Racism lives and breathes in the halls of our schools. Scratch that. It lives and breathes in us. We are- White, Black or Brown- complicit in the system if we are not fighting against it. We feed it power each day that we don’t take steps to dismantle it. There are individuals who design messages that rely on and sustain stereotypes of our Black and Brown students. Now, we all are messaged stereotypes from varied angles- the media, Hollywood, hegemonic texts we rely on to supply a curriculum, sociopolitical forces- and we perpetuate the narrative if we are not actively critiquing, confronting, and disavowing it. How do we know this? Well, ample research tells us how racism manifests actively in beliefs, policies, and practices.
Persistent stereotyping of Black males as angry and violent is pervasive and taints our culture and relationships. Recent research suggests that we see Black boys as threats as early as kindergarten (Todd, Thiem, & Neel, 2016). The findings of one study suggest responses to Black faces are automatic and “trigger neural activity” that is akin to response to a threat. “Merely thinking about Black men can lead to the misidentification of harmless objects as weapons; conversely, thinking about crime can prompt thoughts of Black men (Todd et al, 2016).” Another study suggests we perceive Black boys as older than they actually are and less innocent (Goff, Jackson, DiLeone, Culotta, & DiTomasso, 2014). What results?
Well, lately we have been reading the results on Twitter through hashtag activism, a movement where students themselves take to social media to call out racism in their schools. #BlackatBLS #BlackinBrooklynTech and #BlackonCampus are just three examples of this type of activism.
Some of these schools have predominantly White student populations in elite settings with few Black and Brown students who are subjected to repeated, unacknowledged racism. Some of these schools have predominantly Black and Brown students. Most have predominantly White faculty and staff. Some are rural. Some urban. All share branches of the same storyline. Folks in positions of power, power to influence, support, and enhance the educational trajectories of their students, either stubbornly refuse or are afraid, unwilling, or unsure of how to navigate the toxic waters of race, power, and privilege and their impact on relationships and teaching and learning. Some of these folks wield their power by writing Black and Brown students out of the culture of the school, some cause psychological and emotional trauma, some withhold financial support and resources and some even use physical force by way of school resource officers and police officers plucking Black and Brown students from their classrooms.
How many individual, explicit examples of racism on campus will it take to convince us we are witnesses of, and complicit participants in, nationwide institutional racism in our schools and that these incidents only scratch the surface of the harm we are doing to our students of color? You see, you only get to call an incident isolated once. You only get to say- well this was just one racist individual- once. You can’t repeatedly make excuses for racism rearing its ugly head. Racism infiltrates our daily pedagogical and broader educational practices when we disproportionately exclude students of color from instruction, disproportionately discipline students of color, block access to curriculum and resources, deficitize students of color and their families, and fail to foster authentic, meaningful relationships with them.
Acknowledging and disavowing implicit biases is even more challenging than responding to explicit instances of overt racism. When students stand together to form the N-word with their t-shirts, we suspend them. When a White teacher tells a Black student he is acting like a slave and should go back to the plantation, she must be punished. When White students put white cloths on their heads to mimic the KKK, we know they must be held accountable. However, when it’s more covert, more insidious, and it also happens to be the way we have done things around here for a long time, it takes intentional courage to address. Who speaks up about the college admissions counselor who is telling Black students to aim for technical, 2 year schools and community colleges while advising White students to shoot for the ivy league? Who notices and asks how we came to image our students of color on the website only as athletes or eating watermelon at the family picnic? Who listens and investigates when a student of color comes to a trusted adult alleging a teacher is consistently grading students of color lower than their White counterparts? What school administrator calls out the teacher who is recommending 6 out of 11 students in one class, who also happen to be all black males, for self-contained instruction? What teacher of a “gifted and talented” program speaks up about the lack of representation of students of color?
Most importantly, who are the critically conscious educators who don’t confine their activism to their classroom and school walls? You see, the fight against systemic racism requires that we actively confront racial inequities within and beyond the walls of our own institutions. Boston NAACP Chapter President, Michael Curry suggested recently that we have to meticulously dismantle this system of racism in the same way that it was built and fostered with intentionality. We are responsible for picking it apart piece by piece at all levels. It is a horizontal and vertical effort. It is personal and professional. It is miniscule and profound. It requires research and practice. Thought and emotion. Feeling and commitment. It requires love.
Derald Wing Sue wrote in 2003 “Developing a healthy White racial identity means becoming liberated from your racist social conditioning and developing the ability to truly understand the meaning and implications of racism. To accomplish this task, you must actively place yourself in situations that challenge your biases and preconceived notions. You cannot wait for time to solve our racial problems or leave it to future generations, because racism belongs to us, not to our descendants. None of you can passively wait for the state of race relations to improve or solely rely on others to help deal with your own racial hang-ups.” “Unfortunately, the liberation process is too often unplanned and occurs by happenstance.” He continues, “many of my White friends and colleagues changed because an event out of their control forced them to seriously question their values and assumptions.”
Monitoring and continuously addressing racism in schools is like maintaining a healthy lifestyle. You don’t wait until you have a heart attack to eat right and exercise. Rather you continuously choose to be healthy and take care of yourself. This is the commitment we must make. We must commit to repeatedly, routinely, always assessing the health of our racial interactions and relations within our school. We have to proactively train teachers, staff, students, and anyone who has contact and influence over the direction teaching and learning takes to be hyper aware and critically conscious. And we have to look beyond multicultural trainings that address discrimination of all forms on a surface level. These serve a noble purpose but do not approach racial conflict explicitly and directly. We have to face it head-on. We have to arm and support staff with ways to approach an incident, interaction, or practice that either has racial undertones, implications, or disparate outcomes. We have to foster an environment where it is not only okay to speak, ask, and engage around race, but it is encouraged and it is habitual. Most importantly, we can no longer ignore racism in our halls.
We want to borrow a term from psychology- institutional betrayal– which “refers to wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution upon individuals dependent on that institution, including failure to prevent or respond supportively to wrongdoings (e.g. sexual assault) (Freyd, 2013).” The betrayal is exerted upon students already traumatized from an assault that is sexual in nature. It is the knife in the wound. Colleges and universities suggest the student may have been too intoxicated to remember or maybe they didn’t say no. Maybe they should take a semester off or even in extreme cases, the institution penalizes the victim him or herself. We want to borrow this term to classify how our schools are currently, callously ignoring persistent racism. Some of the hashtag activism has illuminated egregious mishandling of students speaking out about racist treatment. At some schools, leadership filed away “complaints” and “allegations” into a binder, left on a shelf, allowing it to continue without consequence. At some schools, alumni have immediately joined the Twitter conversation to share that none of it is new, but actually has been “the way we do things” for years. If that is not betrayal, then we truly misunderstand the term.
Everyday that we are not employing a critical lens, not educating ourselves about systematic oppression, not speaking up when we witness microaggressions, we are contributing factors. We are willing participants. We are allowing and inviting racism into our halls. We can’t wait for some cosmic shift in our national culture. There is no right time to face an ugly history and an ugly present. There is only now and the realization that we have- for far too long- allowed racism to claim valuable real estate in the acreage of our collective minds.