I had a very upsetting/disappointing interaction today in a class I’ve been working with for almost two weeks. I don’t really know how to start, so I’m just going to jump right in.
Last Thursday and Friday I had to be at a different school, so my amazing intern taught the two afternoon classes for me. When I came in today one of the students who is pretty vocal was talking to me, and he said that he was glad that I’m back because he didn’t like my intern. Concerned, I asked if anything happened and if something had happened that upset him. My intern didn’t mention anything, so I thought that maybe he just misheard or misunderstood something. But he said, “I didn’t like her pin…” and then another student told him to be quiet and leave it alone.
So I thought, what pin does she have that he would have seen?
My intern has one pin that’s a gender equity symbol, but I also have that pin on my badge, so it can’t be that one. The only other pin she has is this one:
This student made a special effort to tell me that he didn’t like that my intern has a Black Lives Matter button on her badge. (I just added my button to my badge this afternoon when I got home.)
The organization I work for is non-political. We help and serve all youth regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or politics. I wear the pins I do in order to show the youth I work with that I am a safe person. I had a rainbow flag pin that I used to wear as well, but I’ve lost it somewhere. I can’t tell you the number of students who told me that they appreciate it. Or in this exact rural Iowa school how many students have made eye contact and smiled once they saw it (in the case of kids who aren’t out or who don’t feel safe acknowledging it out loud). I wear pins so that students can know immediately if they need to be on their guard for whether or not I’m going to judge them for their identity (which I never would anyway, but there’s no way they could know that when we first meet).
I had chosen not to wear my BLM pin because I liked it on the cork board on my door more than my name badge, but no more. I was so shocked when I registered what the student was referring to, and more disappointed in a student than I have been in a long time. This kid is a good kid. He seems to be interested in the lessons I’m teaching. He participates with meaningful and thoughtful answers and questions. He’s attentive and engaged. This can be pretty rare when I’m teaching sexual health in a rural school. I’m happy to see him every time. And then today, this. I don’t know his life. I don’t know where he learned racism. And I’m not going to treat him any different than any other day. But when I drove the half an hour home I debated whether or not to put my BLM pin on my badge.
I never want to push any student away or make them feel uncomfortable. Well, not more uncomfortable than they already might feel when discussing reproductive organs. So I thought, I’ll just wait until I’m done at this school this week and then put it on for all future interactions. Pick your battles.
And I do believe that it’s important in my career to choose when your efforts will have an impact and when it’s just emotional labor that’s not going to make a difference.
I was completely decided. I’ll just wait. But then I realized that the only reason I have this option is because I am white. My white privilege allows me to make this choice. I can decide not today. I’m not going to pick this battle in a school where I barely feel like I can make an impact teaching gender and sexuality information. But what does that say about me? I’m willing to put forward the effort if I think it’s beneficial to me? When it’s easy for me?
If I chose to ignore this that student would see me as complicit in his hate. And I would be. It’s literally my job to challenge stereotypes and to teach youth about difficult and complicated and stigmatized topics. And I won’t let him down like that. I refuse to remain silent. I can do this tiny thing that might make an impact. And it probably won’t. Worst case scenario he stops participating and starts trying to derail the lessons. I hope he doesn’t. But if he does it will give me an opportunity to talk to him about the struggles and oppressions people of color – specifically African Americans – face.
I have many sources of privilege, and I’m not going to be afraid to stand up for others whose oppression I benefit from every day. I hate that I do. But this is the world we live in, and I can do this one small thing to show others that I support them and that I want to lift up their voices in the fight for their lives. I don’t know if this is the perfect solution to this instance. Maybe there isn’t one. But it’s better than remaining silent without even attempting to challenge the racism I saw today.
I’m not writing this to be self-congratulatory. There are so many more people doing much bigger and better things, and this is just me wearing a pin. I wrote this to process through this interaction and to remind myself and maybe others who read this that we have to do what we can to let people know that we will not tolerate hate. I didn’t immediately register what he was referring to, and so I didn’t handle his comments in the moment, and this might be too little and too late. I don’t know.
Black Lives Matter