Being Black at North Allegheny: Racism and the Road Ahead
By E. Dozier, L. Subeir, E. Britton, and L. Bautista, students and alumnus
Hello and good evening. I am here today as a representative of NA For Change.
I joined NA For Change in late June after my cousin, Elise, shared the opportunity with me.
Two weeks before she did, my parents and I had a long conversation at the dinner table. We talked about the protests across the country and what we’ve experienced in Pittsburgh. And I remember my parents discussing how change begins with you and what role can YOU play in making a change?
The discussion concluded with everyone agreeing to get more involved.
For me, I knew school was where my advocacy was needed the most. In fact, at the time, I was already working on a proposal to address the district’s lack of Black history in the curriculum.
Talking to other students and alumni through NA For Change made me realize that I wasn’t alone in my disappointment.
The most recent Black History teaching moment that I remember happened last year in 7th grade and, frankly, I’m not sure if it even counts.
A week before the end of February in my social studies class, we watched a video about African culture. Although it was interesting and informative, it wasn’t about Black history in the United States. And as soon as the video was over, my teacher didn’t even bother to ask questions or start a conversation.
In my opinion, the black history discussion was completely rushed. That was the only time, during the month of February, that was designated to Black history. I also have vague memories of learning about the same key figures, like Rosa Parks and MLK, but the lessons were only surface level. There are so many more people who have contributed to our history.
Most students don’t even understand the severity of slavery and civil rights, let alone comprehend how these moments in history impact us today. We were taught about slavery as an issue of unpaid labor and compromised rights. But in reality, slavery was brutal and has long-lasting implications.
My classmates and I did not learn about how horrible slavery was, and for this reason they asked questions like:
This shows how poorly the topic of slavery was covered and discussed. This clearly demonstrates the need for thoughtful and meaningful education in this area.
What I know about Black history came from my parents, my own research and readings, and my experience as a Black person, but unfortunately not from our school.
So far, our school has done little to acknowledge the contributions that my ancestors and culture have made in the US and around the globe. We are in an academic culture that believes that a minimal review of slavery, the mentioning of a few well known Black Americans, a Diversity Art Contest, and perhaps watching Hidden Figures, is an adequate representation of Black history.
It is important to incorporate Black History into the curriculum in all areas throughout the entire year and not just in the last week of February.
I became involved in NA for Change because I recognized that I cannot wait for others to make the change, I can work with others to be the Change.
#IAmForChange because if not me, who?
While North Allegheny offers countless opportunities that I am very grateful for, I feel that racial equity is something that must be improved upon in this district, especially when it comes to early childhood development. I joined NA For Change to make a meaningful change in a community I care so much about.
Even in high school, racial issues are sometimes avoided because they are too “uncomfortable” to even talk about. I often see teachers stray away from talking about racism in history and social studies, specifically how it relates to Black and Indigenous people. This is because the topics are “too much” for younger children. To be candid, society tends to infantilize white people. Even when they’re old enough to comprehend complex topics in high school, they are given the benefit of the doubt as if they are young children. However, when it comes to black children, we adultify them.
For example, if a white 16 year-old commits a crime, people often say they were young and didn’t know better as an excuse. If a 16 year-old black child commits a crime, they are often charged as an adult and no excuses are made for them.
The same rhetoric applies to school. We often want to make white children comfortable and not talk about race since it doesn’t affect them, but we also ignore the subtle racism that POC (specifically Black and Indigenous) children go through. It starts small in elementary school when children copy accents or pull their eyes back to make their eyes look “Asian.”
The Harvard University Center on Developing Children states that when children’s stress response systems stay activated for long periods of time, it can lead to significant distress on their brain and other systems, which can lead to serious psychological effects. The study links experiences of childhood racism to chronic health effects later in life, as well as lifelong experiences of trauma.
This is not to say that children are naturally malicious. What we must realize is that our unwillingness to teach children about the horrific events that form the basis of our country is the reason why so many children grow up to lack basic empathy. It is extremely important to teach children factual accounts of events like different forms of protest during the Civil Rights movement and the destruction of Black Wall Street.
Most bias and prejudice starts as early as preschool. It can be unlearned, and sooner is better than later. If children wait until high school to learn about the struggles of their classmates and all who came before them, it might be too late to unlearn this.
That bias could have manifested itself in hateful jokes, offhanded comments, or worse, violence. But, interpersonal racism is not the only side effect.
The main way prejudice shows itself in many is that they are indifferent to systemic and institutionalized racism. In the long run, white children may see racist remarks as “jokes” because they were not taught otherwise in school.
I’ve experienced these biases firsthand. As a Black/African woman, I have seen many different forms of microaggressions throughout my life. People are often surprised that I “don’t act black” as if they’re surprised that black people are intelligent, civilized people just like them. Some have told me I will get into a college because I am black to try and demean my education and accomplishments. They have also gone to further extents like randomly touching my hair and saying the n-word around me.
Learning about these topics at home is also important, but this method is obviously not effective enough because we see so many racist people in the world in 2021. Teaching children to just “be nice to everyone” is not enough because they won’t understand the impact of their harmful actions–which they might not even realize are racially charged. Implicit bias can manifest itself in some of the most well-meaning people. If children are educated about these biases and the history of Black oppression, they are less likely to perpetuate these biases.
You have the power to do something about this.
You have the power to make crucial decisions in elementary curriculum.
Sticking with a more “traditional” curriculum will continue the cycle of racism where educators enable young children to grow into prejudiced humans.
Please do not allow this to be the reality for our school district. We all want students to be the best they can be, and racial education is the first and most important step in this.
I implore you to include introductory lessons about topics like the school to prison pipeline and Jim Crow laws.
I implore you to change education for the next generation.
I implore you to change this school district’s environment into an anti-racist one for my fellow students.
