Column Aminata Cairo: Welcome to the Movement

First…. There was Corona, or Covid 19 that changed our lives in ways unimaginable. Suddenly we were forced to withdraw from each other, use strict hygiene regimens and had to remain inside. Work as we knew it stopped, school as we knew it stopped, socializing as we knew it stopped. It actually didn’t stop, it merely forced us to change how we looked at things, did things, and felt about things. We stopped running. We were forced to rest and be still. The earth had some reprieve. Yet we had to deal with the fear of illness or had to deal with the actual illness in our direct lives.

aminata cairo

Then in the U.S. Ahmad Aubrey happened, and Breonna Taylor, and Amy Cooper and finally George Floyd. In a short time span we were faced with the realities and horrors of racial discrimination that touched all of us so deeply. Set up by the Covid 19 pandemic, people were at home and attentive, and in a way that had happened never before, the message was able to hit home. Institutional racism is nothing new, those of us who have been doing the work for a long time have been trying to get the message across that some stories are more valid than others and that unequal treatment is an inherent part of our societal systems.

The message hit home and we were touched, deeply. People all over the world were touched deeply. Here was not an image anybody could reason or justify away. Here was not a story that could be dismissed with a “well, he was threatening” or “if only he had behaved differently”. This time it could no longer be denied. But mind you, the story of George Floyd was especially egregious in line with those other stories, each one a confirmation of the insidiousness of racism. These stories against the backdrop of a pandemic also confirmed that black lives somehow always are less valid and more at peril.

The outcry then was heard all over the world. From Minnesota to Australia, to Spain, Israel, South Africa and right here in the Malieveld in The Hague. People are taking a stance and saying institutional racism is wrong. But be clear, this is not just about the U.S., nor is it only about police brutality. It is about the insidiousness of dehumanization and inequality that is part of our everyday fabric in every aspect of our lives all over the world. For many this is an eye opener. For many others their pain is finally heard. The stories are not new, the voices are not new. But for a number of reasons now is a time it is all rising to the surface. This is not easy and definitely not “gezellig”, especially in the Netherlands where the mere mention of the word ‘racism’ has people running for cover. Yet we are here and we are up to the task, or at least we are expected to.

So what does this mean for us, especially those of us in the education community? We have plenty of information about racism, its history, all its aspects, its impacts, etc. That’s not what this is about. George Floyd touched us deeply, at the human level. There is no need for a theoretical analysis. “I felt hope when I went to the demonstration”, one young person told me. “I was moved by all the different people together”, another young person told me. “I want to hold on to that feeling”, yet another said. Our challenge in education is to turn that collective feeling into action, and not necessarily big action, but action none the less. We have to start somewhere.

First, be open to listening to people. Don’t just hear and quickly react based on how you have been affected by what you heard. Truly listen. Sometimes that might mean withdrawing in silence as others talk. Educate yourself. There is plenty of information available to learn about institutional racism, what it is, and how you are affected by it. Be aware that your black colleagues are not okay. Do not use them as your source of information. Check on them but be aware that they might not want to talk.

Be aware that our young people are not okay, black as well as others. Many young people who are new to this and who are dealing with all kinds of feelings and desires to help may want to turn to their fellow black students for advice. This is where you come in. Our black children are hurt, angry, and tired. Be available to our young people and hold space for them, all of them. You be the source of advice or affirmation.

Now you might not have a clue yourself on what to do or what to say. The most important thing is that you are present and sincere. You don’t have to have all the answers. Sometimes all you need to do is be present in silence. Look up good sources to inform yourself and your students. Don’t try to figure it out all yourself. Talk to your friends and colleagues who are also figuring it out. When you feel ready facilitate spaces for dialogue and strategic planning. But first we have to get through the trauma.

Lastly, understand and share with your colleagues that engaging this topic is not “gezellig”. We need people who are brave, who are willing to step into the unknown, who are willing to extend compassion, and who will allow others (and themselves) to make mistakes. For years I have been hearing “There is a lot of work to be done.” The time to go to work is actually here.

Aminata Cairo, Ph.D.

Lector Inclusive Education

Here are some sources that might be of interest: