Joseph Frilot considers himself an introvert. He’s a sixth- and seventh-grade pre-AP social studies teacher in Austin, and he couldn’t imagine himself participating in a march for justice when the idea first came up. Then, he thought of his students and the example he wanted to set for them through his actions.
So, bullhorn in hand, Frilot led a group of educators in a march for education equality through downtown Austin in June.
But Frilot says these times call for even deeper work. He wants to see anti-racism at the center of education, particularly in three key ways:
- teaching anti-racist curriculum in all subjects;
- hiring and effectively supporting more diverse teachers and education leaders; and
- helping teachers — especially white teachers — actively work on anti-racism.
"Having the privilege to remain silent is OK for you," Frilot said, "but it's not OK for those who actually have to suffer through these injustices.”
Frilot believes Black and Brown students need to see clear evidence that teachers and administrators support them.
"At the end of the day, your students should know what side you stand on," Frilot said. "If I can't tell whether or not you’re racist at the school that I teach, or that you're anti-racist, then I feel like there's a huge problem."
Listen to the edited interview below or read the transcript of the full interview to hear how gaslighting and microaggressions Frilot experienced as a student and teacher have informed his focus on anti-racism in education.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Teacher Joseph Frilot: I consider myself an introvert. A lot of people tell me that I’m not. I am not a public speaker by any means. And so when the idea [for the Educators March for Justice] was first presented to me, I was initially mortified. It was like, “No, I don't think I can do this because I'm not a speaker. There's no way I can lead a march of 400 people." But the more I thought about it, I thought about my students and I thought about the print that I'm going to leave upon them when I come back to school.
I talk a lot about social justice and about resistance against racial oppression in my classroom. And I talk about how I'm fighting against that as a teacher. But also, it takes more than just teaching. It takes more than just disrupting through education to make a change.
The opportunity presented itself for me to be able to physically be out there protesting and marching for change. So that's what really ultimately made me decide to do it. It was for my students so that I can show them and be an example for them as to what a change agent is. [It’s] more than just about words. It's also about action as well.
KUT: What are the changes that you would like to see in the classroom and in schools?
Frilot: I teach on East Riverside. The school is mostly comprised of Black and Brown students. What I just see a lot of is our students, particularly African-American students, are facing harsher treatment when it comes to consequences.
I also believe that our schools are not adequately talking about race enough and are not fighting against racism enough. We believe that we're fighting against racism by just teaching Black and Brown students.
For me, I feel like providing a quality education is not the only thing that we can do in order to create change or fight against racism in our society. We have to actively be talking about race and actively give space for Black and Brown students to understand that we support them and that we understand their plight and that we actually want to do something about it.
KUT: What measures could schools and teachers take to give that active support to Black and Brown students?
Frilot: There are so many things. But there's three main things that I really feel should be done first. First off, we have to start teaching an anti-racist curriculum on all content levels. By that, I mean there has to be space where students can talk about race, where teachers can teach students to challenge racism and racial oppression. And it shouldn't just be done in the history classes. It can be done in every class.
Right now at my school, we're trying to figure how we can talk about diversity, equity and inclusion at least once per month all at the same time in all of our classes. So once again, just having an anti-racist curriculum is important.
Giving Black educators space to lead is my second thing. I feel like in our schools, it’s mostly comprised of white teachers teaching Black and Brown students. We have to start hiring more diverse teachers to teach our Black and Brown students. And we also have to create spaces where our Black educators can lead and become a part of [administration] and become principals and assistant principals. Because that's not what we generally see when we talk about who's in charge.
My last main point that I would like to see is a space where teachers – particularly white teachers – confront their biases and become anti-racist. I feel like just saying that you're not racist is not enough at this point. We need people who are actively challenging this, because if you're being silent and complicit, then for me you're just as dangerous as someone who is actually racist.
Having the privilege to remain silent is OK for you, but it's not OK for those who actually have to suffer through these injustices. A lot of people who have to suffer through these injustices are your students. So your students need to know that you support them and that you are going to use your voice and your privilege to fight for them.
KUT: You mentioned an anti-racism curriculum. Talk a little bit more about what would be in that curriculum — what an anti-racist curriculum would look like.
Frilot: When we look at our education, especially when we look at Texas — Texas history is usually taught from a white and Eurocentric perspective. I believe that our curriculum needs to be more culturally relevant for our students. It has to be critical, in order to foster critical thinking skills, and multicultural — where we're not just talking about the white historical figures that helped shape history. There are so many voices that are left out of history. There are Latino voices that are left out. There are Black voices. There are Black women and Native American voices that are left out of our historical narrative when it comes to history.
