University of Minnesota Alumni Association

The Last Word

Sometimes I Feel Like Harriet Tubman

A mother contends with racial bias in public schools.

James Heimer

I was invited to speak at a Twin Cities-area school, and it wasn’t until I arrived that the administrator asked me to discuss the immediate challenges facing parents and children in education in Minnesota.

Initially, I was hesitant because I didn’t know if I wanted to take a personal risk with the topic. Sure, I could talk about literature, culture, and creative writing, but K-12 education in Minnesota is a sensitive topic freighted with anger, shame, and blame on all sides. And with my own three kids attending Twin Cities-area schools, I have skin in the game.

According to the New York Times, “Nationally, black students are suspended three times as often as their white peers; in Minnesota, it is eight times as often.” The recent story points out that while black students comprised 41 percent of the student population in Minneapolis in 2017, they made up 76 percent of the suspensions. Even the best quests for solutions on this issue are mired in the fact that racial disparities in Minnesota are some of the starkest in the nation.

A brown parent, a mother, at the back of the room stood and asked, “Can you give an example of implicit bias that has affected your own child in school?” 

Her question forced me out of the autopilot zone that most professionals slip into when our hubris is set on high. “That’s a good question,” I said, buying time. 

Looking at the mother, I recognized that her mother body, like many weary parent bodies in the room, was seemingly at ease but conditioned to brace at any moment for the dreaded expected unexpected. I recognized my own mother body and experience inside hers. This is what it feels like to be the parent of a child in Minnesota schools who is the victim of implicit bias. Powerless. 

I told the audience about my black children who attend schools in the Twin Cities. Like their momma, they have dark brown skin with beautiful tightly curled hair. They are physically bigger than their classroom peers, and their speech reflects a confidence and experience beyond their years as they hear two different languages at home. Natural leaders, my black children are kind and charming, and like their Tanzanian Bibi (grandmother), a lawyer working for the rights of women and kids, my black children are intelligent, competitive, analytical, and protective. They have a keen sense of fairness and speak up if they sense inequity. 

These unique qualities that make my black children great are the very same qualities that are perceived by some teachers and administrators as aggressive, adult, disrespectful, loud, defensive, and angry.

I laughed and told the mother that as the parent of children experiencing implicit bias, I often feel like Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad, trying to help my marginalized children get free, get educated. I added that my husband and I feel incredible fear and guilt at the realization that our own educational success does not protect the brown bodies of our children from the consequences of implicit bias within Minnesota schools.  

“Yes. That’s just how it feels,” she said to me.

In that moment, with those amazing and hopeful parents, I had no choice but to do what most well-meaning professionals in education fail to do: validate the experiences of nonwhite students and their parents, so we all know that we are not alone. We are not the only ones struggling with this very real educational and human rights crisis. And there is strength, hope, and healing in telling our stories.

Taiyon J. Coleman (M.A. ’03, Ph.D. ’13) is a writer and assistant professor of English at St. Catherine University.