Last year, before my home state of Georgia passed its law restricting the teaching of “divisive concepts,” I had an interesting conversation with my middle school students about race.
I was roaming the aisles of my pre-algebra classroom during that sweet spot in the middle of the period where almost everyone was working. Suddenly, amidst the swirl of variables and equations filling the room, I overheard several of my students discussing the Trail of Tears. I stopped to listen.
They had been learning about it in their history class the day before and, understandably, the subject had caught their attention. I was riveted as well—our school is built on land the Cherokee had lived upon prior to 1831—and I admit that I was in no hurry to push my students back to their math lesson. Instead, I joined the conversation, and though I don’t remember the extent of it, I do remember the last words I uttered, shaking my head: “It is no joke what we did to the Indigenous Americans.”
Some context is needed here. Almost all of my students were Black—and I am white—and that must be distinctly understood or nothing can come of the story I am going to relate.
Because what happened after I shook my head and spoke my piece was that a student on the periphery of the conversation looked up, agitated. He spread his hands to the left and the right, flashed his eyes around the room, and said, pointedly, “We?”
I had messed up, and I instantly knew it. Turning squarely to face him, I thumped my chest slightly in that universal-sports-symbol of “my bad” and said something like, “No, not ‘we.’ Me. My people. Sorry about that. It is no joke what white people did to Indigenous and Black Americans.” The student nodded, and class carried on.
I relate this story now because I have to wonder: What would I do if this situation repeated itself today?
Georgia’s “divisive concepts” law—like most similar legislation newly passed around the country—is, to put it kindly, Byzantine. It stretches out over pages, restricting language on race, gender, and sexuality. To add insult to injury, teachers have been offered little guidance on how best to understand it. Looking over the text of the law recently, I noticed one prescription that jogged my memory about this Trail of Tears conversation: Educators are not allowed to participate in what the law calls “race scapegoating.”
Did I perform “race scapegoating” when I took historical responsibility for the removal of Indigenous Americans and placed it on white people, myself included? I wonder.
What else was I supposed to do, however? If such a moment were to occur again, it seems I have two opposing choices: I can answer my student truthfully and risk bringing heat down on my school by running afoul of the new state law, or I can dodge my student’s question to make sure I don’t get close to anything like “race scapegoating.”
I must choose between my students’ education or my own job security. There is no other way out. How to answer my student’s question truthfully without running up against the potential grievance of an overhearing white person? How to whitewash our history without also losing the respect of my Black students and betraying my commitments to the truth? The Georgia legislature has me sailing between Scylla and Charybdis.
Maybe there are good intentions buried in this law; perhaps some of these legislators only want to hit the brakes now to buy enough time to make our curriculum more incisive in the long run. I’d like to hope so, even as I’m not sure I believe it. The bottom line, though, is that it doesn’t matter how “good” the intentions of the lawmakers are. As sociologist Eve L. Ewing writes in Ghosts in the Schoolyard, “the question of racism is not about intentions, it’s about outcomes.” In this case, a law that forces teachers to gaslight children about our racial history has brought about a racist outcome, no matter how well-meaning the writers imagine themselves to be.
Some years back, writing about white people like the legislators passing laws like these, Ta-Nehisi Coates put it this way: “‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history.” This metaphor is especially apt here; every teacher knows the lack of accountability that can follow an errant student sporting a hall pass.
I still teach 8th grade; my students will still learn about the racial history of Georgia. What am I going to do when the inevitable cross-conversation makes its way into my math class this year? Will I risk the ire of being overheard by the wrong person to do the right thing for my students? I hope that I would have the courage, but of course I wonder. We all consider ourselves heroes until our feet are actually in the fire.
The right thing to do, of course, is to repeal these laws. They only hamper teachers in the important work we do; they only keep truths under cover. I’m willing to believe that the architects of these laws had something like “good intentions”—if they are willing to prove it by admitting they were wrong and ripping up their hall pass by repealing them.
We need to grant our teachers freedom to answer questions without the self-censorship that accompanies the spurious thought of “divisive concepts.” We need to do so before another conversation happens in another classroom where a teacher must speak in a manner less than free. Restricted speech can only lead to a restricted classroom environment; a free flow of ideas and conversation is essential to the project of learning.
The school year is short; teachers need every moment to build trust and capitalize upon it in our quest for truth in education. We need that freedom today.