White Educators: Do You Recognize State Trooper Encinia?

I watched the Sandra Bland dash cam video Tuesday night. I knew the grim ending to the story before I even clicked play on my iPhone, but the video hit me all the same.

I couldn’t sleep as I replayed the images and sounds in my mind of Sandra Bland speaking up for herself and facing brutal retaliation. But besides the face value horror of the video, I was hit with another sinking feeling in my stomach as a sensation of familiarity crashed over me.

Watch the video again. This time replace Sandra Bland with a twelve-year-old girl. Replace the lit cigarette with chewing gum. Replace the car with a desk. Replace the state trooper with a teacher.

One of the most sickening aspects of the video was the way it brought into clear focus what police brutality (as a mechanism of racism) is really about: the maintenance of power. Sandra Bland refused to subjugate herself to the power and authority of State Trooper Brian Encinia and it enraged him. His response was to threaten her and assault her until he felt his power was reasserted.

Does this situation sound familiar? Have you ever seen a colleague lose their cool in the hallway? Or heard a booming yell through the thin school walls?

“I am a teacher and you are a student! I am an adult and you are a child!”

Of course all adults will lose their tempers from time to time. It’s a part of being human. Teachers aren’t exempt from fallibility.

But there’s something more at play than just kids mouthing off and adults “raising their voice”, something different and more nefarious. When we examine the role of race in our interactions with students we must acknowledge the role of power. White teachers working in schools with majority Black and/or Latino students must open our eyes to the power dynamic that’s more than just teacher/student, but also white/non-white and state/citizen.

Let’s return to the revised Sandra Bland scenario once more. It’s independent work time in your classroom and everyone is supposed to be working silently. You notice Sandra whispering to her neighbor and so you move towards her.

“Sandra, stop talking. Get back to work.”

“I wasn’t doing nothing! I was just askin’ Carlos for a pencil!”

She smacks her gum loudly to punctuate her response.

Your student is talking back, and now your power is challenged. Meanwhile layer on to this an impulse to tone police as your student’s use of African American Vernacular English presents another subconscious challenge to the dominant culture of your classroom. How do you respond?

Maybe Sandra is a straight-A student who’s acting out because she’s bored. Maybe she’s struggling just to pass and she’s frustrated. Does it matter?

White people generally, and white educators specifically, need to recognize that ending racism doesn’t end with stopping police brutality. Rather we need to take a hard look in the mirror at our own privilege and our own practices. We can’t pretend that we don’t wield the “master’s tools” with just as much deftness and deadliness as police officers. It’s called the school-to-prison pipeline.

Comparison of percentage enrollment vs. percentage of students disciplined, New York school district, 
2011-2012 school year. Source: Black Girls Matter 

Many “no excuses” charter schools are the most extreme examples of schools that reinforce that existing racialized power dynamic by valuing silence, compliance and respectable behavior over respect for the home life and culture of students. “Work hard. Be Nice.” may be a strategy for survival, but it is not a slogan for ending racial injustice.

But I would be dishonest if I pretended that the KIPPs, Uncommons, and Democracy Preps are the only offenders. The vast majority of teachers work in traditional public schools.

Returning to our situation with young Sandra one last time, let’s think about how it ends. Maybe it escalates into a shouting match? After she slams her desk down do you send her to the Dean’s office where she’ll face an in-school suspension? And what happens on the day she returns? What lessons has she learned about who has the power in your classroom, your school and the world, and who does not? Whose voice matters and whose does not?

Is this an ending we’re okay with? If not, what will we do to rewrite the story?


Originally published at The Educator’s Room


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