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Acknowledging ignorance: education is not a free pass

Surya Gowda

Surya Gowda

Yasmin McLamb

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It’s finally Spring at Horace Mann – flowers are blooming, ice cream is melting, seniors are graduating – and rap music blasts on the field. Last Thursday, one of those songs drifted through the window of my Comparative Race & Ethnicity classroom while I was presenting “This Is America” by Childish Gambino. My attempted questions to the class were: What if we considered the well-educated kid who attends a rap concert? If you’ve studied the history of an art form – for example, jazz – and continue to ignore its embedded social issues, are you allowed to partake in that culture? 

History has always been a touchy subject for me – I loved writing about social issues, but felt as if the narratives taught were extremely limited to simply reading about Black/Brown oppression. My individual experiences lined up with some of what I’d read, but the binary offered always seemed so black and white. Whenever I felt confident enough to share my own cultural backgrounds – Hawaiian, Chinese, and Black – everyone seemed confused that I wasn’t sharing an experience that they had come to expect from the ‘average Black HM student’ – one that knew the answer to every “race” question, has had students come up to them and say “I’m so sorry about what happened during slavery,” and could offer the insight of what it “means to be from the hood.” 

Since I first arrived at HM, I’ve struggled with what it meant to be myself because there was never truly a space for me, even within my friend groups. Even though I proudly identify as who I am, I’ve found that perceptions of me in a space were never in my control. I was always hyper-aware of my proper English and how both students and teachers responded to my comments differently than other Black students. I would watch year after year as outspoken Black girls were patronized by our peers but would never receive adequate support from the administration. Paranoid about excluding other voices due to the privileges that came with my appearance and mannerisms, I retreated into myself for many years. There has never been a racial/cultural blueprint for me to follow – and I’ve begun to embrace it. 

Regardless of how careful I am about my tone, I’ve learned that the problem lies not with how I ask it but with the question itself. 

At HM, I feel there are many people who are aware of how Black culture is everywhere due to popular culture. They have an intellectual understanding of the oppressive “Black experience” from English and History, yet never think about how it affects people beyond class discussions. Now, I feel too many people think that simply being “educated” on the topic is enough. Often the box of being “socially conscious” is checked off, yet many aren’t socially conscious in the real world. You don’t need to go to every rally or protest. You just need to be aware of your presence in a space and how that affects people around you. And, most importantly, this affects everyone, regardless of background. 

We need to teach Black joy alongside Black suffering, such as modern-day instances of positive reform, like the non-profit “Social Works Inc.” by Chance the Rapper or Jaden Smith donating water from his eco-friendly water company, JUST, to the Flint water crisis. Or, if teachers wish to incorporate “academic” narratives – start with James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, and Frantz Fanon. 

In too many history classes, Black history begins with slavery and ends with the Civil Rights Movement. There’s always been a visible disconnect between the past devaluation and now modern-day appreciation of Black music, dance, and culture. I know people who have opted to take different routes to school as to avoid passing through “the real Bronx” because their parents think it’s too dangerous. Reading textbooks in school that only reinforce those stereotypes don’t help. And as students drive to school reading their English/ History books, Bronx-invented hip-hop music plays through their car radios. Black communities have been left behind in exchange for their culture and have their experiences reduced to that of ‘victims’ in books. When we learn about race, do we even think about Black people anymore? 

They have an intellectual understanding of the oppressive “Black experience” from English and History, yet never think about how it affects people beyond class discussions.”

Apparently we do, because everyone expects the Black kid in the room to have the answer. 

If we’re talking about Huck Finn or Their Eyes Were Watching God in English, I should not be the only one asked to read African American Vernacular aloud or recall the Jim Crow South in excruciating detail. I should not have to feel a wave of terror and disgust as students skip over the n-word while reading aloud in class yet continue to shout it while listening to rap music in the locker rooms. I should not have to be the holder of an encyclopedia of Black history – or, as another student accidentally called it, “Negro History.” 

If we don’t humanize history, it is much harder for people to find a connection to it. If the narrative offered simply remains historic – wars, colonization, enslavement, etc – it makes you feel like an outsider unless it is your history. As a multiracial person, I have always had difficulty finding my humanity within the history that I’ve been taught. I’ve only been able to see parts of myself in other people, and its helped me become very perceptive of the world around me. 

So, the next time you listen to a rap song, think about it. Think about the humanity behind the history that created it. Think about how you fit into the dynamic the song was born out of. Are you helping, or are you hurting? Who might you be hurting, without even realizing it? 

Play it out loud, and let the voices of history be heard. 

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Acknowledging ignorance: education is not a free pass