Jeanine Mason is a second grade math teacher at Achievement First Iluminar Mayoral Academy.
I am always aware of my blackness. If I forget for a moment, the world makes sure that I’m immediately reminded. I am always considering whether I will be the only black woman in the room.
I grew up in North Carolina, and I had this idea that when I came to the Northeast to go to college at Brown, that people in this part of the country would be much more liberal and accepting. I found that wasn’t true – there’s a lot of covert racism and deep-seated bias under the cover of liberalism. It became clear to me that I experience my blackness in a different way from how it is perceived by others.
To me, my blackness also means being Caribbean – my dad is from Jamaica and moved here at age 17. I grew up around Caribbean culture, food and music, and that’s a huge part of who I am as a black woman.
There is so much diversity within blackness. My roommate, who also works here at AF, is Trinidadian and white. I am Jamaican and white. We have the same biracial background, but a lot of people would look at us and see us as completely different racially.
In many ways, my blackness brought me to Achievement First and into teaching. My race and coming from a low-income background made my own educational opportunities unique in my community. Even my own brothers, who grew up in the same house, didn’t have the same opportunities I did. I became a teacher to combat the disparity I experienced in my own life.
Jeanine at 6 years old.
As a math teacher, I think a lot about my blackness and about being a role model for all of my students as a woman of color in STEM. I think about this especially for my young brown and black girls, who don’t see representatives of themselves in these fields. I am here to make math exciting, to make them love math, because I know there are so many people who are going to tell them they don’t belong in that field and dissuade them from moving forward.
I want us to be louder than those voices. That’s why, when I come to work, I want to remind students of their identity and my own. I push my colleagues of all races in ways that might be uncomfortable on issues of race and class. On Fridays, we wear college T-shirts to school, and my roommate and I asked our principal if it was OK for us to wear T-shirts in support of black lives.
Just asking that question inspired others to ask where they could buy those T-shirts, and to march in our communities with families and teachers in support of black lives. My blackness informs what is an important stance for me – I believe 100% that you can’t support kids in the classroom and then choose not to support their identities outside of the classroom if you are truly in this for them. It’s our job to teach them academics, to help them learn to be good people, but we also have to keep it real. They need to know, as people of color, the space they will take up in the world and the tools they’ll need to navigate it.
Maybe most of all, to me, blackness is resilience and strength. I am proud of our unification and our pride and joy in our identities, despite all that we’ve faced. Our ability to take action, stand up for ourselves, and fight injustice is something people don’t think of as often – and for me it is a huge part of being black in America.