Confronting All American Racism

In the past couple of years I have read The Hate U Give, How it Went Down, Dear Martin, Monster,  Growing up X,  Long Way Down, The Poet X, and Ta-Nehesi Coates’s Between the World and Me to name a few.

Meanwhile All American Boys has sat on my shelf, staring at me, wondering when they day would come that I would pick it up and give it a read.

I’m surprised it took as long as it did given my admiration for Jason Reynolds and his writing. My youngest turned me on to him several years ago and we tend to buy, and read, everything he writes as soon as it comes out. And yet, for some reason, All American Boys sat unread, for years.

Then, this past unit, I invited my 11th graders to choose any book that was at, or slightly above, their reading level and do a project with it. I told them to find a book that they would enjoy and rekindle their old love of reading. I told them I wanted the chance to get to give them points for reading something they liked for a change. I have fair classroom library and I let them know they could borrow any of my books.

One of my students chose All American Boys. I was thrilled. I let him know I hadn’t read it yet, but that it had been on my “read next” shelves for a while and that I was looking forward to hearing his thoughts on the book.

A couple of months later, he walked into class, tossed the book at me and said, “I’m done. I don’t need that anymore.”

“Was it great?” I asked.

“No, it sucked.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It was too confusing.” Then he sat down and wouldn’t say anything else. His project also did not reveal the source of his confusion and disgust. I decided I had to read it myself to try to figure out what the issue was.

The book is told from 2 points of view: Rashad, an African-American teen who is an All American boy – he’s part of junior ROTC, he keeps his grades up, he plays by all the rules – and he knows there are extra because of his skin color, but he plays by those too, his dad makes sure of it – And Quinn, an All American White Boy – he’s your stereotypical jock who plays hard on, and off, the basketball court. He’s hoping to get scouted, but come Friday night, it’s party time.

Sometimes having a changing point of view can be confusing for students. However, Reynolds and Kiely worked to solve this confusion by naming each chapter after the point of view character, and also making sure that the tone of each character, not to mention the setting of each chapter was different enough that even if you developed “title blindness” you would still know whose chapter it was. See, after chapter 1, Rashad’s chapters are all written from a hospital room.

Rashad is beaten, nearly to death, by a cop in chapter 1. And we see, clearly, through his eyes that he did nothing wrong. We also see, because Rashad has been trained by his father to see, what the cop might have seen. When Rashad bends down to get something out of his bag, and a white woman trips over him, the first thing the cop seems to be worried about is her safety. Once she says that she’s fine, his eyes go to Rashad’s hands, near his now open bag, and the chips he used to be carrying. Perhaps this Black boy was stealing. The cop never gives Rashad a chance to explain. The cop drags Rashad outside, beating him into submission, even though his hands are already cuffed.

Meanwhile, Quinn is approaching the store, hoping to find someone who will buy booze for him and his buddies. It’s Friday night, after all. He sees a cop shove a Black teen through the door and beat him to the ground, and then keep beating him. He recognizes his best friend’s brother. The brother who took Quinn under his wing and helped to raise him after Quinn’s dad died in the war. He doesn’t recognize the teen, or know what the kid could have done to warrant this level of beat down, but he knows the cop, and trusts him, even if he doesn’t recognize this version of him.

The story moves forward from there, with each boy processing the events of that night with friends and family, and sometimes strangers. Each of them trying to fit the events of the night into their understanding of the world.

And here, we come to what I think was the confusing part for my student – SPOILERS AHEAD!

Quinn, the All American White BoyTM, slowly begins to question himself, his convictions, his world view, and his best friend’s brother. As more information comes out about the event that he witnessed, he begins to believe that there was nothing Rashad could have done that would have warranted the beating he received. He begins to question his loyalty to #BlueLivesMatter. He begins to examine not only his own privilege, but also his own passive racism, the ways that he fails to challenge the racism in the community, the ways that he often fails to even see it.

