Legacies, And the Prices Paid. #Ferguson #TamirRice #EricGarner #JohnCrawford #BlackLivesMatter

Memorial for Tamir Rice

Memorial for Tamir Rice

“A riot is the language of the unheard.”    -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’m agitated tonight, as many of you are across the country. I have stacks of papers to attend to and lesson plans to write, but my mind is with the thousands of people across the nation who are in the streets tonight, in protest, in search of answers, solutions, and justice.

I am a Latina. I identify as a woman of color. This is the personal lens through which I view the issues facing my community and nation. I was born in Southern California and raised by Chicano parents who are socially conscious & activists at heart. I was weaned on stories of a time when my grandfather and his friend were chased down and threatened by two drunken white sailors during the Zoot Suit riots of 1943 simply because they were Latino. They barely escaped with their lives. I was told of how my grandmother  walked along the Main Street of her little town, past signs in store front windows that read “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed.” I heard tales of my father’s frustration in the early 80’s,  when he was passed up for a promotion into a management position, later to find out that someone on the hiring panel assumed he had cheated on his exam because, “How could a Latino score that high?” Perhaps they overlooked that fact that he held a perfectly legit Ph.D.

I still remember the night my mother came home from my back-to-school night and recounted the audible gasps in the room when the new 2nd grade teacher was introduced. Some of parents got up out of their seats in apparent disgust. She was a first year teacher. She was black. The year was 1987.

Somewhere between my upbringing, college courses, and real-life experiences, I was discouraged from using broad frameworks of understanding when contemplating societal issues and their many intricacies. And because of that, the newsfeed in recent weeks has been so incredibly unbearable. As we’ve watched events of Ferguson unfold, John Crawford killed in a Wal-Mart,12-year-old Tamir Rice gunned down in a play yard, and Eric Garner’s justice denied, we’ve simultaneously been flooded with soundbites/images/memes/explanations that seek to oversimplify the profound complexity of the issues at hand.

In the past few days there’s been a running dialogue in my mind, as I answer the statements of those who believe that the recent events are nothing more than a handful of isolated incidents followed by overblown reactions of rowdy citizens. Some are insistent that we are living in a post-racial time. That the race problem is all a figment of some hyper-active collective imagination. So tell me, how does one even begin responding to ignorance?

Racism is real. And if discussing it makes you uncomfortable, imagine how it feels for those on the receiving end. The ones whose daily interactions are shaped by it. The ones whose lives are impacted by it in the most insidious of ways. Racism is real. It is not some imagined problem manifested in the minds of those who can’t let go of the past. It was not erased when segregation was outlawed. It was not magically eradicated the day we inaugurated a black president.

No…racism is alive and well. It is the ugly legacy left behind by forefathers who believed that the worth of a person of color was somehow less than theirs. It was this belief that allowed them to justify the enslavement, lynchings, prejudice, hatred, and fear of entire groups of people. It has been passed down through generations, and penetrates our institutions and communities in red states and in blue. It becomes glaringly apparent during times such as these, as evidenced by internet trolls and cable news hosts taking liberties to spew vile over-generalizations and stereotypes in their efforts to justify the deaths of fellow citizens. It is the responsibility of all of us to call it out if we can, and fight back against it whenever possible.

In the two decades since the passage of momentous civil rights legislation some things have changed. Some have not. While it’s true that the personal racial attitudes many Americans have improved for the better, the ideas and prejudices from before still persist in the hearts of many. And while legal segregation ended, coupled with the expansion of social interchange and voting rights, the systematic and pervasive character of racism in the United States persists. Law-makers, judges, authorities, gatekeepers and landowners are disproportionally white, and if you think that doesn’t have an effect on the way things are run, the opportunities given, the advancements denied…think again.

Racism goes hand-in-hand with domination, and provides the social and philosophical justification for debasing and degrading people on the basis of color. It is sustained by both personal attitudes and structural forces. It is both brutally overt and invisibly institutional.

