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To Love Our Students Is To Boldly Challenge Racism In Our Schools

We cannot say we love our community and not do that.

James Baldwin once said, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you do not see.” Personally, when I challenge our state, it is only out of love for our communities who I know we only want the best for. And if we want to truly create a more-loving and safe society for all of our people, especially for our Black and brown youth, we need to confront the widespread racism that our state, whose colonizers inserted a Black-exclusionary clause into our original state constitution, is rooted in. But, to do that, we must first acknowledge the racism in our state, an action we are not good at doing. But we have to become good at doing it because if we truly love our students and educators, we cannot shy away from addressing the racism in each of our own schools in fear of “being controversial” or “disrupting the peace.” Racism already more than “disrupts the peace” of the lives of those affected by it.

And if schools are not actively acknowledging it, addressing it, and creating systems to prevent it, then they are ignoring the racism within their communities. If they are ignoring it, then they, even unintentionally, are sending the message to their students that racism is okay and letting their students graduate and enter the working world and positions of varying levels of power with unchallenged racist thought processes. And they are effectively telling their students of color, like me, that they do not care about us, that we are not as important as their public image or their need to not “start trouble”, that they care more about being called racist than racism itself.

If educators really love their communities like their schools’ mission statements say they do, they need to both create structures to proactively combat racism in their schools and practice having conversations with their co-workers and students to help them unlearn racist habits and ways of thinking. And it is going to be uncomfortable because yes, a very nice teacher with seniority and a candy bowl in their classroom can be racist. And yes, a hardworking student who checks in on their friends’ mental health can be racist. “Nice does not equal not racist,” as Rachel Cargle puts it. One can have the practice of assuming good intentions, but schools cannot treat racist actions of their community members with a “slap on the wrist” passivity. And these tough conversations need to be normalized.

Districts should already be training their educators to be anti-racist. Anti-racism is only “controversial” to any school districts that passively tolerate racism. Educators should be able to recognize and combat racism in themselves, their peers, their classroom, and their curriculum. As a student of color, I shouldn’t have the responsibility of educating the adults in my school about what microaggressions are and my Black friends shouldn’t have to be the ones to argue with other students in English class why they shouldn’t say the n-word. Educators should already be trained on these topics to the point where they feel the anger and sadness that come with deeply sympathizing with the pain of injustice and be able to teach anti-racism in their classrooms. Around these topics, educators should be the ones expected to be the experts in the room, instead of students who otherwise feel pressured to exhibit their own traumatic experiences for others to understand why something racist is racist.

Students need to be taught about the Vanport flood, redlining, the history of Alberta street, and other pieces of Oregon’s history that don’t come from the traditional white-male-colonizer point of view of history because a half-truth is still a lie. Schools need to create structures, practices, and curricula that combat racism on all fronts. Black and brown students and community members who have the lived experience of the racism we are trying to combat in our communities need to be centered in the design and decision making of any structure, practice, or anything that’s created because without them even good intentions can materialize into negative and hurtful outcomes.

Oregon schools need to be better, because Oregonian Black and brown communities and youth deserve better.

Jared Cetz is a recent graduate of David Douglas High School and a member of Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.

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