Saturday, October 8, 2016

Why Saying Black Lives Matter matters




By Becca Ritchie, Member of the BAT Leadership Team and Washington State BATs 

I woke today thinking about the question one of my friends asked me. She said “I don’t get it, don’t all lives matter?” As I have moved through this thing called life, my journey has taught me many things. I am proud to say, “Black Lives Matter.” Here is what impacted my thinking and the actions in which I will be participating:

I grew up in suburban Tacoma. I remember attending a mostly Caucasian school for grades K-2. I recall lessons about Abraham Lincoln and how he “freed the slaves”. 1973 had lots of upheavals around race and as a five year old, I remember talking to the librarian while checking out a book and being very frustrated that black people didn’t like me simply because I was white. I echoed the sentiment that many others shared saying, “I never owned slaves. I don’t understand.” Oh, the naivety of a 5-year-old. During that same time, the red lining of the area I lived was evident, when looking back at historical archives. Two Jr. High Schools in my district were filled with mostly Caucasian students. One was “mixed” and then, there was Woodbrook. I remember even in Jr. High “knowing” the “good” schools and “bad” schools. It is curious that many years in the future, my first job was at Woodbrook, and I learned as much from the students as they did from me! But I digress…

When I was in 2nd grade, I had the BEST teacher. She danced with us at lunch time (I am showing my age because this was prior to a 30 minute duty free lunch), we baked on Fridays, and we learned so much about being caring human beings. I learned later in my life that my parents had to agree to have me in that class. They did the same for my brother, who had been in her class three years earlier. She was the only teacher of African descent in the building. I loved her and she taught us all how to be patient, to have fun and how to love learning. And more so, she taught me to accept people. This lesson was taught as I was the kid in class that teachers love! I always got to sit by “that kid” in my classes. You know the one that is constantly misbehaving. Two years of sitting by David in both 1st and 2nd grade helped me to understand my peers who were challenging in classes and I am sure has influenced how I interact with my most challenging students.

Thinking back on some of the conversations we have had in the Rainier Educators of Color Network, I would wager Ms. Roberson felt like an island. She had no support network at work. She had no person of color to open up to and talk with. She had us kids. As a teacher now, knowing how stuff happens, the kids are often the saving grace when building politics go askew.

So, moving forward, in Jr. High my role model and mentor for three years and then beyond, was my choir teacher: Aunt B. She looked like Barbara Streisand, only with light brown skin and freckles all over her face. Thinking back, she was the only person of color who taught at my Jr. High. She was of Samoan and African descent. Aunt B spoke with us about how in the early 80’s her families didn’t quite ever accept her. She was too “light” to be accepted by her black relatives and too “dark” for the others. She was really stuck in the middle.

She rarely went to the teacher’s lounge, which was a score for us students who did not want to be in the lunchroom. I wonder what the teacher’s lounge was like for Aunt B when she did go in. I would wager that no matter how well meaning the other teachers were, there was still a divide making her the “other” in the room. How would that feel? She knew every day that she would be in that situation. Her strength and grace was amazing. Understanding that the politics in the teacher’s lounge can be incredibly hurtful, I fully grasp why she avoided it.

So she ate with us in the choir room on a regular basis. It was a safe place to talk, be silly and to figure ourselves out. Aunt B connected with us on so many levels. She had her students when many of her colleagues may not have been welcoming and accepting. Looking back at it, she was the “other.” Even though she was an AMAZING teacher that inspired so many students, she felt she had to work double the amount of her white counter parts just to “prove” herself. But to us, she was what we wanted to aspire to, and in my career, I have often wondered in various situations, “How would Aunt B handle this student or situation?”

So this was my foundation in my early years. As I reflect on the time spent with these amazing teachers, teachers of color, who touched my life, the life of a little white girl in a mostly Caucasian school in ways they can’t possibly know, I realize how much their lives mattered to me. I wonder how Aunt B and Mrs. Roberson influenced little black girls and boys. I wonder if having these strong black women helped them see that they do matter. I wonder if they saw that Mrs. Roberson and Aunt B were the “other,” and if that impacted how they viewed their role in the world. I wonder if when they went home, they felt empowered by these women. Were these wonderful women the opening that their students of color needed to be seen, appreciated and for them to feel that they mattered, that they are viewed as the amazing human beings they are and that they can achieve their dreams just like their white counter parts?

So… why do I say, “Black Lives Matter”?

Well… given this commentary, you can see that in my heart, I have a foundational belief that each and every human being matters. As Tavis Smiley shared when talking about bringing love into the public discourse, “Everybody is equally worthy; every life has equal and precious value, JUST BECAUSE….This is love.” THIS is what I feel to the depth of my core.

That said, it is time to really think deeply about how Black Lives have mattered through our country’s history and why at this time we MUST take a stand. So let’s amble back in time.

Many people of African descent came to America, not because it was their choice, but because someone chose for them. They were viewed as primitive, stupid and were only good as possessions. Those who were running this country at that point did not believe black lives matter. They couldn’t and maintain their way of life. They needed the “free labor" that was taken from the slaves.

So finally the slaves were freed, but the commentary was that they were ignorant, predatory and full of sin. These attitudes of institutions justified segregation. Again, Caucasian people benefited from this narrative and controlled the message so their way of life was protected. Institutional racism also perpetuated the benefits that were gained by Caucasian folks.

Then, along comes the civil rights movement. After voting rights were gained and segregation was deemed illegal, the narrative about blacks being drug addicts, gangbangers, and taking advantage of welfare pervaded the news and conversations. We couldn’t let “them” vote. We couldn’t subject "our" way of life, whether you were hard working or you had a cushy life, to the votes of those “evil blacks”. This narrative was disseminated through the news, through city meetings, through PTAs and so many other venues. Again… how did Black Lives Matter during this time? Also, I know MANY people did not take part in these situations, but the fact is: the institution of the United States of America DID, and that institution protected the way of life for Caucasians—and it still does.

These are just a few examples of why we need to acknowledge that Black Lives Do Matter. We acknowledged that the lives of other ethnic groups of Americans matter- Italian, Irish, Japanese (and the list goes on)- whether through our courts or through our media, we have made progress. But we haven’t flipped the narrative on our people of African descent.

What so many Caucasians need to understand is: this is not about YOU. It simply is not. It is about a whole group of members of our country not “mattering” for centuries, through systematic and institutional racism.

It is time to take a stand. On October 19th, I will be joining my colleagues in Seattle who voted unanimously to show their students that Black Lives Matter by wearing Black Lives Matters t-shirts. In doing so, I will be honoring the memories of Aunt B and for Ms. Roberson and the many millions of other Black Lives that were marginalized and denigrated through policies that support institutional racism.

As Rev. Barber said, “We may not win this fight, but we owe it to our children for them to see us fighting.” What will you do to show them you are fighting? Join your colleagues. Wear a "Black Lives Matter" armband or t-shirt. Push your many boards and extracurricular groups to apply a racial justice lens to every proposal and situation that comes before them for consideration. Have the hard conversations with others who may not understand the history. Let your students know that even though in the past our institutions were set up so that black lives did not matter, to YOU, right here, in this moment in history and forward, YOU will stand up for them and proudly profess—BLACK LIVES MATTER .

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