti-truth movement supporters today, we would deprive our white students from these role models. History is messy and complex. Since the arrival of the European settlers, it has been told through the eyes of the conqueror. Time for that to change and to understand that we all become better citizens when we know the truth about our history and commit to making this world a better place.”