Letter to the Editor: Former Burbank High Student Reflects on BUSD Book Ban

The last two years of my high school experience revolved around working on diversity, equity, and inclusivity. I led the Black Student Union at Burbank High School and repeatedly attempted to voice my concerns about the Burbank Unified School District’s (BUSD) “temporary ban” on books containing the n-word. As a result, I now have the opportunity to work with PEN America, a “non-profit organization that seeks to defend and celebrate free speech around the world,” on book ban advocacy. I have since graduated from Burbank High and am pursuing a degree in Critical Diversity Studies at the University of San Francisco. Yet, I continue to voice my concerns about the BUSD’s nearly three-year black literature ban. I have seen the real implications of black policing in schools. I came face to face with the reality that remains when these voices are silenced. Darkness in any form is becoming too taboo for anyone to associate with in a classroom.

In a letter that Burbank Unified Superintendent Matt Hill released in 2020 to address the first round of book bans for the school district, he said, “I want to emphasize that the board and I fully support the fight against racism, even if it is uncomfortable work. It hurts to know that no matter how deeply I immerse myself in the knowledge of my oppression, yet as long as I exist I will never have the privilege of seeing racism as a malaise because to pretend that prejudices are uncomfortable would be like suspending every moment of my waking up in pain. I’m tired of giving white people the benefit of the doubt when regulating black presence. I’m tired of struggling with the trivialities that white people ask me to debate. I don’t care if you consider yourself a racist or not; it’s not your story to tell, and it’s not your life to live. It’s not your story or your ancestry, and we don’t need your approval to advocate for space in our classrooms.

To depoliticize the current conversation around book bans, many educators rely on the First Amendment ban, but in truth, this issue goes beyond free speech. The climate of book censorship in America today centers on power and exclusion. As author Koa Beck states in her book, White Feminism, “diversity is about changing perceptions of whiteness rather than the whiteness of organizations.” The banning of books today is a direct reaction to white educational institutions losing their power to define diversity within structures of exclusion.

A reporter told me that my story regarding the BUSD book ban may not be relevant enough to be in the media, as it started two years ago, following BLM and the murder of George Floyd. Privilege allows those who have the possibility to distance themselves from the suffering of others. I’ve spoken to enough media professionals to gauge the appeal of my point of view. To be deemed suitable, I must specify that racism is still relevant. To fit into this mold – a mold that inherently works in systems that do not allow me to speak in the first place – I have observed that the “blackness” as a whole within the American educational system is a object. It does not matter if the educational institution promotes or hinders the presence of blacks. “Blackness” becomes a support for political relations, a signal of virtue or another entity that upholds the values ​​of white supremacy.

White liberalism still relies on ideas and systems of exclusion that suppress the success of blacks, browns and queers. As Bell Hooks states in his essay “The Racial Politics of Mass Media,” “Placed in positions of authority in educational structures and in the workplace, whites could oversee and eradicate organized resistance. The new neo-colonial environment [in the 20th century] gave whites even greater control over the African-American mind. Education systems were built to perpetuate white power and control. In Burbank, which was and arguably still is a sunset city, there is a desperate need for exclusion, classism and racism to still define what is and isn’t acceptable. The question of the censorship of Mildred D. Taylor but never of Anthony Burgess rests on the assertion of narratives rooted in traditional hegemony. There will always be those who hold power in academia who believe that censorship of books is necessary, because exposing these perspectives, which would otherwise be silenced, would arouse in students a critical look at the very systems that maintain their wages.

When PEN America first contacted me, they communicated that my school district’s book ban was a different situation than the bans that were happening across the country. Burbank has taken a liberal stance on censorship. While I agree that my city and my school district had no intention of being overtly racist in silencing black literature, there is no difference between monitoring black being, history and voice of a liberal white superintendent than a conservative. My school district has made only a few random attempts to connect with black students in my two years with the council on DEI work, and no attempt to unite black students and build a black community.

I often feel like my presence isn’t meant to be felt – as if I’m sandwiched between two masses of concrete. That I should be electric wires between the walls of a tall, dark building, but I can feel my veins throbbing and my neck choking under the weight that drags me deeper into my own hell. This is the best visual representation I can give of the systems that oppress us. The most sinister aspect of patriarchal white supremacy is that it festers from within you, only for the outside world to confirm those same systems of exclusion and bring us closer to becoming unidentifiable within the masses of our suffering. Not only do these systems make us sit, but they do so in a way where we feel like it was our choice to sit.

This country sits on a token base of bigotry and exclusion as it literally sits on stolen lands and murdered peoples. Regardless of the future of book censorship in America, there will be students who deviate from traditional paths of education—students who must stray from those paths because they were never built with space for them. This country can still control our being. However, they do not know what power we hold behind the shadows of their structures.

“For people of color, gaining knowledge in this land makes tyrants quiver and shake on their sandy foundation.” – David Walker, American abolitionist.

Madison Clevenger
University of San Francisco

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