Vulnerable Circumstances; giving grace to teachers tackling racism

A new-to-the-profession education, Jessica Dunker, taught a lesson on racial slurs to her English language learners. She was caught in the conservative crosshairs because of a still shot of the lesson that went viral.

Yes, we need to continue to teach about racism even when we make mistakes, and yes, we are going to make them – even educators of color.

The following was written by Jessica in response to the hateful media attacks against her by right-wing domestic terrorists. It is a call to those of us who want racial justice in our schools. We must show up to support young educators of color who are being vulnerable and doing the work we claim we want. It’s a call to those who may judge too quickly and harshly based on snap shots and conservative mischaracterizations.

We will make mistakes, and we must give grace.

This statement letter is in response to the recent incident that took place at Marysville Middle School on Tuesday, October 25 and Wednesday, October 26, 2022, involving pictures of our class that were spread through a student via Snapchat.

Many have seen this photo, and others have likewise shared the photo. In the photo, I am pictured with the white board reading two words: one racial slur and one racially charged word that has been reclaimed by the Black community. These two words were used as an example during our class conference on anti-racist education and anti-rascist practices we can implement as students and individuals.

I compared these two words on the board to avoid saying them aloud, and I apologize for the harm and damage these photos have caused upon sight regarding racial equity and racial justice. I made a mistake in writing them down, and in hindsight, I realize I took a chance with our intermediate multilingual learner students in their social and emotional understanding of topics concerning race.

I chose to have a week-long conference on anti-racism with my multilingual learners, because in our first week of school, several Latino students told me they felt some teachers at Marysville Middle singled them out because of the color of their skin. As upsetting as this news was, I held onto it. I sat in the uncomfortability of hearing these words from a 13-year-old boy. I asked who felt the same way, and I held on to the feeling of seeing the faces of my students who raised their hands.

My first thoughts then were to address the racism felt by our students, and I did. I spoke privately with our principal, Mary Ingraham, about the worrisome reports of racism coming from our students of color. Mary and I agreed that we needed to take action, and soon, but in order to have these hard, meaningful conversations, our school community needed the time to build the trust and rapport needed in a secure learning environment.

Talking about anti-racism practices in school is a necessity, not only for the equity of our students of color, but for the equity of our students who are being bullied in the halls with this hate language. I have 6th graders who have expressed their discomfort at hearing older students use this hate language with each other, some of them saying they were targeted by other students with this language. Other students have felt encouraged by the use of this language, so I have heard 6th graders using this hate language too.

Meaning, Latino students are calling other Latino students racial slurs, slur words that have not been reclaimed. Black people are calling other Black people racial slurs, words that have not been reclaimed. I have heard racist slurs and hate language from Latino students targeted at Middle Eastern students. I have heard Latino students mocking Indian accents. This is unacceptable behavior from our students.

These offensive words are coming directly from our middle schoolers, aged 11-15 years old, despite the backlash students receive from teachers and their peers when this hate language is used in school. Still, the hate language persists.

In an effort to address this rising concern in our school’s student population, I chose to take a step back from my regularly scheduled content and focus on the psychological security and well-being of our intermediate, multilingual learners in a week-long conference.

In our discussion on Tuesday, I underlined the importance of understanding the history of hateful language and slurs used against minority communities. We discussed how word reclamation has been normalized in our society, but misappropriated by our students. We discussed the impact of using hateful language against one another and how these words should never be used, especially not from one student of color to another.

Word reclamation is not a new phenomenon. Word reclamation is a process whereby a minority community repurposes a slur word historically used by the majority to degrade and dehumanize the minority people. The most prominent word that has been reclaimed today is the “n” word, which is used by the Black community in casual, contextual conversations in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE).

The act of word reclamation is to distinguish the differences in connotation between the historic use of the racial slur. In this case, I was noting the extreme difference between the “n” word ending with “-er,” and the reclaimed word, ending in “-a.” In order for word reclamation to have an impact, the word being reclaimed requires a society to acknowledge and understand the history of the word – its former connotation and its current connotation – for the minority community.

I posted the summary of our class conference in my meeting notes, which is posted on my Google Classroom for families and students in that class to access and review on their own.

While this incident has certainly challenged me both personally and professionally, I remain committed to the cause of promoting equity in our schools. I remain steadfast in this belief, because as a person of color, I have been directly affected by racism and the inequities of the American education system, and I have far more privilege than many of my students do.

I believe it is my job to ensure our students have an equitable chance at success, and that begins with their self-esteem at such a young, impressionable age, many in vulnerable circumstances.
I know anti-racist education has stirred up controversy in the news nationwide, and I believe America is at a turning point. If we, as educators, do not discuss the realities of all our students, then we are choosing to ignore the systemic issues that our students often carry by themselves. We, as educators, need to rise to the challenge of anti-racist education in order to address the inequities in our schools and communities. Leadership begins here.

Leave a Reply