Before the national outrage: Why young kids need to be taught about racism

My name is Nina Murphy, and I, too, was affected by the death of George Floyd.

I’m a 16-year-old junior at Whitney Young High School in Chicago, and I live with my mother and older brother. I read, usually realistic fiction, and I write, code, and paint. In the future, I want to go into the electrical engineering field. Now that you know a little about me, I’d like to talk to you about my K–8 school, the school that helped shape my views on racism, equality, and social justice.

One noticeable difference between The Ancona School and the average elementary school is its dedication to social justice. Most schools teach their students about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks during Black History Month, and that’s usually the extent of Black history they teach their students. When I was at Ancona, we had an annual assembly during BHM that featured a third- and fourth-grade play about how Black leaders made a difference in society. And BHM wasn’t just in February for us. We rarely passed a history unit without talking about Black history at that time. For example, during our unit on the Harlem Renaissance, we learned about Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Josephine Baker. In middle school, there was a social justice fair instead of a science fair every other academic year. I particularly liked the social justice fair because my peers and I could look at racism, sexism, and homophobia in different areas of life. In eighth grade, we also had a colorism workshop. We freely talked about police brutality and cruelty to undocumented immigrants with our White teachers and classmates. I appreciated how openly I, and others, could speak at school, but I am even more grateful for it now.

No one can escape having prejudice, no matter how ‘woke’ they may be. The way someone becomes an ally is by recognizing their ignorance and realizing they’ll never be exempt from prejudice.

A year ago, when George Floyd was murdered, I was upset. The feeling you get watching a police officer kneel on a Black man’s throat isn’t describable. It’s like a mix of disgust, generational fear, anger, and sadness. Even though I was upset by what I saw, I wasn’t surprised. When you grow up with outspoken Black parents, and when you go to a school that talks about racism, you aren’t surprised when you witness extreme racism. My White classmates were allowed to talk about it in class, and they had similar sentiments. They, too, felt disgusted. However, many of them mentioned that they didn’t know things like this happened a lot, or they said they didn’t think there was a lot of racism left in the world. So a lot of them had a newfound zeal and inclination toward activism. I was, and still am, happy that they are learning about police brutality and racism. I’ve even educated some of my friends about race issues, but it shouldn’t be the burden of the educated to educate.

Just as a part of me was happy, another part was surprised. It was hard to fathom how a teenager, even a White teenager, could be so incredibly ignorant and blind about racism and police brutality. I can’t imagine going through life without a strong understanding of how racism affects many aspects of life. Even if I could grasp that concept, I would never have the luxury of living my life in pure race bliss. As a Black girl, I don’t have the luxury or privilege of assuming racism “isn’t that bad” anymore. Just as a part of me was surprised, another part was disappointed. It shouldn’t take watching someone suffocate a Black man for people to realize that Black people are still oppressed.

As a Black girl, I don’t have the luxury or privilege of assuming racism ‘isn’t that bad’ anymore.

Two comments illustrate my frustrations. During a class discussion of Black Lives Matter, one boy talked about how he accidentally said something offensive while talking to a Black friend. The friend reportedly calmly told him why what he said was upsetting. Then the boy said that his friend had educated him the right way. My grievance with this is the implication that there is a wrong way to tell someone they said something racist. It also suggests that if someone doesn’t educate him calmly, he won’t listen to what they have to say. The hurt Black people experience due to racism is not so easily expressed calmly. If a person demands that a Black person educate them “the right way,” they don’t understand the impact of racism on that person, which furthers the hurt.

Another time, a girl said she didn’t have hope that change was possible. It must be nice to lose hope so quickly, but I, and many others, don’t have that privilege. It annoys me that someone who only just learned about racism could claim that nothing will work when my ancestors have fought for equality for 400 years in this country. While we have a long way to go, saying that nothing can change is a gross underestimation of the strength and resilience of Black people. It’s also forgetting about and shows a lack of understanding of the Black struggle and our history in America before the moment she became aware of it. Saying that nothing will change for a discriminated group of people is upsetting for the people with a long, painful, and complex relationship with discrimination.

When someone knows little about a topic, and then they learn only about a small portion of its many subtopics, they cannot truly understand the subject at hand. However, having limited knowledge of racism can hurt other people. The majority of racist comments or behaviors often come from those who swear they aren’t racist. A common misconception about all the “isms” is that you can only discriminate against people on purpose and blatantly. If everyone on Earth who has never thought “I hate Black people” had no unconscious bias, misconceptions, or microaggressions, then we wouldn’t have nearly as many problems. No one can escape having prejudice, no matter how “woke” they may be. The way someone becomes an ally is by recognizing their ignorance and realizing they’ll never be exempt from prejudice.

It shouldn’t take watching someone suffocate a Black man for people to realize that Black people are still oppressed.

Just as a part of me was disappointed with my classmates, another part was frustrated with schools ignoring racism in their curriculum. After all, it’s not my peers’ fault that no adult taught them about social justice. Non-POC parents may not talk about race because it’s uncomfortable, and they may not have much to say about it. Since many adults don’t talk about modern racism, young people often assume we have left prejudice behind with our older generations. However, just because a group recognizes unfavorable attitudes in others, it doesn’t mean that the group isn’t guilty of the same thing. Since ignorance is bliss (unless there’s a national outrage forcing people to learn about racism), it’s easy to forget about race when you aren’t discriminated against. This means that young people grow up with a comfortable blind spot to their prejudices, which sets up each respective generation to grow up the same way. It’s evident social justice education should’ve started long before the world had to process the death of George Floyd.

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