“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.

 

One afternoon this fall, Zach Gonzalez — a history, economics, and sociology teacher at U-32 High School in East Montpelier — set up his U.S. History class in two circles: a larger one on the outskirts of the room, and a second in the center. It was a “fishbowl” discussion; students alternated into the small circle to participate.

 

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.

 

This silence is common in classrooms when the topic of race arises. Students and teachers identify several causes. There is apprehension from students of color who have been hurt in classroom discussions. Conservative students often don’t feel welcome to voice their opinion. Many students fear saying something insensitive. U-32, similar to other Vermont schools, is making efforts to combat these issues.

 

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

 

A ‘Safe Space’?

 

Race is often a topic in classrooms, but some students of color say it is often somewhat superficial.

 

U-32 senior Monarch Sulton’El said they they had had good discussions in some classes but 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 the Panthers as a violent group was especially hurtful for Sulton’El, whose grandfather was a Panther.

 

Sophomore Yolanda Bansah is another student of color who 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.”

 

Bansah has also been hurt in the classroom. Once at her middle school, before coming to U-32, the lights were turned off and a student in her class asked “Where’d Yolanda go?” with no response from the teacher.

 

Coming from experiences like these, some things that might not seem damaging to others have been harmful to Bansah. One example was when a teacher used a circle prompt: “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. During spirit week this year, U-32 had Decade Day, where people dressed as a decade of the past. One teacher came to school in a 70’s costume that included 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.

 

“I feel like I’m constantly playing the role of a teacher trying to educate people on racial issues, racial justice issues and race,” Bansah said. “That should not be my job because it is not. It is a teacher’s job.”

 

Some of U-32’s conversations have been well planned out, with the best intent, and still hurt some students of color. In 2019, U-32’s Seeking Social Justice club organized discussions across the school community about a proposed policy change, banning the Confederate flag at school. They set up conversations in teacher advisories, academic classes and in the library. They invited Netdahe Stoddard, an anti-racist activist, to talk with students, including those who opposed banning the flag.

 

Despite this careful planning, the discussions sometimes got heated and students like Sulton’El were hurt. “It was awful,” they said. “People were just spewing racism.” Sulton’El said that because it was a “safe space,” teachers allowed those opinions and didn’t step in.

 

Meg Allison, a U-32 librarian and the co-advisor of Seeking Social Justice, said she had tried to get more conservative voices to the discussions: “We definitely wanted to hear from them.” Most students who came in opposition to the ban didn’t speak up during the conversations in the library, according to Allison. However, looking back, she said she felt the discussions had been advertised too much as a debate.

 

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

 

Boyd said that when these discussions start, students of color prepare to be hurt. Afterward, 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.’”

 

“What the hell is that?” Boyd asked. “That’s not a safe space!”

 

The Conservative Minority

 

Boyd said he noticed another group of students who are isolated: conservative students, who are in the minority at U-32, and especially the ones who 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.”

 

Boyd knows that, as the one Black male faculty member, people don’t expect him to talk much with conservative students, but Boyd has developed 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.

 

“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!”

 

Because of their lower numbers in U-32 classrooms, conservative students tend to hold back in discussions. Senior Carter Hoffman said he has sometimes been “the only conservative or neutral student” in a class, and that being in a school that is vastly liberal can pressure conservative students “to not speak up because they feel like an outlier.”

 

Hoffman said he often hasn’t felt heard in class discussions. On one occasion, he took part in a “short argument” on the Black Lives Matter flag. Hoffman had attempted to say, “I just don’t think something like a school should be having political views to represent the school as a whole [when they don’t].” He said the class didn’t seem to want to hear him out.

 

Sometimes, Hoffman said, classes can feel more welcoming. One discussion that Hoffman said went well was in English class last year, when he presented his research paper on the question of defunding the police. He felt that he got across to some people with his use of statistics and numbers, which made it harder to dismiss him.

 

Hoffman said he knows some people don’t want to listen to him, but said that in history class, especially, he’s still“ been able to speak up and have reasonable arguments with people in a respectful manner.”

 

‘An Edge in the Air’

 

All the tension surrounding race and racism contributes to students fearing saying “the wrong thing.” When a student voices an “incorrect” or uneducated opinion, their peers shut it down.

 

Zach 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 saw this in her U.S. history class. She described a discussion when a student said affirmative action disadvantaged white applicants. 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

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.”

 

Work in Progress

 

There are efforts at U-32 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 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 diverse in their 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.”

 

In the high school, Zach Gonzalez continually tries to adapt to students’ different needs and support healthy discussion. 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 believes 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,” he said.

 

Sulton’El had Gonzalez last year in U.S. History, and appreciated his hard work.

 

“All the units, obviously, involved some amount of racism,” they said, “and he did a really good job talking about it.”

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