And that, I think, was the source of confusion for my student, himself an All American White BoyTM.  He was being asked to confront and challenge his own latent racism, his own blind loyalty to #BlueLivesMatter, his own assumptions about who was innocent, who was guilty, and who was deserving of protection and safety – and not by Rashad, but by Quinn, a boy who looked and acted and lived just like my student. My student had been waiting to learn that Rashad was guilty of something, and instead was asked to examine his own complicity, his own latent guilt. It was confusing, and uncomfortable.

I found myself thinking about the two times I taught To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. And both times, when we got to the trial scene, which I had scripts for so that we could re-enact it, I would pause and ask, “Why is Mayella Ewell lying?” and both times White students would get upset and try to argue that she wasn’t, and that Tom Robinson was guilty. Both times, at the end of the trial, after teaching my heart out, I did an exit ticket asking students to be the jury, and overwhelmingly, my White students found Tom Robinson guilty.

We’d spend the entire next class re-reading to find evidence of his guilt or innocence, and despite the overwhelming evidence that he was innocent and she was lying, despite the explanations of why she might be lying, many students still refused to budge, defaulting to, “Well, he might not have raped her, but he must have done something or they wouldn’t have arrested him.” We read articles about the Scottsboro Boys who inspired the book, and articles about lynchings. We examined articles about innocent, unarmed Black men and women who had been extrajudicially killed in recent years. We discussed the presumption of innocence that is supposed to anchor the American justice system.

The last year that I taught the book, I had a White student become violently aggressive with me because I wouldn’t stop talking about race and bringing these additional texts in as we read the second half of the book, “Not everything is about race. Sometimes Black people commit crimes and they get the same punishments a White person would. Black people just need to learn to listen to cops and do what they’re told.” I brought in articles and TED talks to show the dishonesty in that statement, and to pull To Kill a Mockingbird out of the dusty past (my student’s other excuse, “Yeah, but that was then. Racism is fixed now.”) and into the present.

But my White students did not want to hear it. They did not want their world views challenged. They did not want to have their eyes opened. They did not want to have to see. Because right now, and probably always if I’m honest, too many White people believe that being called racist is somehow worse than being the actual victim of racism. Confronting our own privilege and our own passive (or active) racism makes us uncomfortable, and we’re not used to that feeling. We don’t know what to do with it.

Last year, I tried to give my students an outlet. I tried to teach them how to take that discomfort and turn it into positive action. I told them to pick any of the “isms” in To Kill a Mockingbird, which let’s face it, is a veritable catalog of “isms,” and research what that looks like now, and then find a charity or organization working to combat or challenge the effects of that bigotry and put together a short presentation that introduced the problem, and offered a solution. Because, I get it, being uncomfortable is… uncomfortable. But my privileged discomfort is NOTHING compared to having to live with the effects of systemic prejudice. In fact, my privileged discomfort puts me in a unique position to take action, because I can do so safely and without inviting further risk or harm on myself. I can stand up for people facing discrimination that I don’t face because I am White, and cis and middle class and educated in a specific way.

Like Quinn, I can use my discomfort for good, I can raise my voice in spaces that others can’t reach.

And that is what I want to teach my students – to feel and acknowledge their discomfort, and then to turn it into positive action. Too often our discomfort is channeled back to the people we think made us uncomfortable in the first place, the messengers, the victims who dared to speak up. But we need to realize that they aren’t the cause of their own pain, or our discomfort, the perpetrators are – even when they look like us. (We see this in the backlash to the #MeToo movement as well.)

My district recently bought 400 copies of The Hate U Give to be used in 11th grade English classes. All year I have been building a unit around it. More and more, I want to bring in some of these other books – All American Boys, The Way it Went Down, and others that challenge us to look upstream, to stop blaming drowning victims for getting us wet and asking us to help them, instead of blaming the people who pushed them into the river in the first place.

I’ve always believed in the power of the right book, at the right time, to save a life. But I always framed it as the book saving the reader – more and more, I realize we need to harness literature’s power to build empathy and understanding so that these books can save not the life of the reader, but the lives of the people the reader encounters later. How much harder is it to enact violence against “the other” when you realize they are just as “All American,” just as human, and just as deserving of the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as you?

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