Torching the Tightrope- An Open Letter to Black Men in the Classroom
Updated: Jun 30
A few weeks back when protests for George Floyd had just started I called my older brother to see how he was doing. It was supposed to be a quick conversation, a “how you holding up” check in, so I could hear about his happenings and express love before joining the community in the streets at a local rally. He recounted that he was going through some personal issues in addition to everything happening in the larger world, so the discussion extended as he explained what was resting on his heart. I listened intently while designing a sign dedicated to Black women who had been murdered by the police state. I had included Breonna Taylor’s name huge front and center and the now-familiar hashtag: “SAY HER NAME.” The message was simple: “Don’t forget about them. Don’t forget about us!” As my brother shifted through various topics in his personal life- issues with our mother, his baby mother, and his former partners- a common thread emerged: Black women, in his eyes, had a lot to be sorry for. It feels important to note here that my brother is the type of Black man who will proudly tell you that he only dates “queens.” In his opinion, his support for Black women has been unwavering. Any attempts to discuss how he treats these women is casually brushed aside in our conversations, so I have learned to take it all with a grain of salt. After all, it’s my sincere belief that any man with a mouth full of expectations for women, but no willingness to examine his own treatment of the opposite sex, should be ignored. Nonetheless, I found myself stuck- literally frozen in place- as he casually noted, “After a lifetime of dealing with only Black women, what I know for sure is that none of them know how to communicate and they all lie.”
Truthfully, I have always grappled with calling Black men out when they aren’t demonstrating the support we need them to show. And nowhere have I felt the struggle more acutely than in the workplace.
I didn’t process until many days later... the irony of running out to a protest for Floyd with a sign begging people to remember Black women, moments after being told by my own brother that Black women aren’t worth believing.
In the moment, I froze and quickly got off the phone. I still haven’t spoken to him since. Truthfully, I have always grappled with calling Black men out when they aren’t demonstrating the support we need them to show. And nowhere have I felt the struggle more acutely than in the workplace. Black men only account for 2% of teaching jobs nationwide. And in schools like the ones I’ve taught in, where Black children make up 80-90% of the population, their presence is desperately needed. I often find myself in the same position as the other Black women in the building- ignoring misogynist statements or overlooking instances of toxic masculinity- because we tell ourselves that our students, especially the boys, *need* these Black male educators. I've also grappled with the fear of becoming one of “those women,” the ones folks accused of being divisive or “attacking” Black men unfairly. So, as a queer Black woman I found myself in the exact same position in schools as I was in conversations with my brother: forever walking a tightrope. I balanced precariously between honoring my full self by denouncing misogyny, homophobia, & transphobia, and accepting a version of Blackness that centers cishet men, and therefore dismissed any issues that emerged due to my gender identity or sexual orientation. And if I couldn’t keep balanced on that tightrope and was forced to pick a side, I *always* sided with Black men. Regardless of whether they would go to bat for me in the same way that I did for them, I knew that they were needed in these schools so I held it down like I thought I was supposed to.
[In schools] I balanced precariously between honoring my full self... and accepting a version of Blackness that centers cishet men... And if I couldn’t keep balanced and was forced to pick a side, I *always* sided with Black men. Regardless of whether they would go to bat for me in the same way that I did for them...
It took an incident with a Black male coworker to push me to investigate this loyalty and question if it was causing more help or harm. A while back I had started working with seniors in addition to my regular teaching schedule. I had volunteered to pop into a few classes during my off periods to make announcements for those who needed assistance with postsecondary plans. There was only one Black male teacher in the entire building and I was headed into his room that day. As I set up my computer, I heard a few kids discussing a famous professional athlete who had recently been accused of rape. The teacher, loudly interrupted the students to proclaim, “I know he didn’t rape that girl! She’s in it for the money!” He went on to explain to the students how he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that this woman was lying: “She didn’t go directly to the police,” he yelled, “everyone knows that if you’re really raped you go straight to the police.” He made more egregious statements, the most ridiculous of all being that women who are “raised right” knew to seek police intervention, therefore anyone who didn’t was simply a liar. At this point, I had given up trying to set up my computer and stood dumbfounded at the front of the room. My first thought was a strong sense of solidarity with the Black girls in the class, a tugging at the heartstrings for those who had already been through an assault... and a lump in my throat for the ones who would in years to come. When nearly 1 in 5 women survive these ordeals, it is not a stretch of the imagination to know that this is something our youth will have to navigate. My second thought was how deeply these children were being failed.
