Addressing Student Behavior from an Anti-racist Lens

By Catherine Omeh


Hi, my name is Catherine Omeh, and I’m the Social Media and Storytelling Fellow for Our Turn Atlanta. Talking anti-blackness with non-Black people can be difficult, especially in environments that claim to be progressive. I want to share an experience from me and my friend Dan Tor about how we attempted to lead a conversation about anti-racism in the classroom, and how bringing up these topics can be frustrating for students.


From Dan: The incident arose in our corps’ class period. There were several students who had a reputation for constant misbehavior and disruption within their flight. I and other senior mentors held the belief that the three students, all African-American boys, misbehaved out of a natural immaturity often inherent to freshmen. However, I  had a change of heart and mind in both how I responded to and analyzed their behavior. 


In the anti-racist framework I began to use as a lens, I viewed the boys’ behavior as a potential response to the education’s system’s tendency to write off male African-American students as naturally aggressive, disruptive, and difficult. I don’t believe our classmates had labeled them this way, but that such behavior was a result of years of being told, treated, and dismissed as such. As if to say, “If that’s all they’ll see, then that’s all I’ll give out.” 


So after one particular class period, I approached my instructors and pitched the idea of discussing the boys’ behavior with them with this perspective in mind. Perhaps attempting to talk with the young men from a place of understanding and encouragement would lead to different results. Immediately, I was met with quiet shock, confusion, and defensiveness. Instead of discussing a way to address the behavior of those students with an anti-racist framework in mind, I found myself constantly reassuring these so-called “progressive” adults that they weren’t racist. 


I revisited the conversation with one of the instructors, a Korean-American man, later that day. While trying to clarify my position as inoffensively and deferential as possible, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated that everything I said came across as an indictment of his character. 


Mentions of discrimination in education immediately gave way to him talking about his very valid but very different experience as an Asian-American. Naming systematic disenfranchisement brought up his political leanings as a conservative. And discussing the phrase “I don’t see color,” brought up the other instructor’s history of fostering multiple black children.


I even explained to him how difficult it was to have to watch my own intensifying emotions as a Black cadet while also trying to clearly convey my words and stance.


This wasn’t the first time I’d broached issues of race with an educator, let alone an adult, but it had taken a toll on me mentally, and I found myself irritated and conflicted the rest of the day. To this day, no such discussion with the aforementioned students has occurred, and the original focus has been lost.


How can Black students receive equitable education opportunities if our educators aren’t willing to address the systems and practices that prohibit that?


From Catherine: I want to thank Dan for sharing their experience, as revisiting experiences such as these can be incredibly difficult. Second, I want to emphasize that you are not responsible for someone else’s journey of unlearning racism. To be anti-racist is a conscious decision they have to make, and it is not your obligation, especially if you are Black, to educate someone else. 


If you choose to, be sure to prioritize your well being. If you feel like you are being hurt from a conversation, there is no shame in taking a step back. That is not accepting “defeat”, it is making sure that you are engaging in the right headspace, and protecting your peace of mind.


Now, with that addressed, let’s talk about some common responses when addressing racism and how to respond to them.


“I don’t see color”: This sounds nice in theory, but ignores patterns that could be used to identify racism. For example, “75% of the students committing a dress code violation get written up.” This might not sound like a problem, but if it turned out that the majority of those 75% were Black students, that could indicate an issue. Learn more about colorblind racism here.


“I have black friends/family members”: First, this does not mean you understand what it is like to be perceived as Black. Second, Black people are not a monolith, one Black person’s ideas and experiences do not invalidate another. This is especially important considering many Black people feel the need to assimilate and code switch for opportunities and status.


“This person of another race does the same thing”: While all people of color have struggles, systemic oppression is experienced differently across races. If you are speaking about how one marginalized identity experiences oppression, you cannot be expected to speak on another, so try to remind others of this and emphasize keeping the conversation on the subject matter.


Thank you for reading this, and good luck!

Remember, you do not owe anyone the labor of teaching them how to dismantle their own racism. Take breaks as you need them- your wellbeing matters.