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Dear Decaturish – How do we protect our children in a system that does not value them?

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Dear Decaturish – How do we protect our children in a system that does not value them?

Kanika Sims
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Dear Decaturish,

‘Tis the season.  

During this season filled with tidings of joy, peace on earth, and goodwill to all men – in the City of Decatur – Black parents are once again faced with these questions: How do we protect our children in an oppressive system that does not value them? How do we continue to live in a community that prioritizes White comfort over Black dignity?

For those of you who haven’t been keeping up. Here’s a snippet. A White Physics teacher at Decatur High School said the N-word 3 times in his classroom filled with students

Need context? A Black student first said it to an Asian student in the class. Then, the White teacher repeated it. Some say he was disciplining an ‘unruly’ student, only repeating the word for clarity (three times) and caught in the heat of the moment when he said it. 

Some parents think he should be fired and there should be zero tolerance for White grown-ups using that word in a professional setting. Especially those in a position of authority over Black children.

Parents and students who object to the teacher being fired say it’s not fair to ruin a man’s career because of one mistake. They say he’s a heck of a Physics teacher and advocate for more anti-racist training and restorative practices. 

His use of this racial slur was made worse because the teacher reportedly said he could say whatever he wanted when a student told him that he was not allowed to use that word. 

Are you caught up? 

Therein lies the bigger problem. Our systems have made it clear that some can ‘say and do whatever they want’ while others do not have that privilege.  

A White officer can kneel on the neck of a Black man, leaving him breathless and dead. White men can jump in a pickup truck with guns, chase down a Black jogger, and kill him in broad daylight. It is a society that teaches White men that they can say and do whatever they want. It is a society that teaches Black people to know their place; if we step outside the boundaries set for us, the consequences are swift. 

Our school system is teaching our Black children more than Physics. It’s teaching them about their value and worth. It’s demonstrating who will be protected and who will not be. It’s teaching them their place in society. 

Many say….but the intent. The intent was not evil. The intent matters. Yes, it does. But does intent matter more than the impact? Well, that clearly depends on whom is being impacted. In my experience, the intent only matters when the person who causes the harm is White and the person harmed is a minority. The impact on minorities never matters as much as the White person’s intent. When White people are hurt, intent and context no longer matter, only the impact.

Let’s be clear.  

Dear White People – you do not get to say the N-word. Full stop. Ever. And the excuses, the questions….But….Black people say it, Black kids say it, and it’s in all the rap songs. None of that matters. You do not get to say it. You also do not get to police the Black community’s use of the N-word. You don’t have to understand this. Just know this is an immutable fact. 

Zero tolerance for the word ONLY applies to people who are not Black. If you find this concept difficult to grasp, there are articles (and books) that explain this. Please read them.

Dear CSD Administrators – you messed up. Again. This is no longer about this one individual. It’s about everything he stands for. White privilege. White oppression. White biases. White hate. He is a White man in a position of authority over Black children. His continued presence sends a message to Black parents and children that White comfort and White privilege will be prioritized at all times over Black dignity and Black safety. The Black community is saying we need to know our children matter and that you will protect them with the same swiftness.

I don’t have the solution. To be sure, I recognize this is a nuanced situation. I’m sure this Physics teacher is a good person, a great teacher, perhaps even an anti-racist (as some claim). However, it doesn’t change the fact that he has harmed our children and our community with his words. Therefore, there must be consequences on par with the harm done.

To determine those consequences, district leadership needs to hear the voices in the community and prioritize Black voices. The district needs to listen to the voices of the Black students in the school. Voices that call for accountability. The message must be crystal clear that the district values all of the children in our district, even the Black children.

White people do not get to center themselves in these conversations. They are unlikely to ever fully understand the historical significance, hate, oppression and vileness that the N-word embodies when leaving the lips of a White person. Remember, IMPACT, not the intent, matters here. White people in our community can’t change what has been done, but you can listen and amplify Black voices. You can empathize with the anger and pain of the Black community. You can center the protection of Black children within our community.

— Kanika Sims, MD, MPH, is a Physician, Health Equity & Workplace Inclusion Strategist and author of “Diversity Is Not a Dirty Word: Harnessing the Power of Inclusion to Create Anti-racist Organizations.”  

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