Every now and then, I like to think I have the luxury of being able to push thoughts of race to the back of my mind for a day or two at a time. I live in a city that, in 2002, was determined by TIME magazine to be the most integrated, diverse region in the nation. Sometimes I think the residents here get spoiled into thinking that our reality is the norm. It’s not as if we don’t have our share of issues here, it’s just a little easier to overlook sometimes. But it doesn’t take long before I am reminded of the ways in which race touches our lives on a daily.

A few weeks before the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, My two eldest boys and I traveled up toward the California/Oregon border for a weekend trip. We stayed at a hotel that provides a complimentary breakfast for its guests. In the morning, we joined several dozen other families–all of whom were white–in the dining area and began to eat. Within minutes a restaurant staffer approached our table and asked if we were paid guests at the hotel. People stared. Without a word, I left the room and made my way to the front desk, got a copy of our room statement, and brought it back as “proof.” She turned around without so much as an explanation. We were the only ones singled out that morning. Other than being irritated and a bit embarrassed, no real harm was done to us. A small price to pay for traveling to a small town, right? For being brown?

For others, the stakes are much higher:

The price Tamir Rice’s mother paid certainly was. She lost her son.

John Crawford’s young children lost their father.

Eric Garner’s widow lost a husband.

Michael Brown lost his life.

Racism is real. This is how is manifests in our world. This is the price that is paid.

This is how we respond.

Not one more. We can’t breathe.

In Solidarity.

A Tale of Two Perceptions. #Ferguson

“Rage — whether in reaction to social injustice, or to our leaders’ insanity, or to those who threaten or harm us — is a powerful energy that, with diligent practice, can be transformed into fierce compassion.”  - Bonnie Myotai Treace

“Rage — whether in reaction to social injustice, or to our leaders’ insanity, or to those who threaten or harm us — is a powerful energy that, with diligent practice, can be transformed into fierce compassion.”   – Bonnie Myotai Treace

I’m a pre-kindergarten teacher at a public elementary school. When people find this out, they typically react with some variation of, “Oh what a cute age,that must be so fun!” It is fun, and tiring, and humbling, and at times heartbreaking. My classroom reflects the neighborhood I work in—ethnically and linguistically diverse. There is a common thread that binds the majority of students, however, and that is that the majority of them live in poverty. I’ve been working in the same neighborhood, at various different schools since 2007. And I can tell you that despite the reputation of the area, the families I’ve worked with over the years have a strong sense of community, pride, and dedication to their children’s education and well-being.

Throughout my career, I’ve collaborated with families from all walks of lives, with the common goal of ensuring that their child’s academic, social, and emotional needs are adequately met while they are in my care. It’s because of this, I think, that I’ve come to look upon every child I meet as an extension of my own family. Therefore, it’s hard for me to watch the current images coming out of Palestine, Iraq, Detroit, and Ferguson without grieving for the families and children who are impacted by these events.

Years before Trayvon Martin was gunned down in his own neighborhood, an incident occurred at my school that, once again, left me pondering the issues surrounding race, perception, and the realities that form when deeply held attitudes and beliefs about a particular community manifest in prejudicial ways.

That year, I had an African-American student in my class by the name of Melody*. Melody’s mom worked two jobs in order to support her four children, and because of her schedule, Melody’s older brother Thomas had the responsibility of taking her to and from preschool. Thomas went above and beyond his duties as a sibling. Not only did he get her to class on time every morning (despite the 2-mile walk between their house and the school), he also made a routine of staying with Melody a few minutes every morning to ensure that she was settled in. He often checked in with me or my aide, to ask about Melody’s progress, and ways he could help her at home. One particularly cold morning, Melody began crying when she realized she’d forgotten her jacket at home. I called Thomas, and he walked all the way back to school to bring it to her. That morning, as he knelt down to wipe her nose, he told me of how he was hoping to enroll in community college. He was nervous about the costs, and how he’d transition back into the school routine. It’d been two years since he’d graduated from high school. After that, my aide and I regularly chatted with him about his enrollment progress, financial aide options, and his future plans. My aide developed a fondness of him because he was the same age as her youngest son, and in her words, had “the same gentle personality.”

