Thursday, September 26, 2013

Race: Learning to See

Since Mark and I have moved into an apartment building where the residents are predominantly African-American in a neighborhood of apartment buildings where residents are more likely to be Asian, African-American or Latino than White and since I've been teaching at a school where all of my students are African or African-American, I've been thinking a lot about race and racism. Most of my thoughts about race and racism have been sort of in the back corner of my mind, as the front corners of my mind are taken up right now with questions of whether I'll be able to keep control in my classroom long enough for my students to learn the short /a/ sound.

My thoughts about racism have been a weird jumble. I think about the loud music vibrating our floors and how the picture I got in my head when I felt the first rumble was of African-American people partying in a poorly kept living room. I hate that about myself, that those were my first mental images, and what that says about racism that still lives in me.

It scares me too, especially when I think about my students. Because if the image I get in my head when I hear loud music is African-American people living in a dingy apartment spending all their time rocking out pointlessly to loud music, what does that say about my expectations for what my students are capable of and should accomplish? What they should be like when they grow up? I'm terrified that despite all of my best intentions I'm going to lower my expectations for my students and decide that the work they are producing is 'good enough' even if it's not nearly good enough.

Because, let's face it: in order for my students to succeed and thrive while living in the United States, they are not going to have to score as high as White children. They are going to have to score higher. They are going to have to prove a thousand times more often that they are capable and bright and able to contribute wonderful things to the world. Because the world is not going to believe it on first glance. Especially when they see my darling girls wearing their hijab or my boys wearing their kufi.

And when I start to think about my girls and their hijab and my boys and their kufi, I also find myself thinking about my nephew who was adopted from Ethiopia in 2011. Not because he wears a kufi. I just know that my nephew is a wonderful, brilliant boy who love to read books, has an amazing vocabulary, and loves to entertain people. But so many people will just see black when they see him. Just like people will just see hijab when they see my girl students.

Before I started teaching at this school, when I saw a group of Muslim women in the store I was shopping in, I would just see their long flowing dresses and their hijab. A few days ago, though, when I was out, I saw a girl in hijab, and I found myself searching her face to see if she was a student of mine or a sister of a student of mine. It struck me at that moment that before, I hadn't been seeing the women in hijab as women. I'd just been seeing Muslim. Or maybe even just the clothes. I don't know. But I do know that I hadn't been really seeing them as individuals.

I don't know if this makes any sense, and I know that I'm rambling, but the thing is, I want my students to grow up being seen for who they are, beyond their clothing. I want my nephew to grow up being seen for who he is, beyond his skin color. And I want me to really see people. I want to really see the neighbors who live below us and play obnoxious loud music; if not get to know them, at least acknowledge that their personalities, their joys and disappointments, have depth that I don't know. And I want to really see my students with all their gifts and potential.

This seeing. I can't make the United States at large see my students for the wonderful individuals that they are or see my nephew for who he is. Racism is so hard that way - I can't make anyone not think racist thoughts. And I'm still battling my own sneakily hidden racism. But I truly think that seeing a person is what begins to dissolve some part of the racism barrier. So, maybe the very best thing I can do is tell the stories - tell the stories of my students as individuals so that a few other people will see them as more than a hijab or a kufi. Maybe that's the best start for learning to see.


  1. Hill, I appreciate this post so very much. I still find covert racism occasionally creeping up. Right now, I often struggle even more with a sinful sense of superiority---as if I've conquered it. Thank you for your honesty and transparency.

  2. Interesting point of view. I would like to suggest that there is nothing wrong with being black or playing loud music especially if it is a cultural thing. "rocking out to loud music" doesn't equal failure. You can be a successful, intelligent CEO of a company and still do those things. The world just makes us believe that being black is bad or a certain religion is bad.... Someone's race is part of who they are and it should be a good thing that makes them unique not something that needs to be ignored in order to see the real person. A black kid with involved parents who are financially stable and with good self esteem will probably do well in life no matter what music they listen to, how loud it is or what they wear. Environment has more influence in success than race or religion. Your post was very honest. We all have different assumptions about race.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I didn't mean to suggest in my post that being black is bad or that playing loud music is bad. (I would venture that playing loud music late at night in an apartment complex to the extent that it disturbs your neighbors is inconsiderate, though not 'bad.')

      And I did not mean to suggest that race needs to be ignored in order to see the real person. I meant to suggest that our stereotypes about race need to be ignored in order to see the real person. Because when it comes to stereotypes, every person is an exception to the rule in some way, which is what makes stereotypes so damaging.