When Clip Art Isn’t Just Clip Art: Teaching In the Time of Racial Tensions

It’s a Friday night as I’m writing this. I left work a few hours ago, but I can’t turn off my brain. I’m a school teacher. More specifically I work with children who have significant challenges in different areas; special education. I’m a woman. I’m Black. Most of my students are Black or of color. You need to know this. You need to know that this is why I’m afraid that I won’t be able to sleep tonight.

I was planning and getting materials together for the upcoming week. I found a social story (a story with a specific way of writing that helps to teach social skills) on talking out of turn or blurting out. It’s one thing to be so excited that you just can’t hold your answer or opinion in anymore and it’s another thing to constantly talk over people. We all know that person, they show up at game nights. You’re all around the table playing “Catch Phrase” and they blurt out the answer whether it’s their team guessing or not. It’s not the most inappropriate thing, but it gets to be annoying and rude after the third game night and no one wants to be on that team.

Well, I was coloring the clip art characters of the social story and I noticed something. The main character, the kid that was blurting out, looked Black. I mean, these are Black and White clip art kids, but this little girl looked Black to me. It was the hair, I think. Her hair was drawn with those semi circles that give off the idea of natural Black curly hair. So this kid, this kid that looks Black to me, is standing there with her mouth wide open, seemingly yelling or blurting out, and I froze.

Colored pencils in hand, I froze. It was me, the angry Black girl. Or maybe it was just a girl that I knew. I tried to color her skin green and her hair blue. I still saw Black and rude. I colored the other kids red and orange and purple and none of them looked like her. None of them looked like me, but she did. She still looked like the angry Black girl in a world committed to shutting her up. I crumbled one of the pages and tossed it in the trash. She was Black no matter the color I chose; Black and angry and wrong. I mean, the kid that I need this for is Black so why am I so freaking angry?

I’m angry because of the depiction. The stereotype; the fact that he’s four and shouldn’t have to see himself as too loud and too Black. I’m angry because of the university of Missouri. I’m livid that there is no one within fifty feet of me that understands this internal struggle that I am having. I’m frozen because as I look through the book, the pages that illustrated socially appropriate behavior had little straight haired girls. Girls sitting cross-cross applesauce, smiling and shaking hands.

Girls that no longer looked Black to me. For goodness sake these are Black and White clip art drawings and all I see is color. In my heart of hearts, I know this is not what the author intended. She was probably just trying to do what she thought was best for her students. Yet I can’t use this story, not with these pictures. I can’t have him see himself as wrong or as needing to be silent or as less than because he gets a bit too excited at times. I’ve been there. That was me.

I’ve been the girl who has always been a little too much. The too loud girl with big hair and a big attitude who could be great if she just toned it down a bit. Straightened her hair, put on a skirt. Now, I love a good skirt, but that’s beside the point. The point is that I am suffering. We are suffering. I’m a Black teacher teaching Black children in a world that is hostile towards my people and I refuse to feed my babies books that say we are wrong or less than. I need and crave books with characters who look like my children, but not like this. Not today. Not ever. Not when my Twitter feed is full of students fighting for their livelihoods, screaming about injustice, yelling over the system that screws them via email and in their faces everyday.

I want to do my job. I swear I just wanted to color in peace. I want to live in color and in peace. I want peace for people of color. I want my children to be safe, even when their behaviors aren’t viewed acceptable. I want them to be accepted. I want something that I can’t have right now and that’s to teach my children in peace without negative perceptions haunting my lesson plans and picture books. I want to teach socially appropriate behaviors without silencing their spirits. I want to sleep tonight, but I stay woke.

I want to know that I am doing this teaching thing right in the midst of the struggle.

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