In a School Daze: Coming to School to Un-learn

Hey my woke people!!! I just wanted to start this week’s blog with giving a shout out to all my NYC teachers. Only two weeks left before you officially start worrying about next school year. Seriously, I’m with all y’all in solidarity and hoping this post brings food for thought or better yet, nourishment for the mind. Enjoy.


For anyone who knows me, they will tell you that my favorite Spike Lee movie of all time is School Daze (no shade to Malcolm X or Do the Right Thing; both are definitely dope) and I can watch this movie at least three times a week. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the film, the movie takes place at the fictional HBCU, Mission College where the protagonist, Dap is played by the legendary Laurence Fishburne and his nemesis, Julian AKA Dean Big Brother Al-migh-ty is played by Giancarlo Esposito. The film addresses the role that the students and the university play in the fight against South African Apartheid- Dap being the woke, pro-black, rabble-rouser and Julian being the assimilationist, pro-American, model minority.

The movie was released in 1988 but allow me to transport y’all to September 2009: I am a first year English/Special Education teacher and I am going to share one of my favorite scenes from this movie as part of the year-long theme, “The Year of –Isms”. My 9th graders are expected to analyze various texts through the lens of racism, sexism, classism and so forth. One of the dopest scenes in this movie takes place at Madame Re Re’s hair salon where there is a stand-off between the Wannabes (the light-skinned, straight-hair girls on campus) versus the Jigaboos (the dark-skinned, natural hair squad). In this scene, they sing the catchy tune “Good or Bad Hair” that features one of the best-choreographed moments in black film (and film in general).

images-1.jpg Soooo… after I get all excited about my theme and the students have bought into the idea, I tell them to go on You Tube and view this scene. Their assignment is to write down the ism that they were observing and provide a brief rationale for their response. Shock moment #1 as a new teacher: about 90% of my students (out of 105) stated that the –ism that they identified was classism. I’m like “OK, why?” What really took me aback was their rationale which basically to sum up the collective response was that the dark skinned women looked poor because they didn’t comb their hair and the light-skinned women looked rich and pretty. My internal conversation went something like, “Where they say that at?” but my woke self was like “Girl, that ain’t nothin’ but some colonialism.”

After I picked my jaw up from the floor, I realized a few things. The term colorism wasn’t a familiar concept nor the word intra-racism so they didn’t believe that there could be racism within the same race. However, they did acknowledge color discrimination within their own culture (the majority of my students were from the Dominican Republic). When I asked the range of melanin in my class if they had any Black people in their country, they said “yes, the Haitians.” Due to Haiti’s position in the Western world, I could understand why they could make the assumption that the darker the skin, the more economically disadvantaged therefore the more they would want to distance themselves from that. My students bought into a lot of the negative stereotypes associated with Blacks, especially African Americans and therefore made the assumption that most if not all dark-skinned people were somehow, deficient, lacking, not as intelligent, poor, dirty…basically, INFERIOR. So needless to say, they weren’t feeling Team Jigaboo.

I spent a lot of that year trying to help them adjust their minds about their own culture and their relationship to Blackness. We discussed the importance of Haiti to their own freedom and we read Edwidge Danticat, Langston Hughes and Junot Diaz. We called one another out for saying offensive things in the classroom and discussed where these racist ideas came from (whether it was family, media and/or their limited experiences). But that one movie clip shown in the beginning of the year really helped to uncover a wound. While I could not heal it in one year, I was glad I began to treat it within my classroom. I learned a lot my first year from a pedagogical standpoint and from a cultural one. All of the places that were affected by colonialism were deeply impacted and the self-hatred that came along with knowing that there was African blood running through my students’ veins was something that they were taught to ignore. As long as there was a darker face in the room, they could avoid being seen as The Black One. As much as I wanted my little boos to learn, I also needed them to unlearn some really damaging beliefs that they held.

So my question is, what are we doing as educators to ensure that our Diasporic babies are learning about their roots, their history and appreciating their blackness, their color, their kinks, their African-ness? This is crucial as one of the first lessons that many of our students are learning is to hate themselves. We have a duty to help them unlearn that. How are we ensuring that we are decolonizing their minds from day one? How do we get our kids to even talk to us about or to recognize self-hatred and how do we help them heal?


One way to begin is to make sure that we as educators take Dap’s advice in the movie and “please, wake up.”




  1. Hey, Khalya. This piece gripped me from the onset. My experiences with this effort is similar, but more devastating. I have noticed that my struggle with my students’ abilities to maintain a positive self-perception, has shifted from a racial standpoint to a human standpoint. So many of my students, including those who accept and feel pride in their African roots don’t find value in themselves. Society seems to be doing a good job of weakening the bond between teacher and child, making it damn near impossible to help our boos find themselves. These enforced curricula and lack of advisory periods, in most instances, are leaving our children lost.


