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Yes, the statement “Black Lives Matter” belongs in the classroom
Editor’s Note: Last week, Rick Hess invited Julie Gunlock, the director of the Independent Women’s Forum’s center for progress and innovation, to guest blog on his Education Week opinion blog, Rick Hess Straight Up. In the second of her three guest opinion posts, Gunlock decried the “No Family Separation, Black Lives Matter, Pro Civil Liberties, Climate Change is Real” Zoom background of her son’s school administrator, characterizing it as an incursion of politics into the public schoolhouse. This post, in particular, provoked strong reader reactions both in the comments section and on social media. The debate on Twitter grew especially charged as Gunlock personally disparaged her critics. Education Week reached out to Christina Torres, a teacher and former Education Week blogger who received some of that derision, inviting her to respond.
When I tweeted a critique of your blog post on a sunny morning last week, I didn’t think much about it. While I vehemently disagree with you, nothing you wrote was that original. Many teachers have had to defend why our classrooms engage in critical conversation about social justice for years.
I do think your post did one thing well: It captured the powerful fear of anti-racist, anti-bias, or culturally responsive education that some people have.
I imagine you might tell me that you’re not afraid. Your actions show otherwise. Discussing feedback about our own ideas is the part of writing that requires the most bravery. Yet, when someone disagreed with you on Twitter, you called her “hostile.” When I questioned you, you said (in now-deleted tweets) that I was a “racist and a bad teacher.”
You may have wanted to scare me, but unlike you, I’m not afraid of talking about race. Like many other BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, and people of color—folks, I come from a family where we had to discuss it when I was a kid. I come from ancestors who were able to thrive in spite of other people’s fears and the systemic racism those fears wrought. I don’t scare easy.
I also live in a world where discussing race is no longer “a necessary evil,” as it may have felt when my parents wanted to prepare me for the world. Instead, it has resulted in difficult, beautiful, and rich conversations with some of the best people you’ll ever meet: my 8th grade students. I have students who disagree with me about politics, and we all survive! We talk about it and we all grow together.
“I also live in a world where discussing race is no longer ‘a necessary evil,’ as it may have felt when my parents wanted to prepare me for the world.”
That’s the thing: Teachers don’t just teach “content.” We never have. For generations, we have also taught our students to listen, share, and be empathetic. Teachers don’t just help students understand themselves and the world around them, we also model how to have constructive discussions with one another.
And because race plays a role in everything from housing issues to the environment to the books we read, we can’t teach students about the world without including race. The idea that in doing so, we’re pushing what you called “social-justice crap” in your tweets just isn’t true.
I can understand your fears, unfounded as they are. You’re scared schools are trying to supplant families and teach morality. That’s a discussion you don’t need to have in a vacuum. It doesn’t seem like you had teachers to help you face tough topics head-on. It doesn’t seem like you have space in your life to engage in these essential conversations. I’m sad you live in a world run by your own fear and the only defenses you have to discomfort are mockery and snarky tweets.
But I don’t want that empathy to overshadow the real crux of this discussion: your discomfort with a sign that read, “No Family Separation. Black Lives Matter. Pro Civil Liberties. Climate Change is Real.” You equated these sentiments to your own “universal truths,” including that “owning a gun is [your] constitutional right,” that “public school unions need to be dismantled,” that you “love tax cuts, dogs, red lipstick, and good French bread.”
Here’s the problem with your false equivalence: Gun control, school choice, and unions are nuanced policy issues with arguments to be made both pro and con.
What exactly is the other side of the position that “Black Lives Matter”? That Black lives … don’t matter? The statements you oppose aren’t policy positions. The statements you oppose recognize the humanity of Black people, affirm that families shouldn’t be forcibly separated, validate that climate change is scientific fact, and remind us that our Constitutional civil liberties are important.
None of those statements should be politically partisan issues; they are merely factual, compassionate understandings of the world around us. (In fact, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel ruled that using the phrase “Black Lives Matter” isn’t inherently political.)
Yet, you politicized these issues. Why? What right do any of us have to debate the worthiness of the Black community? It is racist against Black people to suggest that a display of “Black Lives Matter” is equivalent to a display of your thoughts on union policy or your feelings on bread. Neither you nor I can imagine the pain of having to watch people online debate whether our lives matter.
Here’s the kicker: You could be part of the solution. You could listen to Black voices and learn. Discussing my curriculum with families has led to awesome moments for all of us—in my classroom and their homes.
Also, despite your claim that I’m racist, I have many white friends! I even have a white husband! All joking aside, one of the many things I love about all my friends, regardless of race, is that we’re not afraid to have meaningful conversations with each other, including about race.
Whether I’m teaching or writing for places like Education Week, I think a lot about legacy. What will people see when they remember me as a teacher or look at my writing? Right now, when people search your name, they’ll see the words of a woman who was too scared to answer tough questions and who then deleted her personal attacks without apology.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. One of the beautiful things I’ve learned as a teacher is that we never stop learning and evolving. There’s still a chance for you to be brave and join us in having some important discussions about race in our country.
When you’re ready to have those conversations, I’ll be here, ready to listen.