I am a high school teacher in North Carolina and 2016 has been a hell of a year.
This is less a proclamation than it is an obvious statement, but the ups and downs of this election season have been deeply felt in classrooms across the country. Durham, where I teach, is no different; the pendulum swing of living in a swing state that chose Trump forces a lot of evaluation. We have waited as Governor Pat McCrory refused to concede until finally doing so nearly a month after the election. There was a KKK rally nearby this weekend. Anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-black sentiment has spread. It’s exhausting.
As the election steamrolled through the first semester, one of the topics that arose was the role of teachers in a highly politicized election. Often, teachers are criticized if they involve elections or share their point of view. To be sure, teachers should refrain from trying to indoctrinate any student to mirror their own beliefs. But that doesn’t mean teachers are apolitical. In fact, there is no such thing. As educator and activist Jose Vilson once said, “Politics are at play in classrooms. Everything from the number and composition of students in our classrooms to the adults who end up in front of them and the buildings they’re situated in are political positions.” I believe that what teachers choose to teach and not teach are political decisions. When we choose to follow a Eurocentric perspective, we have made a political choice. When we teach about Thanksgiving without acknowledging indigenous people’s true history, we have made a political choice. When a student says “that’s gay” and we ignore him, we made a political choice. The truth is that teaching is an incredibly political act.
It is also a microcosm of the American political experience, and how it is entrenched with small choices. A “nice” teacher who teaches books with negative stereotypes about black men that makes her black male students feel unsafe is actually not so nice. Just because a school says it is anti-bullying doesn’t make it so. Much like the adage a nice guy who yells at a waiter isn’t actually nice, this election has brought to light the truth that what we don’t do and don’t say is just as important as what we do. Naomi Shulman wrote a powerful piece for NPR where she said, “Nice people made the best Nazis. Or so I have been told. My mother…spent her childhood in Nazi Germany surrounded by nice people who refused to make waves. When things got ugly, the people my mother lived alongside chose not to focus on ‘politics,’ instead busying themselves with happier things. They were lovely, kind people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away.”
As Trump’s election becomes startlingly normalized, resisting everyday prejudice becomes more important than ever. As a white person, I also realize that the burden for calling out and calling in rests even more in the white community, the demographic that largely elected Trump. As hate crimes spiral out of control and manifest in terrifying ways in school, the need to speak against injustice is necessary.
Recently Joanna and Chip Gaines of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” made news when a Buzzfeed article announced they attended an anti-gay church. The article, called by some a “hit piece”, went into detail about sermons the pastor Jimmy Seibert gave about the gay community. In it, he reacted to the Supreme Court decision for marriage equality by scrapping his intended sermon to remind his congregation of more than 3,500 people that gay marriage is not biblical, being gay is a choice, and it is the Christian duty to bring gay people away from homosexuality. This, the pastor proclaimed, was part of their church’s mission to be loving.
Some people insist Christians are being persecuted and argue, “Why don’t you go after Muslims since their beliefs are against homosexuality, too?” To that point, I believe deeply that this should matter to anyone attending a place of worship using their religious texts to justify discrimination. Many religions are, in fact, gay-friendly, according to the Pew Research Center. But please don’t suggest that a powerful Christian megachurch is treated the same as a Muslim place of worship in this country. Making that comparison ignores the power structures in our country, and we need to make those invisible power structures visible. And as Shakespeare wrote in “The Merchant of Venice”: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
Many people argue that it’s none of our business. But it is my business and yours if thousands of people are supporting the idea that gay people are somehow deviants, or that they should undergo a conversion therapy, which has been discredited. In fact, conversion therapy is dangerous, the opposite of that loving and empathetic model the pastor claims. Over 25 states have introduced legislation against conversion therapy. The Human Rights Campaign cites, “broader research clearly demonstrates the significant harm that societal prejudice and family rejection has on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people, particularly youth…Every major medical and mental health organization in the United States has issued a statement condemning the use of conversion therapy.”
I disagree that the Gaineses have not made a public statement. When they continued attending the church, their actions stated the bigotry wasn’t a deal breaker. When they gave a very public interview with the pastor, they threw their support behind him. Actions speak louder than words. And this is why I believe we should keep talking about them and their church. Because too often we don’t realize how our actions or silences condone behaviors, we end up making those around us feel unsafe and unloved.
Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of religion are indeed essential tenets of American values. But those freedoms entail you can enjoy them without fear of jail or harm. They do not guarantee a lack of consequences. Words have power, silences have weight, and people deserve to be held to that. We cannot pretend like American Christian values are private yet persecuted; this election revealed for the umpteenth time the true power wielded by the Christian right. What you believe at home is one thing, but when discriminatory beliefs lead to laws and attacking civil rights, it is time for public discourse. Donald Trump has already begun surrounding himself with anti-gay cabinet members and advisors, such as infamously anti-gay Mike Pence as Vice-President elect. The anti-gay beliefs that perhaps began in church dealing with marriage spread easily to workplace discrimination. Here in North Carolina we have been traumatized by the introduction of HB2, which allows for discrimination based on sexual orientation, among others, in many public spheres. It has cost our state billions of dollars.
In the end, we must deal with the consequences of our words and silences. As a teacher, daily I pause from the lesson plan to address something students have said or heard. Because I know what they are truly asking, or what the students listening are wondering, is “Can I trust you? Will you speak up for me?”
I love them. So, I listen, I act, and I refuse to be silent. It isn’t always easy, but it is necessary, regardless if you’re in a school or a church.