June 7, 2020 - Atlanta - A protest group calling themselves the Tiny Activists marched to the Jackson Street bridge to lay flowers. Demonstrations continued in Atlanta Sunday. Protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody continued around the United States, as his case renewed anger about others involving African Americans, police and race relations. Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution
Photo: Steve Schaefer/Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta J
Photo: Steve Schaefer/Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta J

Opinion: Schools have power and duty to disrupt generational racism 

Joseph R. Jones is the dean of the school of education at Gordon State College. He has published copiously on the topic of inclusivity within the schooling process. He is the 2020 recipient of the Teacher of the Year award from Georgia Council of Teachers of English.

In this guest column, Jones addresses the role and responsibility of educators to fight racism in their classrooms.

By Joseph R. Jones

Three years ago, I left higher education as an associate dean to return to the high school English classroom. It was a wonderful experience that made me a better teacher and a better scholar. 

During one of my classes, students were working in cooperative learning groups on an assignment. Suddenly, I heard an African American student used the n-word. I immediately walked over to her group. I lowered my body to the point where we were all at eye level. When I started a discussion about the power of language, she interjected, “Dr. J, it is with an A, not an ER.” 

“Okay, then I am coming to your church on Sunday, and we are going to have a conversation with your pastor. Afterward, we are going to talk to your grandmother.”

She became frantic because she knew that I was serious. “Dr. J, please do not do that. They hate that word.”

We continued our small group discussion about the power of language and how those in power dictate the meaning of language. “Okay, Dr. J. I understand. I will try and not use the word again.”

She ended our conversation with, “Dr. J, do you have an African American girlfriend? Is that why you care?”

My soul ached as she completed those words. In that moment, I realized another truth. This young woman has never encountered a Caucasian male teacher who fought against racism. 

Dr. Joseph R. Jones

In another class, we were reading page two of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” when an African American female said, “Dr. J, you are going to get fired. We don’t want you to be fired.”

In a very puzzled manner, I responded, “Why would you say that?”

“Dr. J, we are reading a book by an African American female. We have never done that before.”

Indeed, there was a level of veracity in her words. All of the powerful female writers, especially African American female writers, were reserved for Advanced Placement English courses, because the AP exam dictated curriculum.

A few months ago, before the pandemic, I placed Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” on the desk of each student in my introductory to education course, which is comprised of freshman and sophomore college students. (McIntosh is founder of the National SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum.)

Together, we read the powerful words. We examined her words in depth. It was one of the most powerful moments of my teaching career. Students, regardless of race, began crying. The article revealed the reality of white privilege in our society; it was a reality with which only the African Americans in our class were familiar. 

Our discussions surrounding white privilege engendered my mini-lecture on generational racism in American schools and how schools have the power to dismantle it.  

The entire schooling process, from P-12, is the most powerful normalizing force in a person’s life. When students enter the school building for the first time, schools begin the process of normalizing what students have learned at home, at church, and in their neighborhoods. When a child enters his classroom, his language, his beliefs, and his treatment of difference is either normalized or unnormalized. 

Every day, educators act and react in a manner that perpetuates a supportive or non-supportive classroom culture. When a teacher refuses to address a racial slur, the action sends distinctive messages to every student in the room. To some, the message is, “Racist language is ok.” To others, the message is, “He doesn’t care about me and how that word impacts me.”

When we do not use curriculum to acknowledge the powerful contributions of non-Caucasians, we are sending a message to all of our students. When students walk into their classrooms and only see posters of white men on the wall, their belief systems about non-Caucasians are supported or rejected. 

Each day, students enter our classrooms with beliefs about African Americans (and other non-Caucasian individuals). Students are existing within the realms of stereotypes and generational beliefs that have been passed down. They have witnessed their parents’ and grandparents’ encounters with African Americans. Those moments have been internalized. Thus, when students walk through our classroom doors, all of those socially normalized beliefs about African Americans emerge. The language that their grandparents used is the only language that they know how to use. Those precious young kindergarteners have existed with one belief system about race. Schools have the power to disrupt generational racism. 

As they age and continue through each grade level, educators at all levels have reinforced what students have acquired through social normalization, or educators have challenged those beliefs. 

When the student graduates and enters into adulthood, the student has fully conceptualized a belief system about African Americans, and the schooling process is partly responsible for his or her constructed belief system. 

Recent events have illuminated the level of racism in American culture. However, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that teachers and educators across our nation will recognize their power. They have the power to address all hate language in their schools. 

I am hopeful that they will begin using curriculum to address this challenge. The next children’s book a teacher uses could impact students’ beliefs about people who are different. The next chemistry lecture could highlight the contributions of a traditionally marginalized individual to science. 

I am hopeful that English teachers across our nation will put down their traditional Caucasian texts and embrace the words of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, or Zora Neale Hurston. Students need to see themselves represented in their own educational journeys. I am hopeful that educators across our nation will realize the power of the schooling process, and this recognition will help us to understand that we can create a better world for the next generation of students. We must begin unnormalizing education.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.