“An Edge in the Air,” How U-32 Struggles to Discuss Race

This article was written by Finley Torrens-Martin, a sophomore at U-32.


On Tuesday, October 19, Zach Gonzalez– a history, economics, and sociology teacher at U-32– set up his US History class in two circles: a larger one on the outskirts of the room, and a second in the center. It was a “fishbowl,” so students alternated into the small circle to participate in the discussion.


The smaller circle of five students prepared to start their discussion on the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Gonzalez had assigned homework the previous class to develop questions about an article they read. They held their papers in front of them.


Once Gonzalez had given the directions and everyone was ready for their five minute discussion he said, “On your mark, get set, group one.” 


Silence followed Gonzalez’s words. The students sitting in the center looked at each other and down at their papers. Every once in a while someone spoke up to briefly voice a statement, then the silence resumed. 


Finally, Gonzalez entered the circle. He asked if anyone had any quotes from the text they could refer to. Students made a few comments but mostly stayed silent still.


This silence is common when the topic of race arises in the classroom. Students and teachers identify several reasons. There is apprehension from students, some who fear saying something insensitive, some being students of color who have been hurt. Some students recognize problems with the way U-32 teaches about race. 


Zach Gonzalez’s US history class watches a video on the Battle of Fredericksburg


One reason for the silence, according to students and teachers, is the fear of saying the wrong thing. When a student voices an opinion that the class sees as incorrect or uneducated, their peers are often ready to shut it down. The result, Gonzalez said, is that “a lot of students are apprehensive to talk about race.” 


Gonzalez saw this in his sociology class when race came up. “There is just an edge in the air,” he said, “where, sometimes, people are waiting to call someone out.”


U-32 Senior and Seeking Social Justice member, Abby Brown, said she had seen this in her US history class. When the question of whether or not affirmative action disadvantages white applicants came up, one student said it did. Brown said the class immediately spoke up to drown out that comment.


“I wish everybody could voice their opinion, even if it’s something I disagree with,” Brown said, “because I do want people to feel like their opinions matter.” 


Abby Brown and Meg Allison prepare for a statewide forum on the BLM Flag


Abby Brown recognized that some comments should not be tolerated. But she felt there was a better way to go about this. 


“They can learn by voicing what they think and having discussions about it,” she said, “instead of just feeling isolated and not talking about it.”


The fear students of color feel is another factor in our quiet classrooms.


Many students of color can speak to instances of hurt they have experienced in their time at U-32. 


U-32 senior Monarch Sulton’El is one of them. They remembered a discussion that was part of U-32’s process in banning the confederate flag in 2019. 


According to Sulton’El, the discussion contained a lot of racist statements. The teacher moderators didn’t step in, and said that because it was a ‘safe space’ those opinions were allowed and the teachers must remain allies to everyone. Sulton’El argues that there are some things that don’t need to be permitted. 


“It was awful,” they said, “People were just spewing racism.”


Sophomore, Yolanda Bansah, is another student of color who has been hurt in U-32 classrooms.


Bansah said she felt that teachers do not consider how her experience would be different as a Black student. One example of this was when a teacher used a circle prompt that seemed harmless but actually hurt Bansah. 


The prompt was ‘If you could go back to any decade, which would you choose?’


 “Why do you ask that question?” Yolanda asked, looking  back. “It doesn’t matter what time I travel back to. Any time would be worse than now.”


Yolanda Bansah working in the U-32 library


Bansah also said she noticed problems with cultural appropriation at U-32. She said on Decade Day this year, one teacher came to school in an afro wig and Bansah only saw students and teachers complimenting the teacher. 


“I felt so extremely uncomfortable and offended,” said Bansah, “’If I had worn my natural hair today would everyone think I’m simply ‘dressing up’ also?’”


In one of her classes, a student said the teacher’s ‘costume’ ‘totally deserves to win’. Bansah said she had to explain to the student that the wig was cultural appropriation.


Bansah said she feels like this lack of discussion creates a silence that she has been forced to step into. “I feel like I’m constantly playing the role of a teacher trying to educate people on racial issues, racial justice issues, and race,” said Bansah. “That should not be my job because it is not. It is a teachers’ job.”


