“…we shouldn’t have forces like racism and neo-colonialism direct our empathy for us” — Feminist Wire
But we still do. Because we are taught to. And it’s unfortunate that you don’t learn otherwise unless your family is conscious or you go onto higher education. I didn’t learn about the Black Panthers and all the good work they did until I took an elective history class called 20th Century US History in 11th grade. I didn’t learn about colonialism and imperialism in Africa — the institutional rape and degradation of a people and a continent– until graduate school. Up until then, school practically taught that Africa was to blame for all of her misfortunes. And not until this semester, as a doctoral student in an upper-level history course, did I learn that K-12 history classes are often the main culprits behind it all.
We learn that virtually no news coverage of a college massacre in Kenya that killed over 100 students is okay. It is taught to place more value on deaths in developed countries like France and the U.S. than deaths in smaller, less developed countries like Beirut. We aren’t born to naturally accept rights for animals over rights for black men and women unjustly brutalized by the police or children of color in U.S. cities being slaughtered by racialized gang violence and other insidious crime on a regular basis. We are born and then we are taught it all.
It’s a shame we live in a world where color, money and status are synonymous with humanity. It shouldn’t be.
But it is.
I was raised to value one person, one death, one travesty just as much as the next. I wish the world also felt this way.
But it doesn’t.
Racism and neo-colonialism still direct our empathy because our education still does.
It’s all taught.
You learn that it’s all taught as a grown up and you are now presented with a daunting task: to unlearn the entire world as you know it.
Neither a class nor teacher nor book can prepare one for such an assignment.
Last week, I heard about the tragic death of Cecil, a lion living in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. He was lured out of his habitat, shot with a bow and arrow, then shot with a gun, then skinned and decapitated.
There is no doubt that this was an unwarranted slaying of an innocent animal. And quite naturally, people are up in arms about it, with much energy being directed toward animal rights and the prosecution of Cecil’s murderer, dentist Walter Palmer. Protests and demonstrations are happening all over the country and all over the world in response to the slaying of this animal.
Too bad humanity can’t empathize with people – brothers and sisters of color dying everyday at exponential rates at the hands of injustice – just as much as they can with the animals that roar and purr and scoot about in the world’s zoos.
You may be thinking – Cecil was lured out of his home, shot and left to die a slow death and mutilated, of course the oppression people of color face doesn’t evoke the same amount of concern and outrage.
But I ask you then, do people of color not experience the same grim fate…barely noticed…each and every day?
It always breaks my heart to hear of missing children. What’s even harder to accept than crimes against children is how some cases get more exposure than others. About 32 percent of the US population is of color – but only 14 percent of television station staff members across the nation are non-white. This results in a lack of reporting of missing child cases involving children of color because journalists have the “ tendency to consciously or unconsciously cover communities that remind them of their own,” according to the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. This phenomenon is so pervasive and well-known, an additional missing child alert has been created in place of the widely known “Amber Alert.” The “Rilya Alert” is only for children of color under age 17 who have been reported to the law as missing. (Journalism Center for Children and Families)
Children of color are lured out of their homes and away from their families each and every day; however, only a fraction of these cases show up on our TV screens, our cell phone news apps and our social media timelines. Maybe if our children were animals, they’d have a greater chance of being perceived as human.
Left to die
In a plethora of ways, people of color are left to die – in their own country, in their own homes. I know that people of color walk upright, on two legs instead of four and aren’t in zoos (anymore – know your history)…but nonetheless, keep reading — maybe just maybe you’ll recognize their lives as just as important as those of animals.
Lack of medical insurance. Higher rates of high blood pressure and diabetes than other groups. Exponentially high HIV/AIDS rates combined with less access to life-saving medications. Less likely to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. What do all these things have in common?
They’re all factors that end black lives on a daily basis.
To add, only about 8 percent of black families have a supermarket located in their census tract. To boot, physicians whose patients are mostly minorities tend to be less experienced and are less likely to be certified by a health board. (Five Charts that Explain Why Black Americans are Still Dying Younger than White Americans, Think Progress)
Black folk are living in a country where they are more likely to be sick and unhealthy than any other racial/ethnic group. Ask yourself: have you protested or spoken on this fun fact lately?