    • Hey Dayniah. Thanks for reading and for commenting. I absolutely agree and I’ve been really annoyed by the lack of advisory or when it’s there it’s a wasted period for kids to go to their lockers or just take attendance waiting for their “real” classes to start. Advisory also tends to be put in place in a reactive manner instead of a proactive one but we need to find ways not to just carve out space for one period but infuse into all of our classes, extra curricular activities, etc. This is obviously a longer discussion but thank you for sharing.


  2. Hi Khalya, it’s been a long time! Hope all is well! I read your blog a few days ago. I found the topic to be very relevant and profound. Just yesterday, as I was hanging out in the classroom, minding my own business, two female students decide to invade my time and space with life conversations (something I always welcome). Somehow we wound up talking about race and their testimony was simply shocking. They spoke of the time they were middle schoolers and feeling inferior. They disliked their curly hair and skin tone. One even said “I hated looking in the mirror” because she was Dominican and not white. One talked about how she idolized a certain classmate because she seemed Caucasian and “had straight hair, looked white and acted white”. Mind you, this particular white-looking student was also Dominican. Can you say colorism? Self hatred is some sh&t! At least they are at the point that they recognize the issue.

    I pulled out my phone and read your post. This was their reaction:
    They inquired about who wrote this and once I revealed it was you this was what they said:
    “Omg, she was supposed to be my teacher!”

    The other one said: “I was looking forward to being in her class. I even did the summer assignment she had asked us to do!”

    I thought to myself what a great loss it was for them never to experience you as their educator.

    Anyway, they wanted to see the movie scene referenced in your post to further understand your point. We talked deeply about our Dominican culture and our black beauty (and how that beauty is suppressed by forces of those evil “-isms”) One student even hinted about this being the theme of her college essay next year. I hope she goes through with this! Little by little they are learning to love themselves and changing the culture. Any chance you can come over to talk to them next year? I am the teacher supervisor for the student-led “Girl Empowerment Group”. This topic deserves all the attention it can get.


  3. Hey Dani,

    I appreciate the response and I was definitely looking forward to teaching them that group that year.

    I’m so glad that you read my piece with them. That’s dope. This is the second piece I’ve written that has been used in a school and that’s what I hope to see more of because people aren’t having the tough conversations.

    And as far as speaking to your girl’s group, hell yeah I’m there and I think that’s so necessary. Let’s connect and see when we can make that happen.

    Until then… love.


  4. Morning Sis!

    It’s so amazing how this issue is still so pervasive- I really liked reading that quote “you can’t hate the roots of the tree and not hate the tree” as a child of the diaspora myself I know deep within myself this conundrum- being born in Brasil afforded me the ability to grapple with this double consciousness- I was told daily as a child that I was dark and unsightly becuase of my “Brillo” hair by male cousins and those I thought to be friends – the media did not help with my self esteem either – products for little girls we’re always geared for those whose hair could be combed with a fine tooth comb, I learned to dislike myself so much I wanted to escape
    Myself by requesting my mother send to me for my 7th birthday the relaxer “just for me” – on the fated day I thought I would “turn white” I looked at myself in the mirror and I was shocked to see my melanin was still brown and I suddenly looked like I an indigenous child from Brazil’s amazon- I could not understand- my head spinned with confusion and deception- I relied so heavily on marketing and that was my first bitter taste with its cunning lies – I will say that I am grateful though- grateful that I experienced these things as a child, and many other things as an adolescent- it has better prepared me to catch my students when they have these self deprecating thoughts towards themselves or with one another – just a few weeks ago my young black sisters and I were on an advisory trip wherein they talked about how the black boys did not like them because of their hair and skin- and becuase they are constantly angry – my blood boiled- they talked about how the boys much preferred the “Spanish girls ” (Dominican’s) to them. To that I spoke about the Dominican republics african roots and how they too are Afro-Latinos- and that these young women too have hair texture similar to theirs and spent copious amount of hours in a Salon to murder their natural beauty- in a short time we were able to try and see the beauty in ourselves and laugh and love one another- the work is great- the hurt is real and colonialisms vast reach to poison our souls have been fed to us since birth – to that I echo Kendrick’s word. ” I wish I was fed forgiveness ” – but it’s hard to forgive .


  5. And yaaaaasss to all of that sis. So honest and I know the struggle you are describing. We need to share these stories and confront our pain so we can change these crazy but all too real beliefs. Continue to do the work you do. Much love.


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