The nation has been rocked by the deaths of numerous Black people in the past weeks. One of the ‘original sins’ of the United States, a wound that was self-inflicted, has been ripped open and over 400 years of pain has erupted at once. Americans are drawing lines in the sand and building walls with barbed wire over those lines. The great American experiment is failing.
What does this have to do with special education? How does anti-Blackness impact the education profession? What do you do in these times? These are valid questions, good questions…ones we all need to grapple with.
I offer some insight, as a Black male special educator. I do not speak for all Black people; the myth of the Black monolith ends here. I speak from my personal experience.
What does this have to do with special education?
Well, it has everything to do with special education. Special education and children with exceptionalities are diverse and socially aware. Our duty as educators is not to teach, but to educate, empower, support, and lead. We are the leaders in our schools on teaching strategies in academics, social/emotional skills, daily living, motor skills, Speech/Language, and so much more. We must reflect on our practices as a profession and ask the hard questions.
Am I educating, empowering, supporting, and being a leader for all my students, or am I just teaching the standards and meeting the IEP requirements? Am I using strategies to affirm the humanity of and promote the individual and collective uniqueness of my students? Am I instilling pride in self, family, community, nation, and world? Am I engaging in anti-racist and anti-oppressive practices? These are the things only you can answer as an individual.
How does anti-Blackness impact the education profession?
Anti-Blackness is woven into the foundation of America, so it impacts all aspects of American society. Anti-Blackness is evident in the school-to-prison pipeline, disproportionate identifications and behavioral referrals, the mental health of Black students, and a pervasive deficit mindset in our Black and other minority scholars. Anti-Blackness impacts our policies and practices, and it must be addressed head on. Those uncomfortable conversations, self-reflections, and actions must happen, individually and as a collective.
What do I do?
First, you educate yourself. It is your personal responsibility to read books, media, and academia produced by Black authors; do not rely on Black individuals to teach you. Can you confer and collaborate with Black individuals? Yes. Educate yourself on the history of Black students in this nation and within education. Evaluate the system and identify anti-Blackness within it and come together as a collective to eradicate it. Evaluate your pedagogies, identify the anti-Blackness, and eradicate. Take this as an opportunity for both personal and professional growth.
At the very least, affirm and empower your Black students. Affirm their heritage and uniqueness. Empower them through exposure to Black figures in history, Black culture in the curriculum, and be inclusive. Take your advocacy from the classroom to your administration, local boards, state boards, and national policy makers. Make sure they know that we as special educators affirm and support Black students and their families.
This is not the time to be silent and complacent because things are uncomfortable. This is the time to lean into discomfort and grow as a person, profession, and nation.
President Barack Obama once said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Be the change we seek; be the change we need.
Richard Williams is a special education teacher for students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD). Williams has worked in general education schools in self-contained EBD classrooms and two special education centers for students with severe EBD. He has a master’s in special education from Clark Atlanta University and is currently in the Leadership in Educational Administration program at Cappella University with a focus on compassion fatigue in special education teachers. An active CEC member, Williams has been a Reality 101 blogger as well as a member of the Yes I Can and Diversity Committees. Outside of the classroom, he is a plant-based lifestyle and animal rights advocate who runs a blog of book reviews and current events. In his spare time, he loves to read and go on hikes with his dog.