Lynched and mutilated
The world was appalled (as it should have been) when news revealed that a dentist beheaded 13 year-old Cecil the Lion. But I’m sitting here wondering, does the “world” even know about Lennon Lacy, the 17 year old black teen who was found dead — his lifeless body dangling from a rope tied from the top of a swing set in a mobile home park in Bladenboro, North Carolina last year? Fast-forward to a few months ago and travel a little farther south to Port Gibson, Mississippi. In March of this year, did you know that 54 year old Otis Byrd was found dead, hanging from a tree? A dead black man, hanging from a tree. In Mississippi. Five months ago. (5 Horrific Modern-Day Lynchings of Blacks in America, RollingOut)
Animals aren’t the only ones mutilated. Would you believe me if I told you that sometimes, humans do this to other humans, and that racism kills and that these deaths should demand your attention, in addition to Cecil the Lion’s death?
The people of Zimbabwe didn’t even know about Cecil’s death, until the world started its witch hunt for his murderer, Walter Palmer. “It is not an overstatement that almost 99,99 percent of Zimbabweans didn’t know about this animal until Monday. Now we have just learnt, thanks to the British media, that we had Africa’s most famous lion all along, an icon!” reported a few days ago in The Chronicle, A Zimbabwean newspaper. – Let that one marinate.
Cecil the Lion was named after Cecil Rhodes…the same guy who gave the Rhodes Scholarship and the African territory of Rhodesia, their namesakes. Cecil Rhodes is known for being a South African politician slash businessman slash imperialist, among other things, but he was also an avid racist. He wanted the white race to take over as much of Africa as possible, insisting that the more whites took over, the better the world would be. “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence,” stated Rhodes.
Let that one marinate, too.
Look, I know the world is upset. But can a girl be upset with the world for just a moment?
There’s a war going on outside no man is safe from. Mobb Deep used these lyrics to describe life on the streets and how only the strong survive when it comes to a life riddled with things like crime and drugs. But I say, you gotta be fit to survive not just in the streets, but virtually everywhere and in every facet of life.
We are in the midst of an HIV epidemic in many major cities across the nation. Although we have come a long way in HIV treatment and those who are positive with the virus have the ability to live long lives – poverty and miseducation in the black community are just a few of the factors contributing to the overrepresentation of the virus in the black community. More and more evidence of police officers abusing their power is surfacing – in the form of violence against black bodies caught on cell phone video. More of us are going to college, but even more of us find ourselves in debt and degreeless. The media tends to focus more on stereotypical welfare queens and men carelessly spreading their seeds – and less on black women PhDs and black fathers who go above and beyond for their children. We live in a world where our youth are using rap lyrics to dictate their lives – aspiring to sling on the corner, cop bodies and pop Mollies – instead of taking music simply as entertainment. Our bodies are more likely to be unhealthy, as diabetes, high blood pressure and other lifestyle-based ailments pervade our families and our communities. And our mental health bears the brunt of all these things and more, as our culture often teaches us to minimize our pain and maximize our physical, mental and emotion loads.
It’s time to do something different, ya’ll. Apparently what we’ve been doing as a collective has NOT been working.
It’s time to seriously arm ourselves for war.
The books are our weapons – let’s use them and use them wisely, because the brain is a terrible thing to waste. Let’s stop the whole if you want to hide something from a black person, put it in a book lie we’ve been living. Our families, our communities are our platoons. We are only as strong as our weakest player – with that being said, let’s not let a lack of uplift be our downfall. Our love for ourselves is the best ammunition known to man – our want for better, our interest in education, our investments – not only in our businesses, but also in our health and the health of others. Our elders are our wisest soldiers. Let’s listen to them, because more times than not, many of them have been through the same things we’re struggling with and then some. Let’s let them help us guide our steps. Our children are our most precious soldiers. We have to protect them and lead them at all costs – with school, with finances, with relationships and everything else under the sun. They’re going to be holding down the front lines in our place in the near future. And finally, our perseverance is our armor – our trauma has trained us for the trenches and our pain protects us in the line of fire . What hasn’t killed us has only made us stronger – it’s in our blood to stand tall when the going gets tough.
The casualties are adding up. Are you armed for war?
According to Teach.com, special education provides tailor-made educational programming to meet the specialized needs of each and every child (i.e. children with autism, developmental delay, physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities and other hindrances). Essentially, children who may have challenges in the classroom are supposed to receive individualized attention and curriculum, based on what each child brings to the table.
