#BlackLivesMatter, Schooling, and The Miseducation of White People

Written By Hui-Ling Malone

Many of us laughed (sometimes nervously) and cringed while watching Jordan Peele’s social thriller Get Out. This fictional horror movie depicts a young Black man who goes with his White girlfriend to her family home for a weekend. What ensues is sheer revelation.

It is here that we catch a glimpse at what it means to be Black in a White world. From microaggressions to racial profiling, from police violence to the ever-looming threat of annihilation, we see Black life in full relief, though as a microcosm, through the eyes of the main protagonist who grapples with the consequence of his Blackness in a simulated White world (e.g., Pleasantville meets Amityville horror). Although this was “just a movie,” this quintessential #Blacklivesmatter film revealed the real life nightmare and horror of what it means to be Black in America.

Black life in America is tragically comprised of violence and captivity, fugitivity and social death. From the slave castles in West Africa to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, from centuries of slavery to Jim Crow, from the terrorism of White supremacist groups to the bondage of slavery redesigned through the prison industrial complex (what Saidiya Hartman calls “the afterlife of slavery”); what it has meant to be Black in America has never seemed so clear. Black folk–regardless our heterogeneity–have been made to endure such conditions as inferior education systems, sterilization, state sanctioned violence, and other forms of human subjugation and threats to our existence. In sum, life in America has been a complete horror story for Black Americans. (This is not to negate historical accomplishments, the considerable contributions, the unbreakable Black-community-building apparatus, Black joy, or the gains Black people have made in spite of living an existence under a hetero-patriarchal White supremacist regime.)

This is why #BlackLivesMatter is so important. It is particularly important for Black children and for those of us searching to fundamentally remake American education in ways that value them. The movement recognizes and condemns the holistic violence inflicted upon Black bodies in the U.S and abroad. It also affirms, values, and builds community among ALL Black people, teaching those written off as disposable–to the contrary–that they are valued and valuable.

It is not coincidental that #BlackLivesMatter was founded by three Black women, two of whom are involved in the LGBTQ community. Alicia Garza, a founder of #BlackLivesMatter writes:

When you design an event/campaign/ et cetera based on the work of queer Black women, don’t invite them to participate in shaping it, but ask them to provide materials and ideas for next steps for said event, that is racism in practice. It’s also heteropatriarchal.1

In her assessment of #BlackLivesMatter, Garza channels Audre Lorde who notes that the absence of the lesbian Black feminist is detrimental to real change. In doing so, Lorde begins to question, “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.”2 In her compelling critique, Lorde could have easily been referencing past movements involved in reshaping American schools. Constructed by the same racist patriarchal machinery to which Lorde alludes, these past movements have functioned under the same system that views Black lives as disposable. Consider the blatant disproportionality of Black girls and boys, persistent segregation, educational instability, and the under-resourced schools that serve our Black children.

Moving beyond respectability politics, #BlackLivesMatter emphasizes that, regardless of who you are (poor, queer, trans, young, old, disabled, immigrant, etc.), you do matter. This is the single most important factor of the movement–its refusal to submit to what education theorist Lisa Delpit has termed the culture of power and its illegible and ever-shifting rulebook. Thus, it is not helpful to blame parents, students, or a so called “culture of poverty” for the failure of urban schools. These schools are already placed in systems setup to fail them, blanketed by dispositions of power and curried in the cauldron supremacies. The process of has lead peculiarly to systems of education where Black lives do not matter and, perhaps worse, where Black children are targeted for annihilation. The process, thus, is completely antagonistic and will never allow for the change that we so desperately need.

Thus, schooling itself become tools of oppression, confined to where “the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.” That is, we will never make change in education if the fundamental and necessary queering of the educational project is left off the table. Only when the least of us are included at the table, the possibility of liberation arises. Parents, students, community members, local business owners, ALL stakeholders must be involved in reshaping our education to effectively serve our children.

Real change exists in the shadows of progress. I’ll never forget being a young teacher in Detroit. Eager to learn how to best serve my students, I opted into a Professional Development where participants were promised a look into what “good” schools were doing, so we could bring these ideas back to our students. We traveled (maybe about 10-15 minutes) to the city of Grosse Pointe. Although Grosse Pointe was literally just down the street, the town was much wealthier and much Whiter.

I observed classrooms in the middle and high schools. What I saw was not exceptional instruction. What I saw were teachers who talked at the white board while students sat and listened. One teacher even told us after his class: “After working in Detroit, you could do this in your sleep.” He alluded to his students being “easy” to instruct. His students, as opposed to mine, were undeniably more privileged and had access to more resources. Unfortunately, this PD didn’t teach me better instruction; it only shed light on the glaring disproportionality rooted in White flight and systematic racism.

When your life is defined by irrational suffering, stasis does not satisfy; it frustrates (better yet, infuriates). At the moment I asked “what else?” I looked around and saw a host of happy White faces. I didn’t see any confining “zero tolerance rules” or metal detectors in these schools. No, they continued to live their lives in what looked to me like effortless bliss while we endured–while we suffered. They were oblivious to what was going on in Detroit only a few miles away.

The evidence is compelling that most people in power are not willing to sacrifice privilege and comfort for justice and equity. #BlackLivesMatter must also be for them, but not like it is for me. For me it is about a constant struggle. For them it must be about education.

James Baldwin wrote:

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this–which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never–the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.3

I pray for the education of White people, an education that must involve lessons on a love so deep that it turns the hate that stems from White fragility into strength, security, and peace. Carter G. Woodson famously wrote a book titled The Miseducation of the Negro. #BlackLivesMatter has revealed quite another narrative: “The miseducation of Whites.” In remaking this narrative, I hope that we can enlist schools to help White children find a love that will halt the hateful policies that support redlining, gentrification, high stakes testing, and others that persecute black and marginalized children, and instead recognize that we all deserve to live up to our full potentials.

Cornel West makes a compelling argument for a new awakening for democracy in America.4 This awakening, however, won’t focus on training elites and workers. It won’t succumb to the spell of capitalism, fixating on career and college readiness. It will use schools to prepare children to be better adults, to help them participate in a multicultural democracy on terms more human than what currently exists. It will use schools to develop youth human capacities (what David E. Kirkland calls “civic readiness”), where being a citizen means not being a racist. When we address the miseducation of white people, everyone is better served.

When that happens the Michael Bennetts of the world will not have to worry about police officers putting guns to their heads. Children like Tamir Rice and Aiyana Jones will not have to worry about dying too soon. Parents like Eric Garner and Korryn Gaines would still be here for their children. And everyone would have access to equitable housing, quality education, and affordable healthcare.

Until this awakening, I will remain hopeful. I believe in love, and I believe in the power of community building. We can start with the principles of #BlackLivesMatter which will help us remake education and get us closer to a more just, equitable, and loving society.

References

  1. Garza, A. (2014). A herstory of the# blacklivesmatter movement by Alicia Garza. The Feminist Wire, 7.
  2. Lorde, A. (2012). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. New York: Crossing Press.
  3. Baldwin, J. (1963). The fire next time. New York: Dial.
  4. West, C. (2005). Democracy matters: Winning the fight against imperialism. New York: Penguin.

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Hui-Ling Malone is a doctoral student in urban education at New York University. She can be reached by email at: hlm328@nyu.edu.