How has race and intersectionality impacted your life?
I was brought up with a racist grandpa. I knew this early on. Once, in his living room, when I was five or six, there was a bowl of nuts in a dish. I took one and called it the derogatory term he often used. My mom lit into me. She was so mad. I knew somehow that it was wrong, but I still said it. I’m not sure why. She washed my mouth out with soap and told me never to use that word again. I was fortunate to have a mother who was educated differently from her father-in-law.
As I grew up in Burton, next door to Flint, I referred to our city as “Burtucky” because it is White and poor. I later learned that it is full of people who emigrated from the Kentucky coal mines when the factories were booming in the north. They wanted a better life. Looking back I think of how wrong this was too, another racist remark I made without fully realizing why.
My freshman year of school, I played traveling softball. I did not have a diverse group of friends until I joined a team out of Grand Rapids, which is halfway across the state, to the west of where I lived. This is where I truly began to learn about race. It started with my friend Kadeisha schooling me on all things Black hair-related. As I continued to travel and compete, I met people from all over the state and country of different origins and backgrounds.
In college, I still played softball, but I roomed with seven people, all from different countries aside from me and Victoria from Flint Hamady High School. Three of my friends from our dorm room were named KC from Toronto, Musonda from Zimbabwe, and Priscilla from Kenya. The impact these women had on my learning is unforgettable. I am forever indebted and grateful.
Why is talking about race in the subject(s) you teach necessary?
I noticed many [students] this year prefacing their statements with “I’m no racist, but…” and following it up with something not racist at all—it was just a comment about race. This has to change.
Race shapes everything we teach, because the system of education is deeply rooted in oppression. If I fail to check my privilege daily and de-center my Whiteness, I am not truly educating my students in an equitable way. Specifically in ELA, the lessons on race and the vocabulary is essential for students. Often students share that they are in classes where talking about race is taboo. I noticed many of them this year prefacing their statements with “I’m no racist, but…” and following it up with something not racist at all—it was just a comment about race. This has to change.
What was it like teaching this lesson or unit plan?
Teaching these lessons with a new framework was inspiring. I had students open up to me more about their educational journeys. Some Black students asked me if I married a Black man because I am “so woke.” A few Latinx students thanked me for calling out racism against them in class when others in the past did not. Students feel seen. They really liked that they now had vocabulary like “color-blindness,” and they told me that it helped having the language to convey what they have been feeling for a long time.
When we watched “The Hate U Give,” a White student said, “This message is totally different than the book.” He could not get over how white-washed the film was, given that it was written by a White screenwriter. These lessons for me are both a win and a loss—their education has been systematically oppressing their voices far too long. One ninth grade student shared that this year is the first year she has ever seen herself in a book. That alone should make us quake.
How did your community react to your work?
I’d have to say my Twitter community is where I get a lot of insight and support.
Parents are often surprised that I have students reading more modern books. Some think classic works are still valuable, and others are happy their child is finally reading a book. A few parents borrowed books this year, so that was a first—they wanted to read The Hate U Give and Monday’s Not Coming. I was excited for this opportunity. My assistant principal borrowed THUG for his daughter to read. My community is odd because we have a majority of Flint students, but the school is located in the onship so there is not much of a #placevalue community—ownership or accountability. I’d have to say my Twitter community is where I get a lot of insight and support.
What is your hope for/what would you like to tell any educator looking at our work right now?
My hope is that more White teachers take on this work. BIPOC educators have been bearing the weight of this for decades. White folx need to step in and do the internal work first, and then bring our knowledge to the classroom—everything from the policies we are choosing to uphold in the system, to the books and authors we are promoting from our classroom libraries.
CaRRie Mattern'S UNIT:
TYPE: Unit (series of lessons) TITLE: Truer than Fiction: TMWYA and The Hate U Give CONTENT AREA: ELA
GRADE LEVEL(S): 7th to 12th Grade
DESCRIPTION: Stories from TMWYA will be provided to begin certain scenes from THUG so students are able to make a non-fiction comparison, and understand that fiction does use real life situations and experiences as inspiration. The following lesson would be completed before p. 71 or Chapter 5 of the book. If teachers wanted, they could also pair it with Ch. 14-5. For the film version, this lesson should be shown before the climax of the film or at the very beginning to build racial awareness of all the characters in the movie.
Click below to download a PDF of Carrie Mattern's unit.