What special education often looks like
A little boy doesn’t learn in the same ways or at the same pace as his fellow classmates. The teacher gets frustrated and sends him to special ed. His very presence in the special ed class labels him for the rest of his school career. The special ed label tells teachers and classmates that he has no potential. A vicious cycle ensues. Because he probably won’t get the specialized attention promised by the special ed department, he gets lost in the sauce – as the teachers give up on him, he slowly gives up on himself. In effect, a bleak future including but not limited to the school to prison pipeline may ensue.
PS- If this little boy is black, there is even more of a chance of this scenario coming to life.
When it comes to gifted programs, black boys at all levels of the achievement continuum are 2.5 times less likely to be enrolled (even high achieving black boys who qualify for such programs).
In Virginia, while black students make up about 24% of the entire state’s student population, they make up over 31% of special education students.
(NEA; IDEA Data Center)
An author’s experience with Special Education
Ronnie Sidney II — author, educator and supervisee in Social Work — knows the special ed debacle all too well; after all, he was just like the little black boy I introduced you to earlier. “It all started in 3rd grade. I remember a teacher that I had taking me out of class and asking me to do a math problem for another teacher. The whole situation felt weird. Then I remember being taken from my class daily by a teacher who met with a small group of students in a different classroom,” he says. In third grade, Sidney began being tracked in special education. Although his experience in special education started in third grade, the stigmatization and ill-effects of his new educational placement became even harder to handle in middle school.
“I remember taking a series of tests asking me to do a variety of things. In sixth and seventh grade I recognized that something about me was different than the other kids. I felt embarrassed and didn’t want my friends to know. I began resenting my parents for putting me in special education. I didn’t feel like I needed it, I thought that I was smarter than that. I was unable to take classes with my friends and it made me feel helpless. I was in class with kids who didn’t care about anything except making each other laugh and messing with girls. I wanted more. I wanted to leave this small town and stigmatization behind and go to college.”
Although special education has been traditionally thought to bridge the gap between education and students’ individual education obstacles, it actually brought about more hindrances in Sidney’s case – he wasn’t allowed to take college prep or foreign language courses because of his special ed status. It all came to a screeching halt the day an 8th grade Sidney came home from school crying, overwhelmed once the school decided it would be best if he were in ALL special ed classes. “I felt like they were putting me on a path that I didn’t want to be on.” Shortly after, Sidney’s parents withdrew him from special education. He kept his dealings in special education to himself, afraid of being teased. “We were all vulnerable and it was those vulnerabilities that you had to hide or protect because the weak were eaten alive.” Not until he started college did he reveal that he was put in special education as a young boy.
Sidney and Nelson Beat the Odds
Throughout college and graduate school, Sidney read and researched about the over-representation of black boys in special education. Not only was he educated and enlightened by his findings, he was also relieved to discover that his story was no isolated incident – it was indeed part of a phenomenon occurring across the nation. “I read Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys by Jawanza Kunjufu and I was like whoa! It answered so many questions that I had growing up. The book was refreshing and encouraged me to go back to my old school and retrieve my special education records. In college I wrote a paper entitled Special Ed : The Disproportionate Placement of Minorities in Special Education and was able to research the topic further.”
Sidney has since written Nelson Beats the Odds, a graphic novel surrounding a little boy’s experience with being placed in special education. In the book, Nelson has been acting out in school and a frustrated teacher puts him in special ed. Despite the little he expects of his special education placement, he gets more bang for his buck once his special education teachers and his parents work with him to tackle his challenges in the classroom head on, believing in his ability and his potential.
Nelson Beats the Odds is quite similar to how Sidney himself beat the odds, as the book is based on his own story. His support system, including a few teachers that truly believed in him and his parents, is what he credits his success to. Sidney attained a 1.8 GPA in high school and went on to acquire not only a bachelor’s degree, but also a master’s degree in social work. He has since written this book, started a therapeutic consulting company and has become a speaker on many issues, from black fatherhood to special education.
How we can all beat the odds
Sidney sees biased standardized testing as a major culprit in the over-representation of black boys in special education. “I think a majority of them are misdiagnosed. I don’t believe the tests accurately assess black children’s intelligence as much as they do white or European children’s intelligence. There is plenty of research and controversy surrounding the racial bias associated with the bell curve and SAT tests. I feel like if those test were truly accurate I would have been in gifted and talented instead of special ed.” Sidney also attributes the mass placement of black boys into special education to teacher bias. “My behavior as an elementary school student was off the chain. I was really hyper and would talk a lot in class. I believe if I sat in class quiet and wasn’t a behavior problem then I probably wouldn’t have been identified.”
