The greatest gift teaching has given me is that I see all kids as my kids. I’ve taught a wide variety of students and I claim all of them as mine. I have a pretty open door policy in my classroom. If you have ever been on my attendance list then you can come calling. If you need something come see me, but I reserve the right to holler at you in the hallway when you are acting a fool. You are mine. You are my kid until you graduate and often beyond.
When I saw the video of DaJerria Becton wearing a swimsuit with a grown man brutalizing her in the name of justice, what I saw was my student, what I saw was my kid. I teach freshmen. 14 year olds going on 15. I watch the way the girls twist in their seats and try out new outfits.I watch them take their first steps into being a woman, complimenting a new lip gloss or a particularly funky t-shirt. I watch them and remember how awkward and exhilarating having a newly shaped body can be. I remember who vulnerable it felt to just be walking around in my own body.
I remember being 14 and in a bikini, proud of my shape and terrified of people looking at me. I remember hoping someone would notice. When I looked at that video all I saw was a child with a grown man on her back, and I shuddered at the thought of a man touching my 14-year-old skin.
How did this happen? Maybe this is the part where you want to tell me that this happened because of a bad seed, that the man has been fired and suspended and we should just move on. There was a time when I told myself that too. I am not racist. I can’t be. Not possible.
It is uncomfortable to dismantle the lies we picked up from the world around us. But my discomfort is worth the dignity of DeJerria Becton. If it takes me getting uncomfortable to make her and all other black children safe, then it is time to get uncomfortable.
There is a long and uncomfortable history of white people reading groups of black teenagers as dangerous. There is a long and uncomfortable history of white people teaching other white people that groups of black people are dangerous. I wish I could say that this has disappeared, but I have heard too many comments about my neighborhood, about my child’s school, to pretend there aren’t things still said to make a person afraid of black children.
Most white people see a black child and think that they are much older than they are. Part of it is cross-cultural misidentification. Part of it is simply what our world has taught us. When I read the studies about black children consistently being identified as older and more aggressive than their white peers (even if their behaviors were exactly the same) I recognized this as true because I know that I have done it, seen a group of black children as a danger simply because they are black. I’ve written before about my own gross assumptions, about my students. I have admitted before the unwarranted terror I had to unlearn when it came to black children that looked to me like dangerous adults.
I don’t talk about it out of a sense of guilt or a way to absolve myself. I tell you so that we can uncover the lies together. I tell you because seeing all children as mine, as God’s, as ours together has made my life better and more beautiful. I tell you to invite you to do the same.
With the recognition of this uncomfortable history, comes the power to dismantle it. I can see more clearly the dignity and humanity of all people, in ways I didn’t even know I was blind to. And my blindness wasn’t just an unfortunate circumstance for me. It was hurting my students, my neighbors, my friends. Our discomfort in seeing our own prejudices is worth the dignity of all people. DeJerria Becton is worth that much to me.