John Boyd is a special educator at U-32 who also supervises and participates in the BLAMM (Black, Latino, Asian, and Many More) club. As one of two Black staff members, Boyd has had many students come to him after class discussions that had gone awry. 


Boyd said that when these discussions start, students of color prepare to be hurt. Afterwards, the students sometimes struggle with their pain for the rest of the day.


 “The more they think about it, the more they [think] ‘Well, I can’t go back to that class. I can’t go to my next class,’” Boyd said.


Boyd said these ‘safe spaces’ are only safe for students doing the hurting. “And [students of color] have to sit there and take it, and as soon as they react negatively, people [say] ‘Well this was a safe space. I get to say that here,’” – Boyd said. “What the hell is that? That’s not a safe space!”


While the safe spaces were damaging for BIPOC students, Boyd said he noticed another group of students who are isolated: Conservative students, who are in the minority at U-32. They also often join the tech program. Boyd said tech students’ absence from the school for most of the day isolates them further. 


Boyd said the rest of U-32 leaves this group of students to themselves. “There’s no students stopping by and talking to them,” he said. “There’s no teacher stopping by to talk to them.”


So Boyd chooses to disrupt this isolation by developing relationships with these students. “I make a point of walking through that group every morning and speaking to each and every one of them,” he said.


Boyd knows that, as the one Black male faculty member, people don’t expect him to talk much with conservative students, but that is part of why he does. 


“I’m not going to let them put me into some category of ‘that one Black guy,’” he said, laughing. “I’m from the south, I used to hunt alligators, and I probably know more bluegrass music than they do!”


Some students identify problems with how U-32 teaches about race as another factor in the silence. 


Monarch Sulton’El said they felt the teachers often missed opportunities to talk about race. “For example, Black History Month was ignored,” they said. “Even MLK day, nobody talks about it.” 


Sulton’El noticed the lack of education on Malcolm X and the Black Panthers in particular. They said they hadn’t learned about Malcolm X before 2020, and that they have found most of their education on Black History from TikTok.


Sulton’El said that any information in school about the Black Panthers is almost always negative. The treatment of them as a violent group was especially hurtful, as Sulton’El’s grandfather was a Panther. 


Bansah also said that teachers sometimes don’t adequately address race, when they could. She was disappointed, during a class discussion of military conscription, when her teacher had a picture of Muhammed Ali on the board, but didn’t say anything about Ali. 


“Personally I know why he was up there” she said, “ but I doubt the rest of the class knew.”  


There have been efforts to go deeper with education about race. One example is in the middle school. 


Steve Sheeler, an eighth grade social studies teacher, has been doing a lot of work this year with his 8th grade classes. The class spent the beginning weeks of the year learning about Indigenous people, their history, and how it has been mistold. 


Sheeler and librarian Meg Allison, asked the students to go through our library’s collection of books by and about Indigenous people.


8th grade native history projects outside the library


The students then have three options; keep the book if they think it’s a good example, include a disclaimer at the beginning saying that the book holds some hurtful stereotypes, or remove the book from the library if it does too much harm to be provided in school libraries.  


Sheeler takes this removal very seriously. “We’re not looking to ban books,” he said.


In his approach to discussion, Sheeler said he knows that his students are different and have different needs. He adapts by offering options for students to present their opinions in different formats, such as exit cards, discussion responses, etc.


Sheeler tries to be understanding with his teaching but also not ignore the issues. “We’re not looking to shame anybody,” he said, “but we need to understand what happened in the past, and acknowledge what’s happening right now.”


Zach Gonzalez also tries to adapt to students’ different needs.  He often teaches through a case study or shared reading. This way, he said, people can have a good discussion without having to talk about their personal opinions and experiences if they don’t want to. 


Gonzalez realized his students aren’t usually intending harm.  “It’s very rare that I’ve experienced students raising their hand to share explicitly racist opinions,” he said. He sees many people voicing well intentioned, but badly worded sentiments. 


On the rare occasion someone says something “explicitly racist,” Gonzalez doesn’t aim to shame his students:


 “When there is a 15 or 16 year old in front of me and they say something,I don’t personally believe, it’s a hardened belief inside them.”

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