Too Black, Too Proud: The Imaginary Negro & The Problem with Diversity in Education
By Ron E. Lynch, Jr.
Two weeks before I started my career as an educator, the white woman I would ultimately replace chased a young black girl out of her classroom screaming that she was “a waste of human existence”. She was allowed to resign so that students would not miss out on instruction while they searched for her replacement. Two weeks after that incident, I was in that classroom with no experience, but a desire to help as many of my young Black and Brown students get free.
Nine days ago, I was fired and escorted off the campus I worked and excelled at for two years as an educator, probably for getting too intimate, then honest with a system that I knew could break me. And because I live and work in Texas, my former employer was able to terminate me by simply reciting that they were an “at-will employer”. Despite my best stabs at getting them to admit that they were punishing my black ass for publically being critical of their treatment of Black people on my private Facebook account, they just shrugged and asked for my classroom key.
I cringe at the lesson of violent compliance that my kids were taught by my termination. I worry about the normalcy of policing that this experience has shown them. And worst of all, I’m saddened that these are the only two lessons they’ve learned since my departure. It is hard to shake the feeling that this experience will only embolden subtle racial violence as an acceptable version of their reality.
It took only 14 years for me to be convinced that it was acceptable for mine. And despite being reared by a community of beautiful, flawed, hard, soft, and free Black, Latinx, and queer loved ones, by my sophomore year of highschool there were two things that I knew I did not want for my life: blackness and queerness.
It was easy to confuse internalized racism and homophobia as self-love because of their immediate accessibility and the feelings of shame I felt around them. Shame was a confusing, yet intoxicating feeling to cope with, because despite my innocence, I could never shake the responsibility to prove to white folks that I was different. I compelled via compliance my way into the hearts of many of my white instructors who loved my ability to be the whitest version of myself. I only dreamt of freedom in whiteness.
I did not know what was happening to me nor did I have the language to describe it. I only had the tools of white supremacy to adorn the master’s shed that I had hoped to find safety and belonging in.
I found neither, but I was stubborn.
I delighted in this space for 8 years at varying levels of mental colonization. I would like to say that I became better with each passing year, but I know that each year that I refused to love myself wholly, I invited too many, as Kiese Laymon writes, to Slowly Kill Themselves and Others in America, to distract my own delusion. My teenage years were devoured by shame that forced me into hate, but somehow I got free.
While the school district that I worked in, much like many industries, was predominantly white, the number of Black and Latinx folks seemed to expand significantly with each year. And as many studies have shown, when students see representations of themselves they are able to excel in ways that do not when white teachers stand before them. I wonder, though, what harm I would have done to Black students at 22, when I loved blackness only conditionally.
Before my termination, I had become fairly popular around the district for my t-shirts that provided commentary on the current state of the world; or, by the way my kids excelled due, in part, to my teaching excellence and culturally responsive curricula that taught to the whole student and allowed them agency without ever demanding compliance; or, my participation with the planning of affinity summits for the small and ever-dwindling population of Black students; Or, just for my work as a Diversity Ambassador to my campus. For whatever reason my colleagues knew of me, they knew that my priorities were Black, so they invented versions of me that never existed. I was everyone’s authentic conflict craving negro. I understood why they needed that caricature of me, because authenticity is easily commodified, exploited then trivialized. I told myself it was a necessary evil, because my kids benefited from me being this fictive negro, because they were at least afforded the things that the white content or behavior specialist didn’t know to consider.
Negotiating your mental and emotional health, so that your Black and Brown students’ needs can be addressed is commonplace for Black educators.
12 years removed from 14, I still struggle to be seen as the person I have worked at becoming and even harder at loving, and not some static idea of what folks want or need me to be. It is one of the things that I hate about white supremacy as domination the most. The constant reckoning of who you are perceived to be versus who you just are. Black bodies have always been repurposed in the white imagination in ways that always deny us humanity. For Daniel Wilson, Mike Brown’s body was demonized. For Betty Shelby, it was the imminent danger oozing from Terence Crutcher’s body. For Brian Encinia, it was Sandra Bland’s body that violently assaulted him with audaciousness, because it refused to yield to his power. For my former employer, it was their imagination of my wild, untamed anger that threatened their ownership to the benefits of saying “Black Lives Matter” nationally.
I was imagined into a space of radicalism only to be denied humanity, and made to seem irrational.
