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‘Will I get fired for this?’ Rejecting white supremacy has a high cost in education | Opinion

Camden educator Rann Miller has been tasked with dismantling racist practices in his Camden school district. How long will his job last?

Rann Miller is the head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for his Camden charter school district, and is reshaping curriculum to include important perspectives from the BIPOC community once left out.
Rann Miller is the head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for his Camden charter school district, and is reshaping curriculum to include important perspectives from the BIPOC community once left out.Read moreTHOMAS HENGGE / Staff Photographer

In early October, just before Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I sent an email to my whole school district to offer resources to my colleagues for discussing Christopher Columbus with their students. I included links to articles, book recommendations, and peer-reviewed journal articles. After I hit the send button, I wondered: Am I going to get fired for sending this?

A question originally posed to myself as tongue-in-cheek suddenly became serious as I considered the gravity of what I did.

I sent the email because of our district’s demographics. While our district has a higher percentage of Black and Latinx teachers compared with the percentages statewide, white teachers make up 70% of our faculty. However, our student population is 84% Latinx and 15% African American. Therefore, it is important for our teachers to be familiar with Columbus Day’s rebranding and celebration as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. I stressed to them that we need to celebrate first peoples, from whom many of our students descend, vs. honoring one responsible for both their massacre and forced assimilation into the culture of a colonial power.

As a director of anti-bias, diversity, equity and inclusion, this is my job. I am empowered to do this sort of thing. It’s my job to caution teachers against the irresponsible and inaccurate narratives about Christopher Columbus that they’ve taught for decades. But still, it was wild to think that I might be the first person in our district to ever question Columbus’ legacy publicly.

As a former history teacher, I’ve waited my entire career to do this. After 11 years in education, teaching against white supremacist history to hundreds of students, I am excited to now be able to help shape the curriculum to be more accurate and to reflect the truth of what happened to people who look like our students.

“Even though school districts say they need positions like mine, I wonder if they are really ready for all the smoke that comes with it.”

Rann Miller

But still, with each email and meeting, I always worry: Is this the message that’s going to convince them to eliminate this position?

Thankfully, my district has invested in my role and I am supported in my work, from the superintendent to our administrators and faculty. I am refreshed by and appreciative of that. As an advocate for Black and brown children, my love for the people fuels me to do what I do. However, I cannot ignore that the creation of my current role, and similar roles around the country, has come largely as a result of the last year of racial reckoning, spurred by the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.

Sadly, what usually happens after the loud outrage against racial injustice is a quiet return to normalcy; in this case, a pre-COVID normalcy where Black and brown bodies were largely exploited while their lives were often ignored. And so, even though school districts say they need positions like mine, staffed by individuals with the competency and passion to fill them, I wonder if they are really ready for all the smoke that comes with it.

Put another way: How long before my colleagues get tired of my reminding them the lives of BIPOC kids matter both outside and inside the classroom?

If you think that my concerns sound ridiculous, consider this: A white teacher was fired for teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates; a Black principal, accused of promoting critical race theory, was suspended; Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator and author of The 1619 Project, had an invitation from a prominent school rescinded; and Black educators feel (and very well may be) silenced. Our current political climate of distrust and disdain for truth has seeped into the public education space, with calls against the teaching of critical race theory and The 1619 Project or the use of terms such as white supremacy and systemic racism. The result being protests at school board meetings and laws introduced — and even passed — by state legislatures and in Congress.

I recognize that the perspectives of Black people aren’t always valued within a white institutional space. Therefore I know my role, with its freedom, comes with the steep cost of always looking over my shoulder — knowing that at any time, my district can change course, I could be out of a job, and our students devoid of an advocate.

James Baldwin once said that he didn’t know every white person personally but that he knew them historically. Well, I am a student of history and I recognize the fugitive nature of being a Black teacher, which is an ancestral vocation.

In his book Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, Jarvis Givens explains the tradition of Black education, birthed during enslavement, and how enslaved Black people in America pursued education in secret, pre- and post-enslavement, going against the laws and customs of the times, risking violence if they were discovered. It was a means of freedom for them.

Similar to fugitive slaves fearful of recapture, Black educators are rightfully concerned, as they were generations before, that their desires to teach truth and affirm Black identities through their given content areas will be discouraged, or even outlawed, by relegating them to primarily policing Black students and being a racial reference for white educators. According to Givens, the art of Black teaching provides to Black students a reinterpreted existence within an anti-Black society.

I know this to be true because such a reinterpreted existence was afforded to me in college, where I was inspired by and exposed to Black teachers. Because of that experience, I am proudly an heir of that tradition, which motivates me to do this work.

So my colleagues will get emails for Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Three Kings Day, the holy month of Ramadan, and Pride Month, too. I will continue to teach my sophomores from books like An African American and Latinx History of the United States and share articles from the Journal of Negro History. And I’ll continue to curate culturally affirming books for elementary and middle-school students and facilitate workshops based on the work of acclaimed Black American pedagogical theorist and educator Gloria Ladson-Billings.

As I do my work each day, I am reminded of Langston Hughes, who said, “Freedom is a strong seed planted in great need.” Black educators, including myself, were once seeds planted by generations before, and I’ll continue to do the work of seed-planting as long as I am in my district, and beyond. Because I believe that I can help my students, and their teachers, be a little more free — one seed at a time.

Rann Miller is an educator and freelance writer based in southern New Jersey. His “Urban Education Mixtape” blog supports urban educators and parents of children attending urban schools. @UrbanEdDJ