An uncomfortable silence broke up the thriving discussion about race in Affton High School teacher Brian Jennings’ class this week.
He had just asked the dozen or so white male teenagers in the room how they’d feel if all monuments of people who looked like them were taken down across the United States.
The question was one of several Jennings posed to his senior cultural studies English class, which he’d always used to address race and prejudice. But the current political climate and this month’s violent white nationalist event in Charlottesville, Virginia, forced the conversation to happen as school began.
“As I told the students, the way we talk about race today is not the way we’ll be talking about it in 10 years,” Jennings said. “This is something that is important. It’s going to directly affect their lives whether they know it or not. They’re seniors. Next year there is no safe space.”
Because talking about race can subject schools to controversy, some districts avoided discussion after Ferguson. But Jennings and other teachers believe helping students confront bias is worth it, even if the process is messy.
“When you turn off the lights, the cockroaches come out," Jennings said. “I think it’s better to deal with it than to leave it lurking.”
His goal for the year is for his students in the class, which is mostly white, to base their opinions on facts.
“I want to give them, in this class, really a chance to look at reason and argument, both in terms of how they identify who they are, but also in terms of sort of negotiating those social categories that are out there,” Jennings said.
The 18-year teaching veteran uses the Declaration of Independence as a central tenet in his south St. Louis County classroom, specifically the line “all men are created equal.”
“In the classroom we have people who probably don’t live by that. We have people who are probably racist, sexist, homophobic — all three of those. But they know that this space is not a space where it’s okay to say those things,” Jennings said. “In some ways, I think the question now becomes has that changed? I don’t think it has, but … there’s a surface. I’m not sure what’s under the surface. And you hope to God it’s not Charlottesville.”
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