When I was about 16 years old, I worked in a pharmacy in a suburb of Milwaukee. I mopped floors and stole candy. Two people addicted to painkillers came in one night with a .44 Magnum revolver.
They wanted money and drugs, and though I was in charge of neither, I got to feel what it was to lay on the floor with a gun to the back of my head. Later, I got to know what it meant to see a middle-aged, balding cop and believe he was the most beautiful creature in the world. It’s easy to hate on cops, you know, until you really need one.
Of course, in many places and at many times, cops are doing the ugliest things we do. I don’t need to tell those stories, do I? I don’t need to repeat the hashtags, do I? We are, I am, drowning in the sorrow of right now. I need love. We need to embrace love in each other, but I also, right now, can’t stop being mad.
There should be no more hashtags, obviously. I agree, obviously, that we should stop needlessly killing people, stop fearing black skin as a marker of some imagined violence about to happen. But that won’t be enough.
Maybe we need more hashtags. Millions more. There are no small ways someone is treated as inhuman. There are no small injustices. There are only injustices that are drowned in the volume of their volume. There should be hashtags for the times someone didn’t die. For the comments, names, assumptions, accusals, abuse, on the car lot, in job interviews, from police, from the guy behind the counter, from the woman at the bank, from the doctor.
From teachers. We know it. From teachers. We need hashtags for every student of color and Native student suspended for insubordination, for being bored or disrespected and acting like people do when they are either or both of those things. Hashtags for students suspended for being smarter than their teachers or principal. Hashtags for students awarded for passing with skills that should have them leading. For every student made to feel like their teacher is scared of them.
We can decry racist cops and the racist criminal justice system, but we better not hold our tongues about racist teachers and the racist education system. We better not use their excuses about how the media is making it hard for us to do our jobs, about how the family and community of our students is to blame. We better not say “not all teachers,” and we better not say, “No one would chose teaching if they were racist.”
We sound ridiculous. Anyone sounds ridiculous when they say race isn’t an issue, most especially when they can point out at racism in others and somehow imagine it doesn’t touch their own work.
Teachers, this is us. We are them, without guns.
We take lives with subtlety, with patient violence.
Our black students under-perform, and we blame them. Our black students are singled out and we blame them. We track them low and punish them often, and we blame them. We prove to them they are less than, and we blame them for it. Get mad, but don’t come to me blaming poverty for our failures.
Get mad for black lives. Get mad at the murder and incarceration, but acknowledge that we are fueling the system from the bottom up with the black flesh it feeds on.
Get mad at me for saying it. I’m mad at every teacher who won’t.
Get mad, but not if you’re only looking for someone else to blame. Your righteousness is racism.
Us versus them is too easy. Black lives versus blue lives, allies versus attackers. The saintly liberal against the demon conservative. It’s too easy. It excuses too much. It hates too much.
I genuinely respect cops. I respect anyone whose job it is to run toward bad things happening to help people. I’m not sure I would be able to always do that. I wouldn’t. The stakes are high and impossible decisions need to be made instantly.
I wish them safety. I also wish them patience and empathy and humanity and respect and understanding. I want them to be better, and want us all to be better.
I know nothing about police training, but I know we all, most especially any white person in any position of power, any white person with any desire to consider themselves a functioning adult of a healthier society, needs to more work on our own work. We need to be honest. We are, every one of us, part of this problem.
We can shout that Black Lives Matter. Let’s make sure they do.
This piece was originally published on the author’s blog, Mr. Rad’s Neighborhood.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.