Erika Harrell is outreach and organizing manager of Democrats for Education Reform DC.

Raise your hand if you have experienced racism at school.

Was it the teacher who threw staples at you because she thought this was the only way “your kind of people” would pay attention? Was it the teacher who said Black and Latino students “weren’t good at math” and would always fail his class? Was it the police officer who arrested you during a schoolwide fight because you “looked like you were trying to get into trouble”? Or was it the teacher who ignored you until she realized you tested well?

If your hand is still down, then pull up a seat. You have some things to learn today.

Being educated in U.S. public schools is exhausting when you’re a person of color. It feels even harder when you are a parent helping your children navigate racist systems, because protecting your own kids depends on people within those systems valuing your child as much as you do rather than seeing their skin color as a crime.

The first judgment may come in the classroom, from teachers, school leaders or parents. Occasionally, it comes — blatantly, publicly — from an elected official, as we’ve recently seen here in D.C., from a person whose job is to represent all children but who apparently has been secretly fearful of the Black ones.

I moved to D.C. eight years ago when I married my high school sweetheart and best friend. I chose D.C. because, in my calculation and experience, it was the safest place to raise my Black boys. They could see a version of who they could become, represented in all levels of society.

To an extent, D.C. has fulfilled that promise, despite some of the racist teachers my children have had or the frequent arrests they see of Black men. The Black Lives Matter movement has made them start to believe that despite what they’d experienced, the world would care if our broken systems attempted to break them or end their lives.

I’ve committed 11 years of my life to reforming education so that more children could grow into adults who continue to dismantle racism, while also reaching their full potential.

But in this moment, I have been fighting against the frustration over how slowly change comes. George Floyd’s dying words play repeatedly in my head: “Mama.” “Mama” is a badge of honor, but it feels torturous when someone else’s baby is dying publicly on the street. I think about what it means to mother through racist systems, particularly in schools, where the goal of growing healthy children — regardless of skin color — should be shared.

I think about the at-large member of D.C.’s State Board of Education, herself a mother, who will never know the pain I feel experiencing racism over and over again — as my husband and children have. In her shaking voice and panic, she emphasized a toddler’s Blackness in her defense of police presence in schools. It makes me fearful for any families of color that send their children to schools where some of the teachers and staff may share her fears. I know what that kind of mind-set has meant for my family — and it’s traumatic to say the least.

I’ve never known a Black man who hasn’t felt threatened or harassed by police, and I have known many who experienced the same treatment from staff members in schools. Too many have stared down the barrel of a police gun since their childhood years or were overly disciplined in class for fitting a “profile.” One of my sons is named after his father’s childhood friend who was gunned down by police because he was playfully running home while there happened to be a nearby crime.

It feels like the hurt of racism is everywhere. I am exhausted by having to constantly defend my community, my children and myself. Our education system and leaders should value Blackness rather than see it as a threat to monitor; until they do, people like the State Board of Education member will continue to expect the police and education system to value her whiteness and protect her child from children like mine.

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