I stood in front of the classroom— the only white person in the room. My voice shaking with nervous tension. I stood ready(just barely), but reluctant to address the issue of race in our classroom. This was the first time that I had ever even acknowledged the topic. Up until that time, I had thought that because I was white race wasn’t something that I could openly talk about. I, like many teachers, believed that the issue of race was one to go unacknowledged— ignored. I can remember the exact conversation where my mind started to shift. It was in a conversation with a good friend, Vic Chaney. He was the only black educator in a school that educated almost solely black and brown children. He was a mentor to me— a man I truly respected and still do to this day. He spoke of a conversation that he had with his class on the topic of race. I looked at him and smiled. I spoke what was on my heart: “That’s great Vic, but I could never talk stuff the students would tear me apart.” He looked at me with a frank, exactness and simply responded: “Why can’t you? It’s not something your students can ignore.” The conversation ended shortly after, but that moment has stuck with me to this day. I cannot say with honesty that this change of thought was an easy one. It wasn’t a change that happened overnight. It took years of thought and intention.
The story of why I came to this work, is an unlikely one. But it is no more unlikely than the story that anyone listening to this could tell. I grew up in a small town that was largely white. I went to school with only two black students— 1 graduated, 1 was incarcerated. At that time I had given little thought to what it would be like to go to a school that didn’t see you. In this town, it was and still is not uncommon to hear the “n-word” uttered in a group of white people. The understanding of many was that this word was ok so long as there weren’t any black people around. At that time, I didn’t much know what to think of the word other than it was ugly.
I grew up proud to be of Syrian descent. I still am. I bare little resemblance to other Syrians so it isn’t something that anyone would know about me unless I choose to tell them. It wasn’t until the events of 9/11 hit, that I was reminded that my Syrian heritage was not something to be proud of. Friends, adults, and others jokingly called me a towel head. I really didn’t know how to respond other than to laugh with the crowd. Because ultimately I could just remove the label and I was still free to be who I was without it. I realize now that many others do not have that luxury.
I come to this work, knowing that I have a choice to fight for justice or ignore and go about my normal day. Along the way, I have often been reminded of this choice. Friends, family and even colleagues will say: “Why do you care? It’s not your fight.” In response, it is my fight. It is all of our fight. I care deeply about people— whether I know them or not. My focus and commitment to social justice specifically in education has only grown. I believe that every student that we teach regardless of race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation deserves to feel that they belong in our classrooms. That starts with opening the conversation. We are all at different places along our journey. Where we are at currently— doesn’t matter. It’s a starting point so long as we don’t stay there. As Jose’ Navarro once said: “If we can, we must.” I believe that we all can, so we must.