Teen students talk racism and educators listen

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by David Sheridan

Earlier this year, NEA and the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) brought together teenage students and educators from the Dallas-Arlington area to talk about institutional racism and how it affects the students’ lives.

And the educators learned a vital truth about today’s teens: They are acutely aware of racial discrimination in America, and given the opportunity, will engage in robust conversations about racism’s impact on them and our society.

As one participant, Luis, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, later said: “You created a place where I felt safe to discuss the difficult subject of racism and the fact that I am undocumented. It was cathartic.”

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Paola, a 18-year-old high school senior, reported she came away from the meeting feeling more “hopeful and courageous—I am more likely now to speak up when someone says something dehumanizing and racist.”

The educators in attendance also heard things that were painful to hear. One student from Africa related that when her teacher had trouble pronouncing her name and she tried to help, the teacher mocked her: “Do we have any other Bunqueeshas or Shenaquas in the class?” Another student reported hearing his math teacher say in class to a Muslim student: “I can see you making a bomb.”

What’s more, when surveyed, these teens said they thought institutional racism seriously impacted the success of individual students in public schools. “Because our school is considered ‘ghetto’ and lower scoring, it is provided with less opportunities and supplies than predominately white schools,” noted one student.

“The students’ stories are unforgettable,” said NEA Executive Committee member George Sheridan, who participated in the meet-up. “Their courage and determination are inspiring, and their generosity and willingness to help others can give us all renewed hope. I’d like to see this kind of student convening replicated in districts all across America.”

Everything learned from the Dallas-Arlington teens has been confirmed by Newsweek’s recently released “The State of the American Teenager.

Replicating key questions asked 50 years ago in the first State of the American Teenager, the Harris Poll surveyed 2,057 teens, ages 13 to 17, from diverse backgrounds across the country, about a wide range of subjects including politics, education and popular culture.

The “most compelling findings” show that race and discrimination are crucial issues for teens today. In 1966, 44 percent of American teens thought racial discrimination would be a problem for their generation. Today, nearly twice as many—82 percent—say it will be problem for their generation. The outlook is even more alarming among black teens: Ninety-one percent think discrimination is here to stay, up from 33 percent in 1966.

The statistics are stunning. Newsweek writer Abigail Jones concluded: “Discrimination has always been an American battleground, but teens today are growing up in a world where it seeps into the crevices of everyday life in new and sinister ways.”

Says teacher Karily Garcia, one of the organizers of the NEA-TSTA convening, “As educators we have to be there for our students, helping them navigate today’s minefield of racial discrimination, and reminding them what Martin Luther King said: ‘Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.’”

Reader Comments

  1. Hi

    I coordinate the LeaderKids program in Fort Worth. Partnership between Leadership Fort Worth and FWISD. I would like to get in touch with the teacher organizer Karily Garcia NEA TSTA mentioned in the article.

    Or Talk to someone a bit more about this conference.

  2. Even though our administrators think all their behavior management strategies and 1 to 1 technology programs are fixing this, they really aren’t. Giving an iPad to the girl from Guatemala who never even saw a personal computer before she came to the United States would be more useful if we had a curriculum (or just space within our curriculum) to teach her how to type. Jumping on every “innovative” bandwagon will not change institutional racism, it will only continue that shameful legacy.

  3. I hope the adults who attended/facilitated this student gathering will use the student feedback to evaluate their programs, policies and procedures. Reading these students’ experiences with racism reinforces to me the importance of the Department of Education and State/Local Education Agencies prioritizing anti-racism training as a mandatory part of teacher development and professional socialization. These student experiences also reinforce the importance of SEAs/LEAs adopting principles and practices of trauma-informed organizational development among education agencies, at all levels. The incidents students report here are likely instances of race-based so-called”microagressions” they will accumulate over time. What an unnecessary stress to place on children/adults who care for them. Neuroscience and social science research shows cumulative trauma/historical trauma can have negative impacts on health and well-being into adulthood. Impacts on social/mental/physical health, employment, parenting habits, and other quality-of-life indicators. A significant part of the Educational Equity framework must include a mandate for trauma-informed principles/practice in education, anti-racism training and social justice lenses in pre-service teacher preparation programs and post-service professional development.

  4. Image if this same type of form was created with the DoDEA atmosphere, I wonder if how many would listen and what type of impact it would have in the educational world. Imagine if this is being said to children, what adults are saying and doing to other adults; these supposedly colleagues.

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