I know that if I were white or even if my managers were, I would still be employed, and celebrated by my district. But my Black, respectable bosses had me on their radar since I challenged the book our school read for summer reading, or because I rejected the “gendered uniform policy” that received almost blind compliance from everyone else. So when I arrived to work with a “DON’T SHOOT” t-shirt, that I had dawned countless times in my career on that campus, and refused to take it off after hearing that “I have to stop letting my personal life bleed into my professional life” or that “As a campus leader I'm sending the wrong message to staff and students”, I decided then that I would be okay with whatever consequence because this shirt spoke to everything that my district preached that they were moving towards and, more importantly, it was what my kids and I needed to see after 48 hours of Black bodies being gunned down.
The problem with diversity in education is that there is a belief that just a Black body in front of Black students cancels out the effects of antiblack racism. What folks fail to take into account is when white supremacy is truly actualized, Black folks can conspire and collude with domination via imperialist white supremacist patriarchy for their personal benefit. That's why it was so easy for my school director to smugly send me home for a t-shirt, because it couldn't possibly be about race (despite his boss being white) when all folks involved are Black. At least that’s what the Black HR representative told me repeatedly throughout our meeting the next day.
We met, I thought, initially, because of concerns I raised about my safety in the meeting that I had with the School Director and Dean of Students. I later found out my FaceBook post was becoming too popular amongst staff members and there were many women, particularly Black women, making noise on my behalf.
“What do you want from all of this?” was one of the first questions she asked me, and that was confusing because I couldn't understand how she thought that would possibly make me feel safe. She sprinkled in “I saw the FaceBook post and I thought ‘What is this guy doing? He's going about this all the wrong way’.” But there is no right way to challenge domination; it is the challenging that is the problem, never the methods.
To be fair, she did seek to show me comfort, by saying repeatedly that she “was Black and [she] gets it.” Or that she had a “black husband and a black son so it made sense”. But remained firm that me refusing to take off my t-shirt had nothing to do with values despite me explaining the many mission statements, the lesson alignment, or conversations I've had with the top leaders of this business that said it did.
“Okay!”, She finally budged “It's about values, but let's say there's an employee, and since we live in Texas, an open carry state, who wants to bring a gun to campus. Should their personal values allow them to bring it?”
I stare at her Black skin and remember a time where I would have invited someone to kill themselves with white supremacist logic under a false kinship based on skin color, too. I push back hastily, she retracts, but affirms that I am missing her point.
At some point, I’m only partially in the meeting, but I can hear her say “you don’t want to be a martyr against this system, because you lose.” I then realize I won't be able to leave that meeting without feigning self-hate via domination if I want to return to my students. I negotiate with her that maybe it wasn't just the about the t-shirt. She nods emphatically. I tell her that I know I'm perceived as a troublemaker because I have been the squeaky wheel for 2 years, and it was due time that I reckoned with the oil and the oil can. I admitted that all of this might have spawned from this idea that people had of me, that always made them respond at me, instead of to me. She responds by bringing up my Facebook post again. I then realize I didn’t need to be in the meeting that she was having with her imagination infiltrated by whiteness of me.
I was 14 or 22 years old again negotiating my truth and humanity to whiteness but this time thru the face of a Black woman and not a mirror. I just wanted to get back into my classroom where I knew that my kids saw me.
I start to repeat to her all of the things she has initially said to me in the meeting. “Thank you for helping me see, ‘it's not about race’”. And, ”there is a lot of background noise happening.” or “I agree whatever problems those folks who were ‘on a 1000’ on my behalf, are just projecting their own problems onto my FaceBook status.”
We rounded out the conversation with us brainstorming ways that we could be “thought partners” to solve drastic turnover rates of Black staff members. She mentioned that she was tackling larger issues, like wage inequality within the district. I just nod as she tells me all the ways that she demanded equity for Black people, probably in her mind, the right way.
On my way home, I mentioned to a friend that I felt unsafe in the meeting, and wanted to reach out to the CEO. He didn't tell me that I shouldn't, but I felt his reservation. He didn’t want me to make more trouble for myself. Neither did I. So I allowed myself to be crunched into her fantasies, because I didn’t think that she would eat me alive. I, as always, overplayed kinship and underplayed domination.
Later that day the Black woman HR representative, my School Director, and I met to hash out our differences. We apologized. Him for not making the time to get to know me and seeing my “fire”. Me, for not being more patient and understanding of his power. He told me that “as a Black man with two Black sons, that my passion burns in him just as much, if not more.” And that we wanted the same things “but have different methods to get to them”. More negotiations, but I was closer to my classroom; closer to being seen.
