It has been a rather difficult couple of months, with a lot going on for me at work. Not difficult in terms of library stuff, but in terms of knowing how to handle impossible situations. My technique for dealing with them has been to vacillate between quiet avoidance and quiet outrage, always tinged with a note of fear. Notice the theme of quiet.
I have written about it, then squirreled my thoughts away, not wanting to rock any boats nor attract any attention.
Like I said: I am a coward.
Then, through the natural way of things, I picked up the book All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan
Kiely. And I was hit squarely between the eyes with the realization that I am a coward. My silence is cowardice. I don't want to spoil an absolutely amazing book, but there is a theme of action vs. quietly sitting aside, and it kept confronting me. Again and again.
My silence is cowardice.
So, with that in mind, I am going to publish here what I wrote. I am not going to edit it except to make it current and accurate, and also to add pictures.
My office door is covered in stickers, signs, and photos of things are important to me as a person, as an educator. Some are funny (a comic about a boy getting his first dog and needing to name it wisely because that name would serve as a password reminder for the rest of the boy’s life). Some are motivational (A “She persisted” sticker). Some are nerdy humor (a funny punctuation joke about the Oxford comma) (I actually have two of those). Some are educational (A printout of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s statement on what Feminism is and why it is important) Some are promotional: the covers of books I am reading or have read so students know.
And some are statements of who I am, what I stand for, and what students can expect from me. I have a rainbow ally logo, so that student know that the library is a safe place for LGBT students, I will protect them, and I will not tolerate slurs or hate speech.
I also have a Black Lives Matter logo up, again, so students know that the library is a safe place for minority students, I will protect them, and I will not tolerate hate speech or slurs.
I have had the BLM sticker up all year. Then, on Tuesday, February 7, I noticed that someone had vandalized my door. They had taken down my BLM logo, physically cut out the word “black”, written “white” on my door in permanent marker, then hung the sign back up so it said, “white lives matter.”
I was really upset about it. Upset that someone had vandalized school property. Upset that someone had thought it was OK to cut out the word black. Dismayed that whoever did it didn't come to me to talk about what is on my door and instead thought this was an appropriate way to handle it.
The next day I replaced the Black Lives Matter logo.
Since that time, in addition to continued vandalism and theft, I know there has been a lot of discussion about my door, about Black Lives Matter.
One comment I often hear is, “What about white lives? Do they matter?” Of course they do.
When someone wears a pink ribbon in support of breast cancer patients and research, nobody follows them around shouting “All cancers matter!” The pink ribbon doesn’t mean they think other cancers don’t matter or that we should fund breast cancer research more than any other. They are just bringing attention to an issue that is important to them--breast cancer research--and making sure it isn’t overlooked, as it was historically.
When the constitution was written, white lives mattered. Slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person. Constitutionally. Black people could be owned, bought, and sold. Black lives irrefutably did not matter, on a systemic national level.
When the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments were passed, white lives mattered. But Jim Crow legislation passed, and black people were prevented from voting. Black students had separate schoolhouses, black Americans had separate water fountains and entrances to buildings. Colleges and clubs and businesses could reject black people. Black lives irrefutably on a national scale did not matter.
In 1954, white lives mattered. But it took a supreme court ruling in Brown v. BoE to desegregate schools, and even enforcing that required the National Guard. Educationally, black lives didn’t matter.
In 1986, white lives mattered, but it took a supreme court case (Batson v. Kentucky) to say that prosecutors could not use peremptory challenges to dismiss jurors based on their race. That was in 1986. In my lifetime, people were getting kicked off juries based solely on race. At that time, in my lifetime, black lives didn’t matter equally to white lives.
In February of this year (2/22), the supreme court ruled that a black death row inmate in Texas could have a new trial because his own lawyers had stated at his trial that he was more likely to be dangerous because he is black. Chief Justice Roberts stated, "Our holding on prejudice makes clear that Buck may have been sentenced to death in part because of his race.” That was just last week. At least in part, in the justice system, black lives do not universally matter.
Black lives have not always mattered. That is irrefutable and supported by centuries of evidence. That is not my opinion. It is measurable fact supported by data. Lots of data. So, it is important to me that students, all students, know that, to me, black lives do matter.
Now, this doesn’t mean white people don’t suffer. They certainly do. White people experience poverty and unemployment and difficulties in life. But institutionally, universally, systemically, white lives have always mattered in a way that black lives either did not at all or did not to the same extent as white lives. That is not my opinion. That is objective, measurable fact supported by data and history.
