‘Dear (white) teachers…’


Michael Brown graduated from high school in early August. On Aug. 9, he was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. (Elcardo Anthony )

Michael Doyle teaches biology at Bloomfield High School, an urban district in northern New Jersey, with the aim of turning young cynical hearts into skeptical ones. He worked previously as a longshoreman, a lab tech in an alcohol plant, and, more recently, a pediatrician in the projects who decided he would rather teach than practice medicine. When he is not in school, you can find him on a back bay mud flat.

His letter, from one white teacher to his white teaching colleagues, is about the responsibility they have toward their students to discuss the issues surrounding the killing by a police officer of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., as well as the killings of other young black men by police in other cities within the past month.  This ran on Doyle’s Science teacher blog.

 

By Michael Doyle

I did not know that Michael Brown. Chances are pretty good you did not either. But the name evokes strong emotions.

His color evokes strong responses.
Ferguson’s description as an “inner-ring suburb” with a “somewhat transient” black population allows readers to quietly judge a town they never knew existed until the past week–ah, but it’s OK, we know that kind of town, and those kind of people.

His size evokes adrenaline.
But you rarely read that Michael Brown was a “large man” without “black” slipped in as well.

Well, the rational abstract mind points out, those are descriptors, nothing more. Yet we hear it over and over again–because it is effective, over and over again.

Every time you read it, your amygdala, the wordless part of your brain, flashes raw fear and anger. We read the news to fire that amygdala, to feel like we’re part of something, to feel like we’re part of anything.

 


 

Michael Brown’s killing was a public act by a public official working under the authority of a publicly run department in a public space. Please read that carefully.

If you have been paying attention, you are not surprised.

Eric Garner. 
John Crawford. 
Ezell Ford. 
Dante Parker.

All young black men killed by police in different cities within the last month.
And yet we will act shocked when the next name rolls through our newsfeed.

Those of us who teach in public schools, who earn our living using public dollars, are obligated as civil servants, and more importantly, as human beings, to carry the discussion of what it means to be public. For us to be people.

I teach young adults in a public space. Their space. My space. Our space.
Race has been criminalized in our public spaces.
Has been for a long, long time.
That’s our problem.

I have long lost hope that I can much change private discourse of folks of privilege, though I bark enough that some conversations get shorted when I’m around. But silencing private conversations will not change a damn thing, despite the ooh-goody-goody dopamine dose of self-righteousness you might feel.

Let’s talk about our roles as public teachers in public spaces publicly.
Let’s remind our students (and ourselves) that the public belongs to all of us.
Let’s remember that abstractions, as powerful as they are, are not real.

I’m not looking for a Kumbaya fest. If you’re all about the neurochemical surges of joy, we’ve got Xanax for that. No, it’s time we dug into that amygdala and stare at the beast that makes us who we are.

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · August 17