The Black HR rep, who got it, asked me to update my Facebook status to say “The difference a day can make.” or “the power of dialogue”, because she wanted to “change the narrative”. I go with the former, but stopped negotiating and spoke power to truth. By the end of that day, I was exhausted and took the next day off, to gather myself before I interacted with my students who would have wanted to know how I gave everyone hell who came for me.
I went into work early Friday morning to get my sub plans together. After I'm done, I sit in the front office to avoid students, because I am there longer than I anticipate and still underprepared to take on questions from students. As I wait for kids to file into their first period classes, my school director pulls me in his office to ask if I can calm a few students in the courtyard who were under the impression that I had been fired. I heard murmurs that students were trying to organize, but I was not expecting an entire school of students, out of uniform, dressed in all black, with signs, and chants for me. It took me awhile to gather myself, because I think I had forgotten what it felt like to not have to explain my humanity or what meant to be seen without being imagined. I cry. I laugh. I feel fulfilled. I get the kids to class and then take my 10 minute drive home on top of the world.
By the time that I make it home and open my work laptop, I no longer have access to any of the things I had access to just 30 minutes prior. I kind of feel that I have been fired, but I couldn’t think of a reason so I let it go. I update my FaceBook in pride. It was probably too Black, too proud for the Black HR representative who told me that my initial post caused her to have a taxing 24 hours in her role.
Later that weekend, I even learned that the “Black leaders” of my district have met and okay’d a Blackout that the district thought up for the following Monday.
I think to myself that they are covering their asses from bad press about a “t-shirt” with a hastily created Blackout day that is full of empty symbolism to punish the Black Life that they claimed to care so much about. I guess it is easier to care about Black folks when they are dead because they are more easily imaginable. I have to push that thought out of my head, because my anxiety would kill me if I don’t.
On that Monday, I wear white, pink, & olive green, most of my colleagues are in Black. The whole day feels like the moments right after you leave the cemetery from recently burying a loved one. I feel out of place, or perhaps, out of casket, but I make it thru the day with hugs and warm greetings from students that I have never met. They see me. I’m the truest version of myself that I’ve ever been on campus; publically quiet and deeply reflective. This makes me uneasy, because when I finally silence the noise it is hard for me to envision the remainder of the year.
Promptly at the dismissal bell, I’m escorted from my classroom by a Black man who once called me “brother” and terminated by the Black HR representative with the Black husband and Black son that got it. I wish Toni Morrison were there with us to tell us that “...the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” applied to the ways that we became invested in our district’s distraction.
I only get 5 minutes to grab my essentials before I am ushered off of campus. While I’m being escorted out teachers and students are literally singing my praise with “while you were out, I covered your class and your kids were so respectful and diligent, which is an obvious reflection on you.” I thank them as I walked by the randomly stationed men who I have to assume were for me in the event that I caused a scene.
I chuckle, because folks are still responding to their imagination of me.
That’s the real problem with diversity in education, and our society too, everyone wants the nigga they dreamed up, but never the nigga they get. And too many niggas, have spent too much time trying to be everything that white folks desire. That is an easy truth for me to admit since I spent 8 years of my life trying to be they nigga they dreamt. That’s why teaching, for me, was a way to help more people than I hurt.
I want to continue to fight for liberation of all Black people, even the ones that hurt me in the name of whiteness, because like quoted in E. Patrick Johnson’s text Appropriating Blackness, “Black is Black like gay is gay. Family is Family. We just have to love all of our disillusioned brothers and sisters...disillusioned gays or blacks must be loved & cared for in spite of themselves.”
I now think back to the words that I shared with my kids at the rally that they held in my honor. I told them If I never got to teach them again, that looking at the hundreds of student gathered for a cause they believed in, proved that I did what I sought out to do, because they now understood and demanded liberation on their own terms. In education, we call that a teachable moment, because of the irony that lived in the fact that I would not teach them again.
Or at least that could be true, so long as I do not get another Facetime from them during their English class, because they are “chilling” or “have nothing to do”. If that happens, I’m gonna teach their little raggedy behinds from my couch, because they deserve to actualize their innate genius. And I get to, at least, see my babies be Black and Brown and queer and proud.
Ronald E. Lynch, Jr. is a writer, editor, and fearless Afro-futurist educator from the land of Houston, Texas . He is committed to helping Black, Latinx, and/or queer youth find liberation in the ways that that makes most sense to their agency and survival. Ron is an alumnus of Morehouse College where he studied Cinema, Television, and Emerging Media Studies & Film and Spanish. He is a co-founder and co-director of The Black Teacher Association. More importantly, Ron loves his little raggedy children. They have taught him more things than he could’ve ever wish to have taught them.