Then when we talk about other contents, there are ways in which you can use your curriculum, even in science, where you can create science problems to talk about race. Or even in math, where you can look at charts and pie graphs. Especially in English, where there are novels that students should be reading that touch on race and get students to start thinking about how race is a factor in our societal construct, and also how people of diverse backgrounds have faced oppression in this country and what conversations could be had to challenge those issues that we currently face. I would like just more instances where in all classrooms teachers are constantly talking about these issues and how we can challenge them.
Students need to know what side you stand on. Ultimately, at the end of the day, your students should know what side you stand on. If I can't tell whether or not you’re racist at the school that I teach, or that you're anti-racist, then I feel like there's a huge problem.
KUT: You mentioned the idea of more Black teachers, supporting Black teachers, and elevating Black teachers to leadership roles and roles in administration. I'm curious if you can talk a little bit about what it's like to be a Black teacher.
Frilot: So at my school, I'm actually the only Black male teacher at my school, and I can tell you that my experiences have not always been great. There are a lot of microaggressions that I've experienced being the only Black male teacher that other people may not have to worry about.
So, for example, I’ve been pinned as the aggressive person. I never thought in a million years that I’d be seen as an aggressive person. I try my best. I’m a six-foot-three, tall, Black man. I know that my stature definitely could cause fears from looking at me, so I always try to present myself in the most friendly way possible so that I don't come across as aggressive. But over time, that label has come on me just because I’m outspoken or because I fight passionately for the things that I believe in. That has led to those negative stereotypes.
Sometimes you just feel like you're on display. I know that a lot of Black teachers feel that way sometimes, and they feel as though their concerns when it comes to racial matters don’t matter. There have been so many instances where Black teachers, even myself, have been racially gaslighted.
When I’ve brought up my concerns, I’ve been told I’m just playing the race card or made to feel like what I'm experiencing really isn't actually true. I feel like it's a lack of diversity in our schools. It gives more rise to racial gaslighting or to one perspective being put above another.
KUT: When you tell those stories and talk about those experiences, that all seems to point so directly to your third point, which is that white teachers, white administrators, white people need to examine their own underlying beliefs and figure out the reasons why, for example, they label you as aggressive because you're a six-foot-three Black man.
Frilot: Yes, that's so true. I know that people grow up differently. We all come from different backgrounds. And I can't ignore my race. But you have that privilege to ignore race as an important issue or as important in your life because you never had to experience racism. It’s something that you don't experience so you don't know. When you don't experience something, it’s hard for you to empathize with those who do.
I believe that we have to start training our teachers, particularly our white teachers, on matters dealing with race. And we have to start propagating these conversations so that they can confront their bias or they can confront their privilege and understand, become more empathetic of our situations that we have to deal with as Black educators, Black staff and even our Black students.
KUT: This will seem like a very broad question. I know it's hard to characterize all of your students and all the conversations that may have ever come up in your classroom. But I am curious: when topics of race and racism come up in the classroom with your students, how do they respond? What do they say and think about race and racism when you all have talked about it?
Frilot: My students think it's a serious concern. Even my Latino students, because hearing the president [Donald Trump] talk about Mexican immigrants in such a negative way, they're angry. They want change just as much as the adults do.
I have Black students who feel even worse because they’re facing it on all ends not only because of their race but because of the color of their skin. They can't pass. When you're Black, you can't pass as another race. So when I bring up topics of race, that's where I see my students become the most interested or the most invigorated, because they're going through these experiences right now and they don't know how to name it.
I taught a lesson on oppression recently. I'm also an academic coach for Upward Bound at Austin Community College, which is a federal program to help lower income students prepare for college. I learned that the students, from like Travis High School — these were high school students and they didn't even know what oppression meant. A lot of my students that I was teaching this topic to didn’t know what that meant. When I taught it, I can tell that their faces would light up because it gives relevance to their experiences. Now they can name what they're experiencing.
And honestly, when I was in school, I wished that I could name what I was experiencing or what I felt like me and my fellow classmates were experiencing, because we had no name for it. But we knew that something unfair was going on. We just didn’t have a — there was no academic name for it.
As a student myself and as a teacher right now, I know that having these conversations are very important to them. It is definitely there at the top of their interests.
In Austin and across the world, we have Black and Brown students in our schools. We have to show we support them, especially in the times that we are in right now where we're chanting, “Black lives matter.” And a lot of us are afraid to say Black lives matter. Why is that so hard to say? Why is that so hard to say that Black lives matter? If you’re a teacher, why is it so hard to say that your Black students’ lives matter? They need to know that you support them. They need to know that you see them and that they actually matter to you.
It shouldn't be such a controversial topic when we talk about anti-racism. It shouldn't be such controversy to anyone except those who are racist. If you don't think that anti-racism is important, then what are you saying? What are you saying that you believe in?
We have to understand that racism still exists in society; it’s alive and very much still well. And we have to start as educators being in our schools, being the change agent and actually not reproducing more racist structures or racist citizens in our country.
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