Earlier this month, my school went into lockdown. It started with some confusion – “Is this a drill?” Soon enough, we learned an armed man had fled from a nearby McDonald’s and was being pursued on the road in front of our school.
As we waited for news, a realization struck me. My husband was due any minute at school to drop something off for me. I frantically grabbed my phone and dialed.
“Are you near school?” I asked.
“About a minute away,” he responded.
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“Turn around. Don’t come,” I told him, before explaining the situation. Once I was sure he’d turned around and was far from campus, my heartbeat slowed back to normal.
Only later did I have time to unpack my rush of fear. As I pictured the police pursuit – and indeed, we’d seen a helicopter above us – I suddenly was terrified to have my husband anywhere near the scene. My intuitive fear hadn’t been directed at the armed person fleeing the McDonald’s; it had been focused on what might happen if police in pursuit of a suspect saw my husband in the school parking lot.
You can’t choose what your intuition says. It’s an amalgam of instinct and experience. And intuition told me that if my husband, who is black, was anywhere near a police pursuit, things could end badly.
This experience reminded me of an “a-ha!” moment I had recently while attending the Racial Equity Institute at the United Church of Chapel Hill. One of the presenters, Deena Hayes-Greene, spoke to us about being the parent of a black child.
“I need to trust the white people in our lives,” she said, for it is important for the white people in their lives to be aware of the dangers that black people face daily and how quickly a situation can turn dangerous. A white person spending time with her son needs to have his back and think about race. “You put his life in danger if you don’t talk about or think about race,” Deena said.
She added that the price of being black is always being cautious and aware of surroundings, and white people in their lives need to be cognizant of this: “You have to be watching his back and others around you. You have to be acutely aware that that’s going on. If he tries to pretend that everything’s normal, he could be in danger.”
Deena put into words a feeling I’d had for a while but hadn’t been able to articulate. It was the desperation I felt to hear people in our lives say, “Black lives matter.” It was the hope that the organizations and systems in our lives would condemn the violent rhetoric and act to stop it. Deena helped me realized what I was waiting for: the answer to the question “Are we safe with you?”
This summer, my mom came home from church unsettled. Two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, had been shot by police over the course of two days that week, and then five police officers were killed in Dallas. The country was erupting into protests, vocalizing the pain and oppression. So my mom was shocked during the church sermon that week when the minister ignored the unrest completely, focusing his sermon on his son’s recent golf outing.
My mom never went back to that church. Instead, she and my dad have begun going to a local church that focuses on social justice. It says, “Black lives matter.” It talks about poverty and LGBTQ rights and environmental issues. I admire it endlessly. But I admire my parents, too. They saw the minister’s silence for what it was, and they refused to accept it.
Some time ago I realized that there is no such thing as being apolitical as a teacher. What I choose to teach and discuss matters as much as what I avoid and don't teach. Sometimes we prefer to think that our classrooms are insulated from the rest of the world. It would perhaps be simpler if schools operated in a vacuum, but educational justice can’t be achieved with grit and growth mindset. We must confront injustice.
Impact matters more than intent. So I’m getting comfortable with discomfort. I will talk about race and systems and access to resources. My daughter will grow up noticing which teachers and friends are silent, and which ones get it. My students will notice if I am silent, or if I get it. My daughter and my students will notice, too, if I am courageous enough to challenge the status quo, and if I equip them to do the same. Instead of silence, we will stand up and be counted.
Katie Mgongolwa lives in Chapel Hill. You can reach her at Katie.Mgongolwa@gmail.com.