By MJ Ali
When I was in sixth grade, we had a substitute teacher who read to us from an illustrated book that negatively portrayed a specific ethnic group, not just in the illustrations, but in the story. And because it was an ethnic group to which I belonged, I felt like crawling through the floor.
When she got to a page that had a deliberately incorrect translation vilifying the character in the book and making him a warmongering murderer, I was moved to raise my hand.
“That phrase means peace to all, not death to all.”
The teacher — who had no knowledge or understanding of the language being translated — silenced me and made me sit in the back of the class facing the wall as punishment.
This experience was part of what started me down a path of activism and advocacy. But I’m not thanking that substitute teacher for it. I’m thanking my parents, my friends, and adults I looked up to, including my regular teacher in that class. Even if no one stood up during class, my parents and teacher definitely did when they found out. (That substitute teacher did not know my Mom!)
I have since heard accounts of in-school trauma that are far more insidious, and unfortunately hard to believe for some, but nonetheless real and present. Racial and other bias-based trauma in schools is a serious issue that affects the students targeted, their families, other students witnessing the trauma, and the school system. It touches everyone on some level.
Speaking out can be scary, and because response and action are often inadequate if not retaliatory, many choose not to say anything.
Advocating for someone who has experienced racial or other bias-based trauma in school is something everyone benefits from. Parents, teachers, classmates, family and friends all contribute to enacting change and growth. There is strength in numbers.
Providing the education and training necessary for teachers to be able to advocate for, understand, and deliver an inclusive curriculum is an ongoing challenge. We can’t rely solely on an educational system to ensure our youth are being encouraged in ways that are accepting, supportive and inclusive. It’s everyone’s responsibility to confront injustice and actively advocate change. It makes us all better for it.