I work with teenagers. I’ve been working with teenagers for 15 or 16 years. I love them, I truly do. The excitement of the young mind is inspiring, especially when they get caught up in something they truly believe in and then tirelessly push forward with their vision for change.
This is why it has been so incredible to witness students coming together to stand up against gun violence, against a cultural trend in the United States that supports policies protecting access to weapons over policies that protect human well-being. Last week young people across the United States came together to show the government their power, to tell the country that they are the next generation and they are here now and ready to vote. It has been beautiful. At my school, which had the largest school protest in all of Oakland, was entirely run by students. I was pleasantly surprised to see and hear from students about how much they enjoyed the event. Completely youth planned, there were speakers, poets, and and open mic for young people to express how they felt about gun violence. And in the audience there were more than 1000 (some estimated 1500) students standing in the rain to listen, to observe, to be a part of change. There were of course a lot of students who were there primarily because they wanted to get out of class, but that’s to be expected. They still stayed there in the rain and listened.
There was a part of me that was so proud of them, so inspired by their actions and their passion. AND then there was this other part of me that was irritated. Bothered by the contradictions, by the way this rally, this call to action, this mobilization, was like a really big microaggression for students of color, particularly the students who have felt the real impact of gun violence. Students who walk and live on streets that have taken the lives of their friends, their family members, people who were close their hearts.
During a summer on the streets of Oakland, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, etc there can be more than 17 murders. Where are the rallies when the students in these cities come back to school after a summer of gun violence? Where is the training for teachers to learn how to deal with the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or the Trauma response from these kids impacted by intense grief and fear? Where are the therapy sessions or the healing circles for the students as they come back to school?
When I asked students in my class and my after school program about their thoughts on the rally, many students were upset. Some even said that, although they feel bad for saying it, they didn’t really care much about the shooting in Parkland. They felt like the same people who were wanting them to come out and support the people in Parkland were nowhere to be seen or heard when it was Black and Brown people being killed by police or community violence. To some, this might seem insensitive, and to others they understand this sentiment completely. These students were frustrated that the people on the mic at the walk-out rally were mostly people who were not directly impacted by gun violence and kept referring to the school shooting in Parkland as the reason for taking action for gun control. They were white and lived in all mostly white middle to upper class neighborhoods. They referred to gun violence in this far off place, without even acknowledging the gun violence that happens right here on the streets of Oakland. This, I believe, is a microaggression.
Microaggressions, as defined by Derald Wing Sue Ph.D., “are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.”
Having this movement focused on gun violence and gun control, yet center it around one type of gun violence, mass shootings, is a snub and an insult. It is likely unintentional but very impactful to Black and Brown communities, many of which are heavily impacted by gun violence. In all of the school shootings I have been aware of, the shooters are almost always white and the overall majority of the victims are white. This communicates to people across this country that when white lives are taken needlessly, there should be an outcry for help and support, but when it’s Black and Brown lives that are taken needlessly, it’s normalized brushed off as if their lives are worth less. This is a microaggression.
My deepest hope moving forward is that the student organizers expand their understanding of gun violence and the people who are most impacted by it. My hope is that the students most deeply impacted by gun violence are the ones on the mic and whose voices are prioritized in organizing and planning ideas and strategies for creating change. My hope is that we can look at the different forms of gun violence, whether it be about mass shootings or street killings, and understand the ways they are connected as well as understand the ways they are completely different. Gun violence in the United States has many forms, none is more important than another. When our society prioritizes the grief and care for victims of one type of gun violence more than others, this can be deeply hurtful and continue a legacy of white superiority. This is a legacy that we should be doing everything in our power to change.