You Don’t Know Me
July 20, 2020
July 20, 2020
By Christine Melendez
My life has been altered by how others have perceived my value based on the color of my skin, the languages I speak, and my Puerto Rican ancestry. I will never forget the day I was called a “dirty Mexican” by the older brother of a friend when I was in third grade. Or the time I showed up to a Longwood University basketball team party and nobody wanted to dance or talk to me because I didn’t look like them. Or the time I was driving with my windows down in Fredericksburg, just two years ago on Cinco de Mayo, when a truck drove by with its occupants rolling their r’s and whooping like savages. Or the countless jobs I have applied to and have not even gotten an interview because of my last name or the fact that I proudly state the fact that I’m bilingual. Or feeling like I am always the token who ends up representing every latinx person’s voice in most spaces. These experiences are not the last of what has and will happen, and in no way am I sharing these to lessen the experiences of the black community at this time.
My own partner, a black male law student with a PhD, was singled out by law enforcement and questioned about the disappearance of a bicycle in the park he was working out in that afternoon. There was a group of white teenagers sitting around a bicycle only 100 yards away, but the detective chose to only question the black man. These and so many more are the experiences of not only our peers but of our students.
My experience as a teacher has been shaped by my students’ stories and experiences as well as my own. As a latinx educator, I have been subjected to racial insensitivity and intentional ignorance from colleagues and administrators that caused me to question the validity of my purpose and my position. The policy reforms and systemic changes I choose to fight for are meant to improve learning and living conditions for all people, but especially the marginalized.
I’ve had the honor of teaching in one rural school district, one somewhat urban, and one suburban in my eight years in education. I’m sad to report that the experiences of my students of color, particularly my black students, did not vary much. That’s not to say I haven’t found loving and caring people from all walks of life who are actively trying to challenge antiquated education systems and policies.
Overall, the problems boil down to one thing: the systematic defunding of public education. Those in power, who think themselves superior to others because of their socioeconomic status or race, continue to take money away from public schools and services and choose to fund only the programs and services that serve people that look and sound like them.
For far too long, educators have stood by and watched their curriculums and standardized tests continue to focus on Euro-centric ideologies and histories. For far too long, education workers have allowed oppressive administrators, school boards, and government officials control every aspect of their lives, from their working conditions to their pay. For far too long, education workers of color have been met with gatekeeping, from biased, state-mandated tests to discrimination and bullying in the workplace. For far too long, our education workers and students of color have spoken up fearfully about the traumas they experience and still do not receive proper mental health services and other supports.
Now is the time for all educators to stand in the gap for those that have been silenced time and time again. Now is the time to call for fully funded schools. Now is the time to call for anti-racist professional development and curriculums. Now is the time to hold administrators, school boards, and local and state government officials accountable and push them to enact real policy change instead of releasing statements meant to pacify and distract educators and the public from inaction at every level.
Melendez, a member of the Chesterfield Education Association’s Board of Directors, is a Spanish teacher at Matoaca High School.