The Time I Got Called Racist for Teaching Middle Schoolers About Prison
Only by bringing such patterns into the light of day can you begin to undo the harm they have caused
One morning, the principal of my school called me into her office. “Mr. Wright, I got a call from one of the parents,” she said. “She complained that you were promoting racism.”
As a Black man, it’s not exactly a usual occurrence to be accused of being racist — let alone as a teacher. The parent in question had a child in one of my most challenging periods that year, a group of eighth graders. The majority of the students were male and Black; the student who complained wasn’t.
In my eight years as an educator, I’ve been no stranger to challenging environments. I’ve worked in schools where 100% of students came from free- and reduced-lunch backgrounds, where students didn’t have running water, where gang life was embedded in the social environment of the city. None of it made a difference to my teaching; I believe that all students can learn and deserve a fair and even approach. I knew that not all the students I taught would be Black, and so I have always fought to maintain a reasonable balance between teaching what was most needed while avoiding bias in my teaching. I haven’t always succeeded — but up until that moment, I had never heard any complaints about my content.
My principal knew that I taught eighth-grade history, which in Georgia basically amounts to Georgia studies. I covered events like the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement in detail; I never got calls when I covered these topics. I showed a documentary about Kalief Browder, who died in Riker’s Island three years after being imprisoned without trial, as well as Ava DuVernay’s 13th; it wouldn’t have surprised me if I’d gotten calls about those, but I never did. It wasn’t until I told my class about the school-to-prison pipeline that I got my warning.
At one point, my counselor told me to avoid being too radical, to not put so much emphasis on the role race has played in America. I agreed with him, but I also believe in telling the truth…