I have heard that some are upset because they say that BLM is a terrorist organization. This is untrue. If you go to the BLM homepage under their Guiding Principles here are a few:
- Diversity: We are committed to acknowledging, respecting and celebrating difference(s) and commonalities.
- Restorative Justice: We are committed to collectively, lovingly and courageously working vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension all people….
- Loving engagement: We are committed to embodying and practicing justice, liberation, and peace in our engagements with one another.
These are not the principles of a terrorist organization.
Do people come to BLM rallies and do things other than this? Sure. But that is not what the organization stands for. There is so much tension in the country today, virtually every rally of any sort attracts people who are intent simply upon causing unrest and destruction. But that is not what the Black Lives Matter organization stands for.
Have individual members said things that were hateful or egregious? Sure. But that is an individual member, not the organization.
I appreciate when people do not judge me, as a Christian, based on some extremist who blew up an abortion clinic. That extremist doesn’t speak for all Christians or for Christianity, just as rogue BLM members do not speak for the BLM organization.
So, I have a Black Lives Matter logo on my door to let students--all students--know that to me, black lives matter. I will support them. I will protect them. They matter.
My students matter to me. Deeply. All of them. And I recognize, as any teacher does, that sometimes, for some students, you have to go out of your way to let them know they matter. There are some students who are lonely, have been excluded, have been abused, have few friends, or who are suffering from some situation. Educators go out of our way to let those students know that we understand, we care, we are here to support them. For me, in a high school setting, that includes adding to my door signs of support for students and student populations. Because they matter.
When the vandalism first happened, I put the BLM logo back up, then added another that said “Check privilege here,” although I left the graffiti visible, so it appears to say “check white privilege here.” This is a reference to the landmark 1989 article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh.
This article talks about ways in which people who are not minorities may benefit without even trying. These benefits come because of the systems in this country, the centuries old systems that have, as I mentioned before, always valued white lives, but not always valued other lives. The article includes a list of 50 questions the author asked herself about her daily life and brings attention to things she never has to deal with or even think about, simply because she is white. Years ago, when I first read the article I was struck by all the things that I had never thought of before, the ways my life has silently been shaped by race.
- I have never been pulled over just for being white.
- I have never been called a “credit to my race.”
- I don’t have to worry about my race working against me when I get a mortgage (though that is well-documented for members of minorities).
- It is not difficult to find my race portrayed well on TV or movies or in books.
- Nobody ever asks me to speak on behalf of my race. “How do you feel about this as a white librarian?”
- I can be pretty sure that when I am in a business, school, or restaurant, if I ask to speak to the person in charge, that person will be the same race as me.
This doesn’t mean I or anyone else should apologize for being white. This doesn’t mean I or anyone else should be ashamed of being white. This doesn’t mean I haven’t had hardships. This doesn’t diminish my own hard work or achievements or those of any other white person.
White privilege isn’t my fault or the fault of any other white person. It is just the way the system works. And I benefit from it. I benefit from it in a way that many other people don’t. And I want to be aware of these factors, these inequalities.
This doesn’t mean my life is easy or the life of any other white person is easy. Of course, many many white people suffer from terrible circumstances and horrible problems. But they typically don’t suffer from things because they are white.
That is white privilege.
Since the original incident, my door (which is school property) and my personal property have been vandalized or stolen 7 times (2/7, 2/9, 2/15, 2/16, 2/22, 2/24, 2/24) Late last week, my door was again vandalized. After putting the stickers back up, again, I sat in my office and briefly thought of how easy it would be to just walk away. How easy it would be to just leave the signs down and leave the conversation on race be. And I was struck by the fact that this is the perfect example of my enveloping myself in white privilege. I have the choice to walk away from a discussion on race. I, as a white person, can say, “You know what, I don’t want to deal with the issue of race today,” and that will happen. A black or Hispanic person can’t say, “You know what, today I don’t want race to be an issue in my life.”
So I hung the stickers back up, including the one referencing privilege. And I did that because someone thought is was completely appropriate to destroy someone else’s property and vandalize school property in order to remove the word “black” and replace it with white. Then that person thought it was completely appropriate to steal items they disagreed with from my door.
I eventually had to put both images on the inside of my office window because the student continued to vandalize and steal my property, even saying that no matter the consequence the actions would continue.
As long as these are the actions anyone thinks is appropriate, then there is still a discussion that needs to be had. And I don’t want to shy away from difficult discussions. I want to engage in them: ask, talk, listen, think, and grow. These are the very conversations we need to be having, and I hope that they are ones that we can have with respect and dignity.