Hello. You don't know me, but many of you, and your parents, hate my guts. I don't hate you. At all. I understand completely, and fully, that I do not know you. But I do know one thing: you and I have a chance to learn from each other.
I am a high school Librarian. I LOVE my job. I LOVE my school and my students. I think of them as my own children. If I worked in your school, I would think of you as my own children, too. It's a magical thing that happens to teachers: our hearts stretch, the longer we are in a classroom, and we find our capacity for love increases with the number of children we get to know. I hope that in this letter, I can be of some service to you.
I grew up poor, white, and rural. I dreamed of having clean, white leather tennis shoes and pants long enough to cover my skinny ankles. Instead, I had funky Kmart burgundy tennis shoes and hand-me-down jeans, floods--showing off 3 inches of mismatched socks. My immediate family was unabashedly racist. It bothered me. I grew up, somehow made it to college, and learned better, because I liked to read, and the university I attended was a great one. I became a school librarian because I love books, and I love kids.
Several weeks back, a friend of mine messaged me a picture her husband sent her from the Perry football game he was attending. You were the opposing team. Some of you had painted a big banner that read, "Trump Perry." It was in all red, white and blue, and the President's hair was drawn over his name. In the picture, you were behind the banner. You looked like an all-white crowd dressed in red, white, and blue, holding your arms out with a #1, or, in a few cases, flipping the bird.
I gaped at it, stunned. Then I went to Brooke's Twitter account and got a better, more frontal view of the banner, and of you behind it, and had the same reaction: from the gut: like someone had punched me. Irrationally, as I am 50, white, and was far away from where the banner was being held, I felt frightened. Then, I felt incredulous, and sick to my stomach. I thought: "Why are these kids doing something so cruel and heartless?" I tweeted, retweeting the picture your school had put on their account, and wrote: "My mostly Black, inner-city school played this team last night and were confronted w/this. Sickening racism."
The banner became a story that went places. The Pittsburgh paper covered it, the USAToday covered it, some other local and national papers covered it. I started getting hundreds of hate tweets from folks who thought what I had said about the banner was itself racist. Never mind that the definition of racism says this:
so--me talking to white people as an example of "racism" is nonsense.
It didn't occur to me until weeks later that I hadn't stopped to analyze what my own reaction to "Trump Perry" meant. Why had I reacted with fear, anger, and the desire to protect my students-- just to the President's name? Why had that image created such an intense response in me-- when people who were tweeting at me, furious, claimed not to have had any ill intent at all? Some of you started tweeting at me-- some openly, some of you privately. Some of you were red-hot angry. Some of you called me names, mocking me, my school, my students. Some of you were polite, and just asking: Why are you saying this is racist? We didn't mean it to be!! We had no ill-intention! More than one of you was ashamed, apologetic.
If we were together right now, this is what I would say to you, face to face: I was scared when I saw your banner. This is why: for my students, there are implicit dangers to living in America. Those dangers are especially pronounced when entering a mostly white community. And my students were a long bus ride away from home.
Many of you may honestly not know that, because you are not Black. You haven't walked through the world as a Black person in America, lived the history of a Black person in America, or grown up as a Black person in America.
That's not meant as a put-down or in any way as an angry statement toward you. I'm white. But the banner your school put up at the football game was a mistake. Whether you were part of it or not, whether you were for or against it, here are some facts:
1. The parents of the only Black player on your team asked the Custodian in your school to take the banner down. The Custodian asked the Principal to take it down. Your Principal refused. It is clear that for at least one person in your community before the game, this banner was a problem. To his credit, your Principal has admitted not listening to the parent was a big mistake. However: this incident should begin to start making you ask: whose voices are elevated in your school? Why? Why not?
2. Every high school team trades film before football games, usually a week in advance. Your football team would have seen film of our team a week before we played. Your team knew our team was primarily African-American. Who knew that, other than the team, is something only you know.
3. It is time for you to understand that Black people have experienced, and experience America differently than white people do, and that to be a good person, and a good American, you individually, and collectively must be sensitive to that fact, work to deepen your understandings about what that means and why that is, and take on your work as an American.
The "Trump Perry" incident happened within an educational setting. The work to set it right can and should be educational. If we all are humble enough to acknowledge the need to keep learning, we will all come out the better. Here are some things I have learned, both while doing my undergraduate and graduate work, and while having the privilege of working in a racially diverse school district.
We white people live in a world where our race is invisible to us. That is a function of a thing, a term, called whiteness. It's related to white privilege, something we all have, if we are white, no matter how poor, how hard we had or have it, where we are from, or where we are going. It's just a fact in America that if you are white-- you have a kind of privilege you didn't earn.
Check this out: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
I had white privilege when I was that ten-year old in my weird shoes and floods, because I wasn't going to be profiled by a racist power structure-- police in the street, teachers, store owners, doctors, Principals-- few of them saw me as a physical threat, followed me around stores, thinking I was going to steal because of how I looked; they didn't assume I was engaging in risky behavior if I wore a hoodie-- they thought I was most likely like their daughter at home. Because I was white.
So what is this thing I am calling whiteness?
Consider Calgary Anti-Racist Education's collection of definitions for it: Understanding Whiteness
Here is an article I like. Check it out, written by Nell Irvin Painter, who is the professor emerita of history at Princeton University. Professor Painter wrote the book, "The History of White People." What Is Whiteness?
Criminally, oppression against our Black brothers and sisters did not end with slavery, or with the Civil Rights movement. It is really important to feel the weight of history when you try to appreciate someone else's experience. For a great introduction to historical injustices suffered by Black people, read Ta-Nehesi Coates' ground breaking essay from The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations." This is a long and kind of difficult piece, but it is worth every word.
Ta-Nehesi Coates is an incredibly important writer for you to read right now. To better understand why some people, not just myself, react to Trump's name alone as a symbol of whiteness, read this: The First White President. It is worth it to find and read a lot of what Coates writes.
The following articles will give you background on how Trump's name is being used as a threat in schools nationwide: In Some High School Gyms, Trump's Name is a Taunt and this: Bullies Have a New Intimidation Tactic on Campus: The Name "Trump"
I think it is important to read a LOT of fiction from the perspectives of people who do not look like you, or have the same background as you. At Perry, we have a Student-Staff Book Club. Start your own. Challenge your parents, your teachers, your favorite aunt and uncle, to read with you. Here are some great books:
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds
Black Lives Matter by Sue Bradford Edwards
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
This might seems obnoxious to you; some lady from far away, who you don't know, finding something you did or didn't directly do really wrong, then lecturing you about it in a blog, and worse, presuming to give you homework and reading. Like I'm some race expert, right? Like I'm some enlightened being who knows so much about how to be "woke."
I don't. All I know is that I love my students. I am pretty sure that if I knew you well, and if you were my kids, I'd love you, too. That's what teachers do. And the best way I can love you-- from afar-- is to challenge you to be whom I- and who your teachers, administrators, school district, parents, community, and country need you to be-- people who read widely, think broadly, unlearn and relearn ideas, and try on new ways of being in this world. So-- pick up a book, read two or three of these books and/or articles, and write me a long comment about what you think about them. I'll write you back if you promise to truly think about what you read. Let's learn from each other.
Love, Ms. May
More Book lists:
Oakland Public Library Blog
Black Lives Matter: A Reading List
Book Riot Black Lives Matter Book Video List