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  • Andrea Sonnier Babin

Black Lives Matter in Deaf Education.

A live vlog on systems, teachers, curriculum, and community.

[video information: Andrea is sitting in an indoors office space with light-colored walls and a window with shutters. A bookcase is in the background, which has white flowers in a vase.]


ASL-TO-ENGLISH translation/transcribing with visual descriptions:


[Andrea looks at screen and holds a mobile phone.] I’m waiting on a friend who will be transcribing/captioning. I’ll soon be presenting, sharing some thoughts. [Pauses, glances at lap and at screen several times.] My heart is pounding now. [Serious expression, glances at lap and computer screen.] Waiting for my friend to let me know when they’re ready for transcribing. [Glances at screen, lap, and phone, picking up phone and smiling a bit, tapping a finger on lips. Holds up “F” handshape, smiles with tongue out.] Ok! Hi everyone! Thank you to my friend Elena (name sign: 5-to-flat O by the eye) for being willing to transcribe what I say. [Closes eyes, tilts head back a bit, exhales.]


For the past week, or really, two weeks now, it’s been tough. [Moves jaw and purses lips.] I’m sad. Pissedddddd off. I’m angry. Overwhelmed. My heart hurts. [Emotional, eyes welling up with tears. Takes deep breath.] I know many people all over have been looking for “answers.” They ask, “What do I do? I’m angry too! I know y'all don't want to talk about my feelings right now, but what do I do?" To be clear, I’m talking about White* people here. And you know that we don’t care about your feelings-- wait, let me back up. I said “we”- I need to be careful and speak for myself. So [White] people have been sharing their feelings, saying, “I’m angry! I wish this wasn’t happening! ENOUGH, FINISH!” [Rolls eyes.] I nod at all of that. “So what will you do about it?” I'd ask them.


Some people have been working diligently, including community-based organizations that have been working toward freedom, reducing police brutality. Some people donate to these organizations. Other people share their thoughts, make announcements about how they support or how they are learning how to become anti-racist. Some text their friends and let them know that they’re here and available to give emotional support. Some people buy books to learn about anti-racism. So with all of those approaches, does that mean the work is done there?


[Shakes head and smiles ironically]


No. No, honey.


Here, I want to mention that the audience I'm now mainly focusing on here is teachers who work with Deaf students of color, specifically. We have a specific role in how all of this is happening. I’ll explain a bit about systematic contexts. The system we all live in are rooted in different kinds of oppression. Racism, sexism, classism, ableism, linguicism. Naming it all just pisses me off.


Within that overarching system, there are two different levels of power. The top level of power is called “macro” level, which includes the government, the prison system, healthcare- different types of systems. Oh, and the education system. All of these systems have people in power who decide the policies, practices, laws, punishments, and so on. So this is the macro level of the system. The lowel level system is the micro system, which includes, for example, schools. Within schools, who has power? Teachers, administrators, and staff. The operations of the macro system impacts what happens in schools, absolutely. And what schools do, then impacts the students’ lives, and their experiences at school and outside of school, during school and outside of school, and after they finish school - like when they graduate and their lives after school. The students, and what happens to them after school. The happenings inside the school influences all of those aspects for students’ life experiences. [Takes a deep breath.]


Lots of teachers go, "Yes, yes, I make sure I support my students no matter what race, gender, SES [socioeconomic status], religion, or whatever background they are… it doesn’t matter! I dive in and work hard to support all of them, equally!"


[Dry chuckle and smile, holds up both hands]


But wait, research has been showing that students of color, those who identify as People of Color, are the majority number of students in the education system (including Deaf Ed). Who’s in power over them are the teachers- and most teachers are White and Hearing*. And research has shown that these teachers internalize deficit perspectives toward students who have different backgrounds than they do. Schools’ environments are products of the overarching system, which itself has a totally established deficit perspective toward students of color, which spills over to schools. So schools absolutely have deficit perspectives toward students of color.


Within schools, we have different kinds of curriculum. Most people tend to think that a curriculum refers to a stack of paper, goals, standards, objectives, activities for teaching and learning, testing options, the list goes on. But a curriculum truly has different meanings and perspectives. For example, the posters that a student sees on the walls as they walk through the hallway - the messages of what they see and learn from these posters are the school’s curriculum. Students’ interactions with teachers, the principal, and other students, peers during class, after school, during lunch are all a part of the curriculum, too.