I implore you to create a safe space for POC students so they can explore their own experiences more deeply and safely.
#IAmForChange, and I implore you to be for change as well.
Last June, I founded NA For Change along with other alumni because we were haunted by experiences of racism–both our own and ones we witnessed. Initially, we just wanted to create a video challenging our community and district to do its part when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
But after receiving countless testimonies from generations of alumni and current students, we knew we needed to use our collective voice for something more transformative. We also knew there would be obstacles, given that we aren’t the first to address racism at North Allegheny.
25 years ago, the Diversity Committee was formed after people expressed concerns about a lack of cultural bridges offered to students and staff. 25 years later, what meaningful recommendations has the school implemented? Enough to build those bridges?
We know there’s a history of silencing affected students, concerned educators, and angered parents by ignoring us or pretending to give us more power than you’re actually willing to grant. This cycle ends with us.
The first time I was silenced at North Allegheny was in middle school by a teacher I admired. We were talking about ancestry in class, and they randomly pointed out that my ancestors were from Africa.
My classmates all turned around in their seats to get a good look at me before tuning back into the lesson. All of them except the boys who sat around me. With smiling faces, they started calling me a slave and dropping their pencils for me to pick up. This continued until a friend of mine convinced me to tell my teacher, so that they could put a stop to it.
Once I built the courage and confided in them, they told me to ignore my classmates, that boys would be boys. I was humiliated and felt stupid for hoping that another outcome was possible.
Fast forward to high school: racism–anti-Blackness specifically–wasn’t just in between the pages of an outdated history book–racism flooded the hallways. Before starting my world cultures class, a few of my classmates would corner me to share how much they hated black people, how they looked, how they talked, how they smelled. “I just do,” said one kid when I asked him why. After school–at practice–my teammates would keep the momentum going by telling me (and other black girls) that they wished slavery still existed, that it was the perfect economic set up.
I hated myself belligerently throughout my time at North Allegheny and became my most constant bully.
In addition to straightening my hair regularly and avoiding the sun, I developed severe mental health issues and internalized racism. I saw other Black kids grow up the same. One even left after enduring kids calling her the n-word.
I didn’t care about my classes, even though some of my teachers would urge me to enroll in honors and AP courses. I’d often sit wherever I had the best chance of being left alone so that I could daydream that I was anywhere else. In my history and social studies classes, I learned very little about Black people (and people of color in general), even though I went out of my way to seek multicultural courses.
Despite not wanting to go to college, my parents forced me to go. I’m glad they did. Once I left North Allegheny, my world opened up in technicolor, and my confidence blossomed. I met all sorts of people from all over the country, and formed unexpected friendships that have enriched my life beyond my wildest daydreams.
Diversity and cultural awareness is a critical, ongoing lesson in our humanity. Not only are students who learn about a range of communities more socially intuitive, they have more self-confidence.
This is because they feel secure in who they are, where they come from–they learn that differences are not a threat, but another way to be human.
When we nurture rather than ignore children’s curiosities, we also expose them to a wider range of experiences, challenges, and solutions. This will surely be a benefit in today’s workforce in Pittsburgh or tomorrow’s adventures around the world.
In the immediate sense, diversity in our curriculum and inclusion in our learning environment will better fulfill our students’ need for peer connection. #IAmForChange because resilience should come from self assurance, not years of self hate.
Like Evan mentioned before, I too learned about NA For Change through a founding member.
I joined because while experiencing through the curriculum at North Allegheny, I have learned just how much inclusivity was needed.
Right now, we are being taught a narrow world view and an even narrower cultural perspective. I am here today to speak about Black History Month; however, this only covers a slight portion of what needs to be addressed when it comes to diversity and inclusion in our curriculum.
Many teachers throughout North Allegheny opt out of teaching Black History Month, or about Black people and people of color in general.
While some are open to suggestions, a gap in education shouldn’t exist in the first place. How does our curriculum, and by extension our district, allow entire groups of people to be left out of our country’s narrative–out of our country’s history?
Students have been left with leading Black history month through lessons and events—which are unfortunately not even mandatory. You would think after the events of 2020, the school would have actually made an effort to come up with activities and experiences to acknowledge Black History Month.
Unfortunately, yet again, we, as students and specifically students of color, have to take the initiative to close this gap: Black History Month is primarily student-led.
Throughout my three years at North Allegheny, I have been witness to only one class in which we addressed Black History Month.
That being in 8th grade, my first year at North Allegheny. And the only educational material I saw for Black History Month was on the first day of the month where we watched a brief five minute long video, and then nothing else after that, despite my teacher saying we would continue learning about Black History throughout the month.
Sadly, this year, as of today, February 17th, I have yet to have a teacher mention Black History or Black History Month in my classes even once.
A couple of days ago, I asked my 8 year old brother, who is in third grade and also attends North Allegheny what he had learned for Black History Month and his response was “What?” He is experiencing what I already knew to be true: an erasure of Black History Month. Unfortunately, my brother and I are not the only ones who have experienced this lack of acknowledgment.
Recently on our Instagram, @naforchange, we asked our followers, “How have you seen Black History Month being taught at North Allegheny?” Many of the responses exemplified the lack of initiative that our district takes in trying to inform its students of the history and many contributions of Black Americans. Some include, and I quote:
Someone else shared:
However, one of the three positive responses that we did receive, included:
We know there are teachers who are giving their students the education they need to thrive in this challenging, but wonderfully diverse, world.
Why not foster an educational environment that offers this benefit to all students? It is so important for students of color to see themselves represented and included in the curriculum. It is also important for students that are not of color to learn about history, as this is not just Black history but American history.
#IAmForChange because I want to see people who look like myself included, acknowledged, and discussed in all of my classes throughout the entire academic year.
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