Working While Black: My Coworker Said Teaching Students About Slavery Gave Them A “Built-In Excuse For Failure”

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Teacher with children sitting at table, writing

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One of my favorite texts to read with my 7th-grade class is To Be A Slave by Julius Lester. From the transatlantic slave trade to the Reconstruction Era, it paints a picture of what it was like to be enslaved in America by weaving together the accounts of those who lived through the experience. It’s a beautiful and sometimes emotional opportunity to connect with my students about our shared history and I am always blown away by how they are able to draw connections between the themes presented in the text and current events. Throughout the school year, we go on to explore several aspects of freedom and oppression and how it manifested and continues to manifest in various countries. It is both an empowering and sobering experience for my students.

Imagine my surprise when I was told by a former coworker — a white man — of all people, that I was failing my students by even mentioning slavery to my class. According to his logic, we will never be able to move forward as a unified country if teachers like me continue to rehash the past.

His exact words, “I would hope that as an educator and mother that you will teach today’s children that this is the greatest country in the world with opportunities galore for everyone.”

I told him that he seemed triggered by the mention of slavery. We went back and forth for a while and I went on to tell him that while there are opportunities available, as a result of systemic oppression, which is rooted in American slavery and white supremacy, the playing field was not as leveled as he and his counterparts like to believe.

He went on to tell me, “To think that the negative history from well over 150 years ago still exists in this country by way of systemic oppression is just not true.”

He proceeded to tell me that by discussing oppression and American slavery, I was giving my students a “built-in excuse for failure.”

“I believe in teaching kids about working hard in all life situations,” he told me, “and that will give them the opportunity to have great success. I will always believe that today, in 2018, everyone has the same opportunity to succeed in our great country. White, black, yellow, as individuals, we all decide our own future.”

I was floored by the exchange and despite having known this man since childhood, I decided that it was time for us to end our friendship. I was deeply offended that he thought he had the right to tell me which parts of history I should and should not acknowledge in my personal life as well as in my curriculum. However, in hindsight, he never really did much to hide his racism and I have to come to terms with that. I continued to teach my kids about slavery and oppression and I discontinued my relationship with my colleague.

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