[Deep breath.]


My point in saying all of that is that research shows that the students who most benefit most from today’s standard curriculum are mostly White students. For example- when White students enter school, their minds are readily available and open for learning and receiving information. This is because the school system totally matches and acknowledges white students' identities, cultures, and backgrounds. For Black students, particularly, Black Deaf students- they enter school with barriers against receiving input. Why? Schools do not recognize their identities, their backgrounds, their experiences. White students’ and Black students’ experiences are why we have what’s called the opportunity gap. Generally, in the education system we talk about the concept of the opportunity gap to explain the experience of those at a disadvantage, who experience dire oppression and marginalization for generations at a time. This happens both in general education and Deaf education.


I have a real-life example of this. A while ago, at one of the Deaf high schools I taught at, one Black Deaf student came up to me and shared something very profound. To back up a bit- I’ll be careful to not specify too much, but here’s an example of what happened: Like I’ve explained, a school curriculum takes place in the hallway, as students walk through and consume what is on the walls, internalizing the messages from the curriculum about themselves, the values of their world, school, country. Let’s say that in this hallway, there was a specific poster that had two columns, two categories. One column was titled, “Good English Grammar,” or “Proper English Grammar” and had a list of “proper grammar” examples. Next to that column was the “Bad English” column and its examples. A Black Deaf student walks through the hallway, curiously looks at the poster and reads it- scanning through the “Good English” column and honing in on the example of go "I'm not." They look across for the adjacent “Bad English grammar” example, seeing that it read [-pauses, looks straight forward for effect-] "I ain't." [Eyebrow raised, looks down in disdain.] The student looks at the poster and feels conflicted, intense emotions arising. They think, "I say that, we say that. Does that mean we have ‘bad English grammar’?” They are devastated, and their self-esteem plunges. (And I want to add- in this example, “I ain’t” is Ebonics, or African-American Vernacular English, which linguistic research has proven is a language, and I am not going to debate that.)


So the teacher who had put up that poster… [pauses, exhales, smiles-] oh wait, I’m going off point again! [Laughs to self.]


For White students who walk through that hallway and see that kind of poster and see the example of “I am not,” they can say, “That’s me, I talk like that!” And they look at “I ain’t” and they go, “I don’t say that.” So they get that affirmation from the poster, a boost in their self-esteem, validation that they know “proper English.” White students’ experiences are that of entering the classroom, interacting with the teacher in positive, fulfilling ways, being willing to be engaged in their work with the teacher, to receive feedback and improve on their work- all the while, feeling connected and aligned with their teacher, feeling personally valued by their teacher and affirmed that they share the same values with their teacher, feeling that their teacher values them as an individual, and that their teacher respects the (sign) language they use. Meanwhile, a Black student walks into the classroom, knowing that their teacher already internalized a deficit model toward them, their language, their culture, my identity, my experience, my family, my friends, my fam- my community… the teacher looks down on them, period. A natural reaction is- or, humans tend to respond to a threat in 3 ways: fight, flight, and freeze. Research has shown that students who feel that the school culture does not value them, does not support or respect them, will “fight” by resisting- by not engaging themselves in school and making their refusal clear, not showing motivation to participate- and what for? They refuse to sacrifice their  family, their identity for the teacher, the school. Next is “flight”: when students “resign” from engaging in the classroom- giving up on the school’s beliefs, values, ideas, and “peacing out” from the classroom. The last is unfortunate. The student takes their identity, their culture, and suppresses it. They go on to act White, sign White, talk White, look White. Research has shown that these are very common responses to deficit perspectives in the curriculum.


[Pauses-] Let’s see how my transcriber is doing. [Looks at phone.] Perfect.. Oh, pause… Ohh, wait… [leans over and taps on computer keyboard, then leans back to original position.] Ready? I’m just making sure Elena is ready [peers closely at screen, finger at lips, leans back in chair, smiles, looks down at phone in lap.]