He yelled, “everyone knows that if you’re really raped you go straight to the police.”He made more egregious statements, the most ridiculous of all being that women who are “raised right” knew to seek police intervention...
Despite my clear discomfort, I had to address the triggering and misinformed comments so I stumbled through statistics, reasons why women don’t report, and low percentages of men actually held accountable. By the time I was done speaking I was shaking with anger and visibly upset. I left work for the day and took the next day off. The situation was disgustingly mismanaged by the organization. No one was willing to address the violent nature of the statements made, instead he was reprimanded for talking to students about non-curricular issues, a totally useless complaint that ain’t had shit to do with nothing, as my mama would say. By the time they got around to a mediation between the two of us, I felt that tightrope I mentioned earlier disappear altogether. For the first time in my life, I did not give a single flying fuck that he was the only Black man in the building. I didn’t think he should be teaching kids. Period. Of course, my opinion essentially meant nothing. To this day, he remains employed at that organization and I have since moved on.
For the first time in my life, I did not give a single flying fuck that he was the only Black man in the building. I didn’t think he should be teaching kids. Period.
More recently, I was reminded of that moment as I found myself back in a similar emotional space, teetering on the tightrope and unsure of how to proceed. The month of June brought one of the hardest weeks for Black women in a long time. We saw ourselves submerged in emotions as we read about 19 year old
Oluwatoyin Salau, who was brutally murdered by a Black man after tweeting that another had sexually assaulted her. The next day some of you may have seen the video of a group of Black men jeering at a confused-looking Black woman before literally dumping her body into a garbage bin. That video was followed by another viral incident of a Black man hitting a Black woman in the face with a skateboard because she rejected him. And then, before we even made it halfway through the week, J. Cole decided to step back into music after almost a year, not to express his support of the movement, or to drop an anthem for the protests, or to speak to solidarity with Black trans lives. He stepped back up to tell a Black woman to watch her tone so she can do a better job of teaching grown men who don’t know better.
I watched each of these incidents with a familiar knot in my stomach. It was the same tense feeling that emerged while listening to my brother rant about Black women who didn’t know their place; it was a feeling born of the tightrope I walked while ignoring a group of Black coaches joking about not wanting to touch a gay male student. I sulked through that week with a heavy cloud over my heart, balancing these disappointments with the intensity of everything else the recent uprisings brought forth. I carried it all into my therapist’s office where I rambled about Black women unconditionally supporting men who wouldn’t reciprocate those actions for us or any other marginalized group to be honest. And when I was done lamenting, I felt a burden lifted. I don’t know how, but my spirit had lit a new fire for itself. That fire left me feeling exactly as indignant as I had when I sat across the table from my coworker during that mediation... a moment in which I knew that I could no longer betray myself and the wellbeing of our students for the sake of keeping a Black male teacher in the building. Most importantly, that fire torched what was left of that tightrope!
I knew that I could no longer betray myself and the wellbeing of our students for the sake of keeping a Black male teacher in the building.
I left therapy that day reflecting on the hypocrisy I had embraced while trying to show unconditional support to Black male teachers. I realized that for years I had been distancing myself from everybody in schools who espoused homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, ableism, or sexist lines of thinking. But I always let Black men slide. I had been hesitant to give them that energy because I walked around with that 2% statistic in the back of my head. With so few of them in the classroom, I ignored problematic shit and focused on ensuring that they always felt supported and knew how much they were needed in the spaces. But I’m happy to say that 2020 has officially cancelled that shit.… If you are a Black man and you aren’t teaching young men about consent, or discouraging displays of toxic masculinity in the classroom, if you aren’t embracing all sexual orientations in your room, if you aren’t shunning misogyny and misogynoir publicly, and trying to disrupt your own misogynistic behaviors and striving to grow as an individual … if you ain’t doing none of that, I’m ok with saying that you’re part of the problem. And if the dope Black male teachers- the ones who feel that none of the shit from this article applies to them- if they don’t start checking the ones doing the harm, well then the numbers can stay at 2% for all I care. Black women got enough to carry around throughout the school day. The load will be easier without balancing on that shitty tightrope anyway.