Do you think suspensions disproportionally target certain bodies?
The hallways on the main floor of my high school resembled the outline of a square with adjacent hallways sprouting off of each corner of that central square. One day, right after the lunch bell rang, I was casually strolling this thoroughfare — you know, buying time before I actually had to be in class, hoping to run into a friend, a female, or a fight. Anything to keep me distracted from the slightly conscious reality of feeling like I somehow didn’t belong in this space; at least not in the way I wanted to be included. I happened to cross paths with a teacher during my deliberate wander. Someone I didn’t really know — he had never taught me before but I had seen him around. When we, unfortunately, made eye contact he told me to take my hat off. I did, without saying anything. The situation was one of those moments in passing that didn’t require any more attention that it got.
But, karma, combined with the white gaze, has a funny way of working on young Black boys trapped inside of public schools. I made my way to my locker, grabbed my binders, put my hat back on and finally began the walk to my first afternoon class. I’m assuming that the teacher I previously encountered must have went to the main office to grab his afternoon attendance before heading back to his class because (if he was just aimlessly wandering, like me, that would raise heady implications) as I made my second 90 degree turn I ran into him again. This time, in the opposite hallway of our square framed main floor. The eye contact this time wasn’t as mutual as it had been five minutes ago. This round, I gave him a brief glance. Enough for him to notice that I did notice him. As I unknowingly attempted to proceed past him, I honestly wasn’t even thinking about the hat I was again wearing. The same hat that he had casually told me to take off. I guess all this internally fused within his psychosocial reality which, by extension, lit a fuse within him.
Although not verbatim, “are you deaf or stupid?” was along the lines of the question this teacher asked me. I don’t think I need to give you an extensive history of how masculinity, Blackness, hip-hop culture, community, and identity intersect in my life to let you know that those are fighting words. But naturally, I wasn’t the latter of his question so I wasn’t literally going to fight a grown man and actual teacher in the middle of a high school hallway just because I was insulted. I took the path of least resistance; I stared at him, smirked, and kept walking — hat on. Unfortunately, I was in a position that is perpetually difficult for people like me to prevail. This teacher anted up, raising his voice to call me out in the packed hallway. He was simply being a teacher, who in light of his blatant disrespect, felt disrespected. But in raising his voice to command that I go to the office for whatever infraction I had not only committed but now aggravated due to his interaction with me, he called into reality exactly how privilege and power operate in classrooms, hallways, schools. Not hidden, not invisible, not elusive. Right in the open, compelling all observers and actors to participate.
I went to the office with him. He told the secretary what happened and then left to “teach”. I sat there until a vice-principal called me into his office. I explained what happened, there wasn’t much to explain, I mean… “the situation was one of those moments in passing that didn’t require any more attention that it got”. He listened as I spoke and then told me that I was acting in “opposition to authority” which required a two-day suspension. I was heading home instead of going to my afternoon classes.
I don’t remember everything from my high school days. But I’ll never forget that moment. At the time, it was frustrating and funny to me. “A two-day suspension for wearing a damn hat, can you believe that?” is what I told my boys and my family. To me now, it’s no longer merely frustrating or funny — it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to know how the gaze of others, the performative nature of my Blackness, the direct interactions with peers and people in positions of power, the surveillance within the white space of the school are all so erroneously and easily manipulated in order to serve the white world.