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Netflix and Learn; or How “When They See Us” Can Make Us Better Teachers


Okay. You’re back, so that must mean you took my advice and watched the four episodes on Netflix (and hopefully the Oprah special afterwards as well). So now you see why I used all caps up there, right? That miniseries was is important, is necessary, and is essential viewing, especially for teachers.

Especially for White teachers.

Hey Doc, why do you have to single out the White teachers?

Well, did you see the series? Do you even live in the world? As a teacher educator I am always talking with my pre-service teachers about how we all live in a White world and part of our job is to support our non-White students in navigating through institutional racism that everything is built upon. And I do mean everything. The political system, the justice system, the education system, etc., etc., etc.

I must admit – I knew about the Central Park Five and had heard a little bit about the story back in the 90s, but after watching “When They See Us,” I realized how little I really knew about the story of The Exonerated Five. The entire time I’m watching it – especially the first two episodes – I found myself thinking “I can’t believe this is happening!” and “This has got to be as bad as it gets” but every time I thought those things it just got worse.

But then I realized that for my Black students, this story is not an exaggerated one; it is something that happens every day in every part of America. Even for middle school students, “When They See Us” is a fairly typical narrative – except for the ending. Black bodies have always been considered dangerous and Black males especially have always been seen as something to be afraid of. Throughout the story we see young Black boys – fourteen or fifteen years old – referred to as animals and thugs and criminals. And in the grand scheme of things, how different are things now, 30 years later?

I’ve seen teachers and educators on social media this summer talking about how they want to view “When They See Us” in school as part of their curriculum. And while I’m glad to hear that these teachers – many of them White – have watched this series, I’m curious what kind of unit this series would be included in. I’m also wondering if these educators are thinking clearly about why they want to show this in their classroom…

A few things to be aware of, to consider, and to ask ourselves:

  • Could this story be triggering to any of my Black students?

  • Could viewing this story be an extension of Digital Blackface?

  • How will I frame the viewing of this story in a way that allows my White students to think critically about their Whiteness?

  • Am I just showing this series as a way to show my students that I’m woke? (And if that is the case, aren’t there a million better ways to show my students I am here to support them and the things they’re going through?)

  • Is there something else we can view/read/discuss that disrupts the institutional racism that occurs in schools every day?

As I mentioned earlier, I think this is essential viewing for White teachers. Part of being a culturally relevant educator is understanding who our students are and what they encounter outside of school. “When They See Us” gives us a glimpse into some of the truly horrible things our students encounter on a regular basis – most all of which they have no control over.

Some more questions to consider:

Can we use the knowledge we gain by watching this story to advocate for our students in a more dedicated and devoted way? How can we show our students that we care for them – all of them, not just their test scores or how they did on the field or court, but in a social emotional level – without adding to their feelings of marginalization, discrimination, or powerlessness? What did we learn from watching and thinking about “When They See Us” and what is the best way we can share those lessons with our White colleagues?

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