Many teachers respond to all of this in a somewhat stunned way, saying “Ohhh… so what do I do? How do I support them?”


[Pauses, looks down at phone in lap.] Transcriber still not ready yet [smiles]. Sorry for looking down on my phone, Elena’s texting me. Ok. [Looks at lap, brushes front of hair with fingers, and smiles.] Ohh, ok. There is some missing information in the transcript, I need to pause more as I sign. Ok, will pause. [Closes eyes, tilts head back, takes a deep breath.]


Many teachers all over say and feel, “Shit! Ok… how do I make sure my actions support and encourage students' freedoms and success? How do I make sure I design a classroom and establish an environment that genuinely supports my students?" [Pauses, smiles, closes eyes, deep breath, resumes signing-] Many teachers go to different workshops, watch different vlogs, but it's one thing to learn different words, key ideas, concepts, terms like "equity,” “diversity,” “inclusion,” “oppression," “racism”- and yes, there are many different words, and many people create lots of resources that are perfect for all of us to learn from. BUT, it’s another thing to act. To make sure we what we apply is relevant to our personal context. What works in a different context doesn’t always mean it will work for those in your classroom, in your community, your “world,” or in your school.


There is a gap between those two- learning concepts and learning how to apply these concepts in personal contexts. Understand that there is a gap here. Often, many cannot figure out how to connect, or bridge, ideas to action.


[Long pause.] Making sure all is good with the transcription [eyes laptop, continues signing].


My point here in this vlog is to let teachers know that when people tell you to do different things, how to unpack racism, how not to hurt or not cause trauma to students in your classroom, different things like that- ultimately, every action you take will require examining past behavior and reflection, serious reflection.


In working with many students, especially in Deaf education, lots of ideas and concepts require us all to work and make sure these ideas can apply to Deaf education. But, our own beliefs, values, personal experiences, ideas, opinions, influence HOW these ideas become practices our classrooms, in the community. Who is the mediator of that process? It’s me. It’s you.


[Nods and pauses.]


Unfortunately, we don't have many spaces for that type of analytical reflection to happen. Research has shown that that specific type of reflection requires a whole community of people who are truly committed in working towards liberation. Also, unfortunately, many people have conflicting ideas, definitions, and perspectives of what liberation is. Again, we have resources out there that teach what liberation looks like and what it means in a system that direly oppresses people of different identities who do not fit with what the status quo typically respects, values, celebrates, and uplifts.


[Pauses.]


I strongly encourage teachers who are now truly ready to understand how to make sure their work doesn't endorse racism and different types of oppression- I strongly encourage you all to set up spaces in your places of work for different people to come together. For you all to talk to each other, look back on your past behavior, and to analytically reflect on what you plan to do next, right now, and the actions you plan to do in the future. Because often, what we assume is "appropriate" really is based on our own personal beliefs and values, which could conflict with true definitions of liberation. It will help to have different perspectives from people who are all committed to achieving liberation. The most important thing is that it helps to have people who are familiar with practicing compassion. And compassion has two parts to it: noticing suffering, noticing something awful is happening, and responding appropriately to the trauma, harm, and/or suffering taking place. Noticing and responding appropriately- “appropriately” is key here, and depends on who the person at sake is- be it the person, the student, the community that we are to serve. Our responding appropriately depends on who they are. We can’t make that decision based on ourselves.


Also, my point in this vlog is to encourage you all to set up those spaces with other people who are also committed to striving towards liberation, too. I’ve started a community online called CC School. [Pauses.] We need more community spaces set up for many of us who really, truly, heartfeltly want to figure out how to make sure our actions align with our intentions.


Teachers have power, absolutely, and have the power to do just that.


That’s it. Thank you. Feel free to contact me with any questions, thoughts, or feedback.


Oh, there's one quote share by Grace Lee Boggs I must share before I go: "Transform yourself, transform the world." I'd add:


"With community, transform yourself, transform the world."

[waves good-bye]


[video ends]


Many, many, many thanks to Elena Ruiz for the ASL to English translation/transcript and video descriptions in real-time! All final revisions are my own.


*For my current perspective on capitalizing the "w" in "White" and the "h" in "Hearing," please check out the links below:

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