Las Vegas Sun

June 23, 2021

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GUEST COLUMN:

Tackling difficult topics: Race, police violence and the murder of George Floyd

This has been a tumultuous year, with the pandemic and the racial injustice crisis plaguing our country.

George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Breonna Taylor, Ma’Khia Bryant and Adam Toledo are only a few of the countless Black citizens whose lives have been lost at the hands of police. Floyd’s murder and the accompanying trial have been the focus of many conversations for communities of color for nearly a year, including for me and my students. Children so young should not be exposed to such toxic stress and trauma.

However, years of persistent police violence and racial injustice inevitably make their way into our classrooms. My students worry that their family members, friends or even themselves may be next to be killed by police. They don “I can’t breathe” masks. They are more cynical about a society and a system that seems to not value their Blackness and, in fact, sees it as a threat. Their cynicism is justified with each killing of another Black citizen, validated by the recent execution of Andrew Brown Jr. Mistrust, pain and anger overwhelm them.

As an Afro-Latinx educator, I feel empowered to engage in complex discussions about systemic inequity and racial injustice with my students. Yet these discussions can be challenging. One of my students recently said, “Black people can’t be cops — they are ‘Uncle Toms.’ ” Another student remarked that I can’t know what it is to be Black because I identify as Afro-Latinx and speak Spanish. In these instances, I share my experience growing up as Black in some circles and as Latino in others.

I know my students are vulnerable to ongoing trauma from police violence and brutality. I also know that school may be the only place where they feel safe, so I make space for them to discuss race and police violence — most recently the murder of Floyd by Derek Chauvin — by intentionally planning to facilitate difficult conversations, engaging students with different questions and scenarios, and implementing a racial equity curriculum.

Facilitate difficult discussions

Even at the age of 10, my students understand how police contact can be problematic for people of color, specifically Black and Latinx community members. We discuss how quickly incidents, such as the one involving George Floyd, can escalate. I build relationships with my students by sharing personal experiences from my upbringing, such as collective community, Sunday morning church service, and racial profiling by police. These connections help to better facilitate difficult discussions. My students, in turn, share their experiences of violence that occurs in the neighborhoods, as well as their thoughts and fears about racism and violence in our broader state and national communities.

Engage students in candid conversations

We often engage in candid conversations about police perceptions and police engagement with people of color. I help my students examine the system that exists in which people of color can be arrested and possibly lose their lives for minor offenses, whereas white people may be subject to a warning and/or minimal consequences. These conversations can be painful for us. It is important to be candid and open, and assist students in understanding current, local and national incidents of police violence that are relevant to their families and prevalent in their communities. 

Racial equity curriculum and programming

Racial equity curriculum and programming and resources allow students to explore their fears, anger and thoughts. It validates their concerns while emphasizing values of equity, diversity and inclusion — and builds and strengthens relationships. As teachers, we must commit to advocating for racial equity in order to meet the needs of all students and families. Students deserve nothing less as their lives hang in the balance.

Conversations are an effective way to bridge race relations and help students process and better comprehend their thoughts, emotions and reactions to complex issues in our communities. As teachers, we must facilitate such conversations so all of our students who are subject to racism, racial injustice and systemic racism know that their experiences and lives matter and have value.

Dawrin Mota is a math instructional coach at Elizondo Elementary School in Las Vegas. He also teaches a remedial math class at the College of Southern Nevada Adult Literacy and Language program and serves as a Teach Plus Nevada Senior Policy Fellow.