‘My daughter waved a piece of paper in her hand, exasperated. ‘What’s wrong?’ She said, ‘This assignment!’: Student powerfully pushes back after racially-insensitive assignment on ‘ancestors’

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“My daughter is a twin. She is the alpha. She weighed a pound more than her twin brother at birth and was an inch longer. She walked first, she talked first, and she had a LOT to say. When she was four-years-old she asked me where babies came from. I told her. I showed her my c-section scar, through which she and her brother were delivered. She looked at me, skeptical, and shook her head, ‘I don’t believe that,’ she said.

Courtesy of Erica Bullock-Jones

She and her brother were born in southern California and my husband and I moved our family to Denver in 2009. In 2013, we moved south to the mostly white suburb of Highlands Ranch in Douglas County Colorado for the high-quality schools. The ethnic make-up of the county includes 1% Black residents. My daughter benefited greatly from these schools and was identified as dyslexic within 5 weeks of enrollment. She went from reading at a kindergarten level in the middle of third grade to reading at above grade level by the end of her third-grade year. Her learning differences have created confidence challenges for her, but she perseveres.

She is a sensitive child with very high emotional intelligence. She is keenly aware of being one of only a handful of people of color in every academic setting since she can remember. During her freshman English class last year, the teacher asked each student to compose a 6-word biography. Hers was, ‘Raisin in a bowl of milk.’ She presses through her challenges with aplomb and grace.

Courtesy of Erica Bullock-Jones

When the current school year started, we elected the online only option. She has been challenged by the isolation from her classmates and has had some difficulties adjusting to the new normal. We check in often to make sure her assignments are manageable and she is being mindful of her upcoming deadlines. On August 26th, I was in my home office working on a project. My daughter entered the room waving a piece of paper in her hand, exasperated. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked. She said, ‘This assignment!’

Courtesy of Erica Bullock-Jones

‘I just got off a Zoom call with the history teacher and he gave us this assignment. He told us to talk to our grandparents, aunts, and uncles about the first member of our family who immigrated to the United States. He said he wanted us to learn the push and pull of the decision and to tell that story in this assignment,’ she explained. 

I took the paper from her and read the questions. We talked about how the assignment erased the Black American experience. We discussed that our ancestors were never given a choice of whether to come here. We talked about the unfairness of the American mythology of those coming to the United States to seek the American dream– mostly from Europe and during the early 1900s when many of our ancestors have been here since the 1600 and 1700s. 

This information, along with the facts that include Black Americans physically building this nation (without compensation) make Black people even more essential to the fabric of America and its history. By this point, I was also agitated. I asked her, ‘Do you want me to call him and set him straight?’ ‘No!’ She exclaimed, embarrassed. I may tend to be a bit over sensitive when it comes to issues of race in our current climate of video recorded police killings of Black people, widespread social upheaval, and inflammatory statements made regularly by national political figures. She is aware of this tendency and immediately forbade me from interceding.

She insisted she alone would handle it. ‘I’ve got an email to write,’ she announced and left the room. About an hour later, she returned and shared with me an email she had drafted to the teacher. Her dyslexia makes spelling correctly a monumental challenge and she wanted me to proofread it. It follows:

‘Dear Teacher,

Good afternoon. I am unsure of whether or not it came to mind when creating this assignment that not all students come from a line of descendants whose history involves voluntary immigration. As an African American, my family history involves somber deep-rooted wounds involving enslavement and exploitation which (as you know) continues to constantly weigh heavily on our shoulders. 

I want to make it clear that I understand history is not always pretty and in this class we will learn and gain a deeper understanding of tragic historical events. The topic of this assignment is not something I take lightly. I am telling you all of this in the hopes that in the future you might give assignments like this more thought before asking these types of things of your future students.’

I was impressed. She sent him the email. The next morning, she asked me to review her completed assignment. 

This is what she produced:

Courtesy of Erica Bullock-Jones

I was floored. I asked her if I could post it on my Facebook page and told her I was very proud of her. She gave me permission and it quickly went viral, garnering nearly 40,000 likes and over 39,000 shares. I received responses, direct messages, and outreach from people across America and around the world. The response was overwhelming and universally positive. 

She turned in the assignment, which was due the following Wednesday and we awaited a response from the teacher. I posted the following update on Facebook:

Today is the day the students were scheduled to present their homework assignments to the other classmates via Zoom. The teacher postponed the presentation. My guess? I suspect he may have caught wind of her completed assignment making the rounds to thousands of people here in the US as well as abroad.

Before Female Offspring submitted her work to him, she sent an email directly to the teacher. It is below: (I included the test of the email from above.)

Monday, he was apologetic, conciliatory, and complimentary of the assignment she turned in. He told her it was insensitive of him to put her in that position. He said he would need to re-evaluate the assignment after having assigned it to his students for many years. He complimented her on how she had chosen to answer and re-frame his questions. Finally, he told her it was the BEST response to the assignment he had ever received and he’s been teaching for more than 15 years. I assume when he said her response was the best he’d ever received, that means she’ll be getting an A.

Right on! Keep up the good fight!

I was relieved and deeply gratified by the teacher’s response. Since the American reckoning with its original sin of racism began in earnest this year, I have been asked numerous times by my white friends and colleagues, ‘What can I do? ‘ ‘I feel so helpless, how can I help?’ relative to how we can move toward a more just society on the race question. THIS is how. When a Black person or another person of color comes to you with a concern over an issue that demonstrates how whiteness is being centered and the narrative of Black people is being marginalized and pushed aside – first, listen and then take a step back, re-evaluate and try to address the concerns and be more inclusive going forward.

I am immeasurably proud of my 15-year old sophomore. It is both thrilling and humbling to witness her blossom into a fierce, intelligent, and brave advocate for herself and our people.”

Courtesy of Erica Bullock-Jones

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Erica Bullock-Jones of Highlands Ranch, Colorado. You can follow her journey on Facebook. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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