She’s Tackling Slave Trade Ideologies in the Classroom - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Because she’s dedicating herself to teaching future teachers how to dismantle a racist structure.

By Joshua Eferighe

Stacy Johnson knew, from bearing witness in the classroom for decades, how Black schoolchildren are disproportionately tracked into lower-level coursework and overdisciplined compared with their white peers. She knew that Eurocentric curricula reinforce the status quo, that the lessons centered on white experiences leave Black students without cultural context.

But it wasn’t until she dug deeper when researching her 2019 dissertation at the University of Texas at San Antonio that Johnson discovered the deeper pathologies of classroom control — how behaviors natural to Black students (e.g., call and response, interruption) are dismissed as rude, squeezing the “Africanness” out of them. How more than 80 percent of teachers are white and just 8 percent are Black, serving a majority-minority student base. And she reached a provocative conclusion: “The problem is that the educational system and its anti-Black praxis is the new slave trade; its educators, often unsuspecting … accidental slave masters.”

Even while Johnson’s published research article, “U.S. Education and the Persistence of Slavery,” “wrote itself,” as she tells me, her findings also brought her to tears. “I would have to stop reading and have these moments where I just needed to cry it out for a while and walk away,” she says.

I wanted to be part of the solution to help train those teachers.

Stacy Johnson

Now the 54-year-old Pittsburgh native is rededicating her career to reshaping those “accidental slave masters,” teaching the teachers how to better serve minority students — work that is all the more urgent and relevant as anti-racism protests sweep the United States following the killing of George Floyd. “I wanted to be part of the solution to help train those teachers at the postsecondary level and give them the benefit of what I experienced over the years,” Johnson says.

Johnson is self-reflective about her own blind spots that led her to miss some of these phenomena initially. But as a Black woman who also struggled as a student, Johnson has made it a point to be what she calls a teacher-activist. She incorporates sources outside the usual curriculum to broaden her students’ worldview.

1 Youth

Johnson was privileged enough to have access to her history. She grew up in a multiethnic family (African American, Blackfoot, Seminole, Cuban and European) rich with culture and activism. Her father attended the 1963 March on Washington and her uncle was a member of the Nation of Islam and a Black Panther.

Once she lands a university job — she completed her doctorate in March — Johnson hopes to teach aspiring teachers a course on diversity, equity and social science. “My job is to get those newbies to start to think about that and to realize if there is anything out there to challenge,” she says.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Johnson’s published research article, “U.S. Education and the Persistence of Slavery,” as her dissertation. It was a separate work.

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