Futures Through Resistance

My entire educational experience has been one of a ruthlessly ugly racial project – from
nearly every school building and every class. Beginning in public schools that shoved me into
remedial and English Second Language programs because I lived in a triliginal household with
my Ethiopian parents, I instantly felt stupid. But unpacking all my experiences in education
would have me sitting here for God knows how long. So, I’d rather break down some of what I
now realize as one of the most destructive racial projects I have witnessed – that was capable of
consuming me and my peers alive.

For nearly all of my childhood, my parents scavenged for education opportunities as they
felt limited based on how we looked and where we lived. Eventually, I ended up at an all-Black
West Philly charter school that, according to state standards, was academically rigorous. The
truth of what I came to experience was a project that was literally created to steal from poor
Black kids, profit from the inequality that led us all there, and leave us all for dirt. This school,
Laboratory Charter School, was one of seemingly countless locations and branches that the
founder created. This Black woman literally created these schools, which put a heavy focus on
standardized test prep, competition, and discipline, to funnel money from the district into her
own pockets. While this seems absurd, it was surely unsurprising to those attending the school as
it was reflected in the conditions my peers and I were forced into. I recall so many moments
when my classmates and I laughed until we cried when a window fell on top of me during class,
or when we heard about rodents being in the cafeteria. While these memories once made me
smile, I have come to realize that this constant use of laughter was our attempt to cope with the
reality of this racial project as aiming to dispose of us. It is truly shameful.

Only recently beginning to confront my need to unlearn so much of what I have been
conditioned to believe, I am a bit ashamed at how much I internalized back then, especially the
respectability. I played into the racial project – at the same time suffering, I did everything I
could to win, to benefit, to not suffer. And at the expense of others. The institution’s hierarchy
that valued grit and discipline were values that I began to truly believe, that I lived by. It was
even the force that pushed me to break any and all solidarity with my peers – working as an
unquestioning, individualistic, and capitalistic machine that this oppressive kountry wanted and
still wants to build me into. Yet, my boldly defiant peers resisted. At this school, we had a class
klipboard that marked off the “colors” of individual students, as they corresponded with
discipline. After a day filled with a teacher’s screaming in a hyper disciplinary fashion, our class
was over it. I saw Anthony, a boy I would later call a close friend, hide the clip board behind a
trash can at the entrance of the school. I guess he assumed I wouldn’t snitch, he trusted me. He
assumed we were on the same team. Yet, when called one by one out in the hallway by teachers
for information on who had “stolen” it, I without hesitation snitched. I only now realize the power in Anthony’s resistance to the culture of discipline that was attempting to condition Black
people into submitting to authority and my role in undermining all of this – I was a pig. I saw no
validity in the way he was actively denouncing this same culture that allowed teachers to scream
on the top of their lungs at us as if we were inferior beings. This 6th grader was asserting his
voice against the times when, for example, an administrator would call our work “garbage” and
physically throw our papers into the trash in front of the entire class.

I think what truly saddens me is the role of Black people in this environment, the extent
to which the hatred and oppression was internalized in us. Black students were being shoved into
a school with a constantly flooding basement that served as the cafeteria, a parking lot that
served as the playground, and a heating system that barely worked. The circumstances and lack
of resources could not have been more clear. Yet, administrators, many Black, continued to rob
us. Students continued to be blamed for their “failures” and treated as if they were worthless.
While there truly were a handful of teachers that I know cared, I can’t help but remember the
moments in which some made me feel so trash – especially the administrator that called our work
“garbage” and “crap”. It fostered in me, and I can imagine in my peers too, a deep kind of
anxiety and insecurity.

And yet we cannot forget the safety I acquired in submitting to authority – and by holding
normative identities of middle class, cis-heterosexuality. As many others in this school, I
suffered as Black woman, feeling often uncomfortable by the objectification and undermining
around me. But I surely was privileged and unfortunately used this only to progress the same
oppressive ideas of normativity. What would have happened if I resisted – if I rejected
respectability? I surely would not have made it to Yale. Though I guess that is the point. Our
schools are serving as racial projects that aim to stifle any forms of resistance. They are sites that
dispose of those who are likely to resist by using punitivity to limit the agency they are capable
of wielding. But in vast ways, reflecting on situations I now understand as resistance is
empowering – it is a much needed reminder that power is not totalizing. Rather, this resistance is
currently happening and is capable of being the means to dismantle oppressive hierarchies to
reimagine new realities.