This summer I have been thinking a lot about Trayvon Martin, the acquittal of George Zimmerman, and what this tragic episode means to me as a parent and as a white man who happens to be a superintendent of schools.
As a father, I can’t begin to comprehend the anguish and suffering Trayvon’s parents endured when they first learned their son was killed and again when they heard the verdict. I can’t imagine the grief, pain, and sense of loss brought on by their child’s death, especially at the hands of another. And over the last year and a half they have had to relive and replay Trayvon’s death instead of finding some semblance of comfort—if it’s even possible—with the passage of time. I only hope his mother and father will soon experience the peace, dignity, and privacy they and their family now deserve.
As an educator I can’t help but think about the broader implications of this tragedy and what lessons we are to take away from what happened in Sanford, Florida and what happens here in Massachusetts and elsewhere when we are confronted with someone who looks and acts differently from us. Just this week a Paris suburb exploded into violence when police demanded a veiled Muslim woman remove her face veil or niqab, a garment now banned in France in an effort, apparently, to keep public spaces secular and free of religious symbols.
As a superintendent, I believe there is a role schools and teachers must play to encourage a discussion within the classroom, especially when the presence of a young black man wearing a hoodie or an observant Muslim practicing her faith causes others to react in such a way that violence erupts.
As a white man, I can’t recall a time when I worried how I looked or what I was wearing might cause suspicion or provoke a response. I have the privilege of moving about in a world that generally accepts me as nonthreatening and tolerable. Being white and a male typically permits me access and allows me to pass undetected and unmolested. Many years ago I recall one of my students in South Central Los Angeles, John, explaining to me exactly how he and his friends were going to dress and how they would walk on a planned field trip to West LA so they would not attract undo attention from residents or the police. “John,” I asked incredulously, “Are you really going to worry about something as silly as how you look or carry yourself?” He explained: “You may not have to think about it, Mr. G, but it’s what I need to do to get by in that neighborhood.” I have since learned that some black parents have “the talk” with their sons about how they must be ever vigilant when they engage and interact in a predominantly white community, in a way that allows them to feel safe and to get by.
Now I don’t pretend to know what happened that night in Sanford or why the French authorities confronted a Muslim woman. None of us is privy to the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of George Zimmerman or the French police. But I think we owe it to our students to ask them how they view and interact with those who look differently or even pray differently than they do. We have a responsibility to use the existing curriculum, engage our social and emotional learning programs, and facilitate developmentally appropriate conversations in middle school advisory and high school homerooms to ensure students have the opportunity to discuss these issues in a safe environment, one that values and respects all human beings, regardless of how they look or worship.
To be honest, I feel it’s a little risky to even bring up the subject. But we have to be willing to participate in this discussion and accept that it is OK not to know all the answers. Parents, faith communities, and educators all have a responsibility to engage young people in an ongoing conversation about race and culture. Perhaps Needham’s efforts to support culturally proficient practices in the schools and organizing the upcoming school and community Diversity Summit are steps in the right direction. Clearly, as we work to ensure access, equity, and justice in an increasingly interconnected global community, we must pursue hard questions and even risk feeling uncertain or uncomfortable as we learn from one another.
Let’s hope we can expand “the talk” to include families and children of all cultures and races, especially as we prepare young people for the world that awaits them.