There are things we carry with us in crafting the stories of ourselves: our identities, our contexts and cultures and dreams. And we carry with us the power of place. Our settings define us and frame our stories. And our settings are used to define us and frame our stories. Sometimes, those definitions don’t align. Sometimes, those stories are sinister.
On Friday, President Donald Trump issued several tweets directed at Representative Elijah Cummings and his district, which includes the city of Baltimore. “No human being would want to live there,” he said. “A disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess,” he said. “Dangerous and filthy,” he said.
These words—and the surrounding conversation—will likely echo in your hallways or classrooms. It’s not just trending; it’s personal. For some students, this is an attack they’ve heard before against their place. Against who they are.
When Representative John Lewis said in 2017 that he planned to skip President Trump’s inauguration, Trump called Lewis’s district and the city of Atlanta “crime infested” and “falling apart.” He stated that four congresswomen of color should “come back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”—places that include Detroit, the Bronx and Somalia, and by implication of ethnicity rather than birthplace, Puerto Rico. He has said Oakland, California, and Ferguson, Missouri, are “among the most dangerous” cities in the world. He has said immigrants and asylum seekers from South and Central America “infest our country.”
So, what will you say?
In the face of this pattern of behavior, it is our hope at Teaching Tolerance that educators will refuse to echo such rhetoric, refuse to ignore such rhetoric and, when possible, provide the context that this rhetoric is missing.
There are four ways that educators can immediately address the stories surrounding these American cities and ensure students walk away with an understanding of how place—and race—inform this discourse.
Call racism what it is.
Regardless of the circumstances facing cities like Baltimore, the president’s pattern of behavior reveals a preoccupation with cities mostly populated and led by people of color. It’s hard to imagine him calling a predominately white, Midwestern town “dangerous and filthy.” So when a person in power repeatedly says that people of color—be they athletes like Colin Kaepernick or members of Congress—shouldn’t be allowed to criticize the United States, then proceeds to target cities populated and led by people of color with negative rhetoric, that is a tacit declaration of who counts as American, and who is allowed to speak up. When a person in power regularly uses language of disease and danger to refer to places predominantly inhabited by people of color, that’s not a dog whistle. It’s a pattern of racist rhetoric that humanity has seen time and time again.
Name the narrative being pushed by President Trump’s words.
President Trump’s repeated use of dehumanizing language and words associated with filth should be discussed explicitly—because there are consequences. Regardless of your political affiliation or the level of purposefulness you assign to Trump’s tweets, it’s important to provide context for students as to why this sort of language is hurtful and dangerous. There are examples across history—from the institution of American slavery to the Holocaust—where language that depicted people as animals or diseased was used to justify their cruel treatment. And we know that repeated exposure to such language—regardless of the speaker’s intent—can affect the level of humanity extended to the subjects of dehumanizing language. If we do not name it, we tacitly endorse it. If we do not underscore the humanity of all people, we privilege the humanity and comfort of some people over others.
Provide counter-narratives and historical context.
Baltimore—like many cities and towns across the United States—faces challenges. We’ve written about some of them in this space. But in blaming a single congressman and suggesting a single story for Baltimore, President Trump has flattened the experience of a vibrant city.
As CNN’s Victor Blackwell stated in an emotional rebuke of President Trump’s claim that “no human being would want to live there,” people of Baltimore wake up every day with pride in their work and their place. Educators can lift up the beauty of Baltimore, its success stories and its history of resilience. Baltimore is the city where Frederick Douglass taught himself to read. It’s the birthplace of Thurgood Marshall. It’s not just the birthplace of modern intellectuals you’ve heard of like Ta-Nehisi Coates, but also incredible students rendered invisible by stereotypes like those in Trump’s tweets: artists and writers, scientists, history-making debaters and activists fighting for an end to gun violence in their communities.
But even without those stories, the premise of the president’s tweet—that, somehow, a single black congressman is responsible for the woes facing Baltimore—dismisses years of historical context. And educators can provide that historical context.
Much of the inequity and contemporary problems facing Baltimore can be traced back to a history of segregationist and racist housing discrimination. The city likely passed the first government-sanctioned ordinance to officially separate black and white people in their neighborhoods, churches and schools. The resulting economic and social disparities had a myriad of consequences: The opioid crisis hit hard where poor, black residents lacked access to treatment; zero-tolerance policing practices targeted once-segregated cities; and access to amenities is still largely shaped by those old redlining maps. Baltimore (and many other places) may face challenges, but it’s important to name the forces that created those challenges—and who has the power to help but chooses not to.
Think about the way you talk about place.
Educators have little control as to what language issues from our nation’s highest political offices. But they can take inventory of their own language and make sure they do not tell a single story about the places their students live and the places from which their families have come. Often, the ways in which educators talk about “bad parts of town” or “bad schools” or “third-world countries” have racial undertones. But these are students’ homes and communities and heritages.
Consider: What aspects of the story might you be missing? What historical context are you unaware of? What humanity are you denying to people by flattening their experiences and failing to see a place’s beauty, resilience and leadership? What if someone suggested no human would feel safe in your home—or in your presence?
Students are listening. To the leaders in their classrooms. To the leaders in their schools. To the leaders of the nation. Educators cannot always control what students hear beyond the walls of school. But educators can control what students hear inside them.
Educators do not have to downplay reality in order to uplift humanity. They need only to see the fullness of place. To see its power—and theirs.
Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.