Lessons my students taught me about racism and 3 small steps we can take towards tackling it

Lessons my students taught me about racism and 3 small steps we can take towards tackling it
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I cannot tell you the number of times in the past two weeks I’ve heard Charlotteans say that the Charleston shooting “hit close to home.” I’ve also heard a lot of “that would never happen here.”

This statement could not be less true. This is where I feel the need to correct my neighbors and show them just how our beloved city is not exempt from racism as evidenced by the fire at Briar Creek Baptist Church.

Even though I live 220 miles from Emanuel AME Church, I am not far from the race issue that exists in our city. In fact, most of my days are spent in the trenches fighting this battle.

I teach in a high priority high school where 37% of the student population is African American and 47% is Hispanic. These minority students are bewildered by our nation’s actions and uncertain of their future because of the stories the media spews at them.

Without guidance, they accept the fact that their skin color determines their destiny. They begin to believe the stereotypes.

In the two years that I have been a teacher, unspeakable violence has occurred toward minorities in our country—and in our own city. This is not something I believe I can ignore in my classroom, particularly as a white teacher standing in front a room full of minority students.

The beauty of my job is that more often than not, my students are the ones teaching me.

This is not a far-fetched adage from teachers; it’s reality. My students have no problem being honest with me and we have spent multiple class periods discussing the “race issue” our country faces today.

They tell me about their experiences: they are regularly followed down the street by cops, ridiculed for their heritage, and deemed suspicious due to their skin color. But they also see the need for change and want to be catalysts for that change.

At the end of a lengthy discussion following the Baltimore riots earlier this year, we did not have a mutual consensus about the “right thing” in that situation. But one student said: “We’ve got to do something about this.”

And she is right.

Unfortunately, my students’ voices cannot be heard at the same volume as others’; they are drowned out by the headlines that enforce the stereotypes. That leaves me to raise my voice for them, to take the lessons they have taught me and put them into practice.

Here are 3 things we believe our city should do to truly tackle racism in our city:

(1) Start a conversation. It’s time for open dialogue between races. The best way to begin is to ask someone in your workplace to coffee or invite a neighbor over for dinner or a play date. Get to know the people around you rather than continuing to make assumptions.

(2) Take a drive. One of the most humbling things I have ever done is drive through the neighborhoods in which my students live. You know those areas of Charlotte you avoid or crinkle your nose at? People live there. For some, it’s all they have. Expose yourself to how others live so that you can understand them better.

(3) Get involved. Take an afternoon off work and spend the afternoon at an organization like Urban Ministry Center or Crisis Assistance. This will help you get to know the people in our city who walk the streets. Many of them are minorities seeking ways to reintegrate into society. We can help be part of their success stories by providing services that get them a job interview or provide a meal and a place to sleep. There are also opportunities to volunteer at elementary schools, where you can mentor children who are already far below grade level.

These steps are only the beginning to breaking down the barriers that racism has built up. But I am confident that if we come together, we can cultivate change in our city.

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