Later in the school year, security policies at the school changed, and all visitors were required to sign-in the office before entering campus. All gates, including the one that lead straight to our preschool door, were to remain locked. That’s when the trouble began. At first, I was unaware of it, but now looking back I can see that the tension slowly escalated over time. Apparently, some of the office staff had issues with Thomas. They perceived him as openly rude and hostile.

Okay, let me stop right here and explain something. I’ve worked with many office staff members over the years, and the majority of my interactions have been pleasant. There are secretaries, office managers, and administrators who maintain a level of professionalism and compassion that is to be commended. And there are those who do not. I am not saying that all staff in the office that year were unapproachable, but there were definitely a handful that consistently had a visible chip on their shoulder. And when I say chip, I mean chunk. I had witnessed many of their interactions with parents, students AND other staff that were questionable. When a school culture reflects the respect and dignity that all of us wish to be treated with, it’s largely reciprocated by the families and students we serve. We’ve all seen it in action.

That said, I did not witness the interactions between Thomas and the office staff, I only know that one Monday morning, he came into our classroom visibly upset. “That lady is SO RUDE!” he said, shaking his head. When I asked about it, he just shook his head as if to say, “forget about it.”

The next day, Thomas and a friend of his arrived at the office together to pick up Melody. According to some staff, this is what transpired: Thomas walked past the sign-in book, nodded to office staff, at which point a secretary told him to come back and sign-in. He kept walking. They called to him again. He exited the door and walked straight toward my classroom, where I was busy lining up my students for dismissal. They perceived his behavior as a threat. I remember hearing raised voices outside the door, and instinctively began moving the students toward the back of the classroom. My aide stayed with them while I went to see what all the commotion was about. When I peeked my head out the door, my heart sank. There was Thomas, arguing with several staff members, saying something to the effect of, “Why should I respect you when it’s CLEAR you don’t respect me.” His friend looked on nervously. “Stop yelling!” a staff member yelled. Just then I saw a police car roll into the parking lot. Then another. Then another. I fought back tears as I asked an administrator how everything had escalated so quickly. “He’s been a problem for a while. Always has attitude and is disrespectful. He won’t be allowed to come on campus anymore.”

As a crowd of parents gathered and police escorted Thomas and his friend out the gate, he turned to me, “Sorry, ma’am. I’ll send someone for Melody.”

One of the police officers pulled me aside and asked “You know this guy?”  I struggled to keep my voice composed. ” I do. I want you to know, that this young man has always been a perfect gentleman in our classroom, and an attentive sibling to his sister.” He just nodded.

They did not end up arresting Thomas that day. I heard later that an officer, who was also African-American, vouched for him as well. Apparently he had gotten to know Thomas well during frequent trips to the neighborhood. He must have seen the side of Thomas that my aide and I saw. Unfortunately, because Thomas was barred from returning to the campus, no one was available to bring Melody to school, so she stopped coming. A few weeks later, I took a  small bag of school readiness supplies over to the house, where I was received by Melody, her siblings, and mom, who was in between shifts.Thomas was there too, and we chatted for a while, mostly about Melody. We didn’t mention the incident.

The year ended, and since then I have not seen Melody or her family. But I often think of Thomas and hope he has managed to stay in school and steer clear of misfortune. He is not the only one that stays with me. The stories of countless students, parents, siblings, and grandparents weigh heavy in my heart. Sometimes it all builds up and I find myself crying for all of them.

Like the time when I heard recordings of Trayvon’s last pleas. Or watched the grainy video of Eric Garner as he cried out, “I can’t breathe!” Or when I opened a link to the image of Michael Brown’s lifeless body in the street, uncovered, unarmed.

It makes me sick to hear people try and justify these deaths based on their perceptions of who these men were, or weren’t. 

They were brothers. They were fathers. They were sons.

And I’d like to think that WE are human enough to see that, and take action against a tide of ugliness that is sweeping our nation.

In Solidarity.

*names have been changed