By Kisha Derr
I grew up in a small town on Long Island, New York, and attended a middle school where I was the only student of color. There were many painful experiences that served to remind me of this fact on an almost constant basis. .
I was not a great student, but I was a superb writer. I earned excellent grades on all of my writing assignments, and I took great pride in entertaining the class with my stories and plays. My classmates frequently expressed that they enjoyed my writing, and it was widely accepted among the sixth grade that I was the best writer in our class.
Midway through the year, my teacher announced that she would be creating a special writing award that would be given at the end of the year awards ceremony. The award would go to the best writer in the class. The requirements were simple: the winning student needed to consistently have shown creativity and prowess in writing. Given the reputation I had among my peers, I was certain I would win the award.
On the day of the ceremony, I sat in my chair waiting nervously but patiently for my name to be called. It never was.
Instead, the award was given to a boy who was a semi-decent writer, but certainly not the best. My classmates looked as shocked and confused as I felt. I did my best to convince them (and myself) that I didn’t really care about the award, and I stuffed my hurt and disappointment somewhere deep down inside. On the last day of school, I mustered enough courage to ask my teacher why I had not won the writing award when my classmates considered me to be the best and most creative writer in the class.
The look on her face was one of cruel satisfaction as she responded with, “I guess you learned an important lesson; sometimes being the best just isn’t enough.”
The lesson she taught me that day is one that speaks to the experience of everyday racism: being overlooked and undervalued.
Everyday racism is being afraid to speak your truth or share your experiences for fear of not being supported or believed. It is being constantly aware of your voice tone, facial expressions and posture out of fear of being perceived as aggressive.
It is exhausting.
Some have the idea that if “people would just stop talking about race” then everything will be fine. I can assure you that if you’ve ever experienced the effects of racism first hand then you know that nothing can be further from the truth. Let’s not continue to shove racism under the rug.
In the past few weeks, many of my friends and family members who have been shocked and outraged by the deaths of Amaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have reached out to offer support. They have asked what they can do to help fight racism. My advice has been the same each time: Listen. Believe. Learn.
Listen to people when they express their pain, hurt, or frustration. Hear our stories and listen to our experiences. Really listen from a place of understanding and support, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Understand that there is nothing comfortable about racism.
Believe what you hear. Too often the painful effects of the initial incident are exacerbated by not being believed. Racism is by its nature unbelievable! There are incidents I have personally witnessed that I’m not sure I would have believed had I not seen them with my own eyes. If someone is brave enough to share their experience with you, believe them, even if it is hard.
After listening to and believing the experiences of people of color, the most important thing to do is learn. Research the history of race in America, how it was constructed, and how it is playing out in today’s society. Understand that we were not taught the whole story about American history in school. It is not ok if the only black history you know is the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Seek to learn as much as you can.
Remember, racism always begins with the dehumanization of others. Ending racism starts with recognizing, reclaiming, and respecting the humanity of people who have been systematically dehumanized for four hundred years. By not talking about it, we help it fester and spread.
When we are able to connect personally, it becomes harder to mistreat one another. Hear us. Believe us. Educate yourself and fight for us, because we matter. Compassion is not political; it is human.
Kisha Derr is principal of Lee Early College in Sanford.