Sidney believes that black boys need to be pushed to excellence – but in order to do so, schools need to take the time to find best practices. Sidney refers to Chicago’s Urban Prep School and New York’s Harlem Children Zone – the former boasts 100% graduation rates and 100% college enrollment for its graduation classes, comprised of 100% young black men and the latter not only works tirelessly with students in the classroom, it also cultivates the health and overall well-being of its students. He also underscores the importance of active cultural competency in teachers – including but not limited to internships with immersion in low income and predominately black areas.
When asked what we can do, Sidney has quite a few suggestions. “My advice to parents is to advocate for your children. Parents also need to arm themselves with information especially if the school believes your child has a learning or emotional disability.” He insists that parents with children believed to have a learning disability should get their children evaluated by a private psychologist if they disagree with the school’s psychological evaluation. In general, he said the duty of educating our students is one that is shared between home and school. “The main thing is educating them at home. You should not leave the education of your children solely in the hands of teachers.” He also asserts that children must be stimulated with hands-on activities and creativity, despite the bland teach-to-the-standardized-test educational culture our children live in today.
What Nelson will do to help us all
“Nelson Beats the Odds” serves to uplift the many children who end up in similar situations dealing with special education. Sidney intends to make teachers aware of the detrimental effects of bias with the book. He also notes his intentionality with the characters in the graphic novel. “I wanted to create a book that has a diverse group of characters. Many times the black characters in books look stereotypical and don’t reflect our diversity as a race. I asked the illustrators to include children of all complexions, hair textures, heights, weights and disabilities.”
Sidney hopes to make a lasting impact with Nelson Beats the Odds:
“I know that there are boys and girls out here right now who are experiencing stigmatization, resentment, vulnerability and disinterest in school and I want to let them know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I want educators to read the book and see how their biases or lack of bias influence children. My special education teacher was a huge influence and inspiration in my life and I include her as a character in my book. Teachers have the power to give life to kids or take it away. I am thankful that I had a supportive family that believed in me and continued to give me life. The resilience that I developed during my childhood education experience continues to fuel me today. I want the kids to use all the negative things people say as motivation to overcome their challenges and defy the odds.”
I think this book and its message has the potential to make a significant impact, not only in the black community, but the educational community at-large. I personally haven’t seen anything or heard of anything quite like this. As someone who started with a developmental delay and was subsequently put into a special education preschool program when it wasn’t needed, I can attest to the frequency of this phenomenon.
Sometimes I know exactly what I want to tell you, sometimes the words to describe how I feel about you are hard to find. I’m sitting here drawing a blank, at a loss for words, but at the same time I can feel every word I have yet to write. I can feel. But you can’t feel.
Feelings are among the many things you do not possess. You don’t feel the sadness I feel when you forget about me. You don’t feel the anger I feel when I see you manipulate your way through your life…or should I say what’s left of your life. You don’t know how happy I feel on the days when remnants of your old self manage to surface from time to time, and how let down I feel when I come to terms with the fact that they are as authentic as your pseudo-emotions.
I said that I was drawing a blank, but truth is, you’re the one with the empty space. No dreams, no goals, no ambitions and no passions will ever fill it. Your drug of choice is the only void that can fill that void. Its everything and its nothing.
Time goes by, yet you stop time. You stop life. Your victims are frozen in a moment – because in exchange for the high, they lose a lifetime.
But I’m a victim too. Thank the Lord above, no drug has led me down your path. But as I watch as people I care about are dragged down your dark corridors, winding roads and uphill excursions, I too have been riding along in the backseat, feeling every bump, every wrong turn.
You are one of the most selfish people I know. You take everything and you give nothing. You think the world revolves around you. You think you have it all figured out. You think you have everyone around you fooled, but the joke is on you.
You sleep all day. You’re up all night. You itch all over. You can’t hold a job. Your nose bleeds. You’ve gained weight. You’ve lost weight. You can’t hold a relationship. You’re depressed. You’re anxious. You lie. You cheat. You steal. You think you’re better than everyone else. You think you’re the smallest person on this earth.
Get the hell out and take your bottles, your pills, your joints, your rocks, your needles and everything else you brought here with you. And on your way out, give us back our loved ones you’ve been holding for hostage for so long.
Wait a minute…why am I writing this letter? Why am I expecting anything in return from you? I’m sitting here pouring my heart out, but why?