Op-Ed

Annalee Abell: How do I talk to my students about racism?

During my time as an educator, I have learned one vital lesson: Kids want the truth. As a teacher, I always try to utilize every precious moment I spend with my kids and turn them into teaching moments. In so many ways, I have been able to put positive spins on just about anything.

However, given the recent racial events in our country, I have struggled to explain the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions. I teach in one of New Orleans' infamous low-income charter schools and the majority of my students are black, so race issues mean a great deal to them.

Want proof that we don't live in a colorblind society? Don't turn on the news, just ask one of my students.

Two days ago, one of my students walked into class visibly upset. Upon further inspection, he revealed to me that he had been stopped while walking on St. Charles Avenue around 5 p.m. by a white cop who informed him that he was breaking the curfew order. My honor roll student proceeded to tell me that he had never been more afraid of law enforcement.

In that moment, I was genuinely at a loss for words. I couldn't help but wonder how I could reassure my student or say something, anything, to make him feel better. It was a reminder that what W.E.B. DuBois described in his The Souls of Black Folk is still very much alive — the reality that black Americans live in what DuBois describes as a feeling of double consciousness.

He writes that being a black American makes you different and that being black and being American cannot be separated. DuBois writes, "One ever feels his twoness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."

That white officer likely did not mean any harm toward my student, but pain was accomplished nonetheless. Forget the fact that the New Orleans curfew order is mostly reserved for the French Quarter and that it doesn't begin until 8 p.m.

In that moment, the officer managed to wrongfully frighten yet another young black man, which reinforced the idea that police officers view young black men as a threat.

My student's story reminded me that it is not just laws or curfew orders that suppress black Americans, but the subconscious mentality of white America as well.

It is a mentality that promotes the idea that black life is simply not as valuable as white life and that blacks are dangerous.

So how do we change the American psyche? How do we create a world where a 14-year-old black boy feels safe in his own city?

This is surely an issue that will persist throughout the decades, but we must do more as a nation to ensure all Americans feel valued. Until then we will never achieve the color-blind society that, at times, feels as though it will always be a dream deferred.

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