In the weeks following the police killing of George Floyd, my colleague, New Orleans educator Nahliah Webber, posed an unconventional idea.
She invited us to reflect on something happening in the schools where white children learn, causing them to grow up to become “police officers, district attorneys, mayors, judges, media, mothers, fathers and presidents who take away Black life and call it justified.” She asked whether the impetus for blame must always lie at the feet of how we raise black children. She considered what could change in how we educate young white people that will affect their capacity for empathy and understanding around racial equity.
Her idea: “if you really want to make a difference in Black lives—and not have to protest this shit again—go reform white kids” struck a chord and the article was elevated to a national spotlight. But bigots came out too; some snarled “Why should we be spending time on this?” While generally their question appears to have been based in the racist feeling of affront hat a black woman could have opinions on white education, I think it belies an important underlying issue.
Nahliah runs OPEN, a nonprofit whose mission centers around policy advocacy, uplifting of Black and Brown students in New Orleans to ensure they have positive and rigorous school experiences. For OPEN to shift focus to ‘how society can reassess white biases caused by white school culture’ is not their mission. It is imperative, but it is no one’s specific responsibility and seemingly no one’s first priority. Most educators doing racial educational equity work are people of color, and are focused on empowering the lives of black and brown students or their learning environments.
In New Orleans many—primarily white—middle class and wealthy parents opt to pay for private school education. They do this because many of the public schools are not academically competitive, and New Orleans’ charter system means that living in a wealthy zip code does not guarantee a seat at one of the high performing schools. We could write books unpacking this idea, but that a parent with money opts to send their student to private school is not something I specifically begrudge.
Nevertheless, the result is a city with de facto school segregation, where the schools educating white students are by and large more academically rigorous. But are they indirectly failing to develop these white students into more engaged and racially minded members of society? Students who attend a school that is 90% white (or 90% black), but live in a city as diverse as New Orleans, are inherently lacking an imperative part of their cultural development.
But on whose shoulders does it lie to ensure that students in segregated schools are provided diverse perspectives? Or to create systems such that black children do not grow up associating their skin color with “less than” and white children do not grow up to become killer cops, or as is far more pervasive, bigoted and racially desensitized adults.
I would argue that this task falls to white allies. It falls to white folks who speak that “Black Lives Matter,” who patronize black-owned businesses, who read and internalize Michelle Alexander, but who send their children to majority white schools, whether through convenience or concern.
But how? Instead of asking black people, “How can I be an ally; what can I do?” try this: Review whether your students’ school is deliberately cultivating antiracist graduates.
- Does your school teach or gloss over black, indigenous, Asian and Hispanic history?
- Does your school celebrate the white mythology around holidays like Thanksgiving, Columbus Day, or Independence Day?
- Are the teachers at your school explicitly trained in how to have conversations about current events such as George Floyd’s murder or how the coronavirus disproportionately impacts communities of color; are these training being run by black-owned consulting businesses?
- In which sports leagues does your school compete?
- Are English classes selecting books from authors of color in addition or in place of the “classics”?
- Does your school tout community service and volunteerism; if so, does it address the idea of the savior complex with students, and then train students in culturally responsive volunteerism?
- Who is your school named after?
These are just a starting point.
So, you are a teacher in a majority white school, or a white ally sending your children to a majority white school. It is your responsibility to ensure that school is conscientiously and deliberately fostering graduates who understand the complexities of how race has shaped American and world history. Graduates who are exposed to difference and nuance, in order that they are prepared acknowledge and embrace it. There is no race-neutral decision in American education. You are either conscious of how students of different races are impacted by your choices, or you are choosing to ignore it. And when we ignore it: when we choose color-blindness or declare that academics are more important than cultural awareness or empathy, the results are spaces where many students can still grow up to be thoughtful and loving, but also where, as Ms. Webber notes, some will grow up to be those killer cops who “choke out black life.”
If you don’t know how your school addresses race and difference, and you think of yourself as a white ally, then here are some thoughts on how to start:
- Read online articles, and connect with a white affinity group or the school’s PTA.
- Connect with the school administration.
- Ask them questions like the ones bulleted above.
- As you do this, you’ll need perspectives from people of color.
- When you specifically loop in black and brown voices, don’t ask “What can I do?” Instead try, “Based on x research, we’d like to do y, and are looking for your perspective.”
- Consider who you ask. Your black friend, coworker, or the lone hispanic parent at your school may or may not be the right starting place. Perhaps start with a local (or nonlocal if needed) black-owned business or nonprofit doing educational equity work. Perhaps recognize that if you’re going to them as an expert, that you should be prepared to pay them for their consulting.
- Set goals and action steps, then work toward those goals, and assess your progress.
What excites me about the above idea is how straight forward and attainable it is. As a white person, I find that assessing my role as an ally is challenging and constantly in flux, but teachers and parents, reforming unconscious biases in majority white schools is a space where you can own your allyship. It is a place where you can make real impact changing the hearts and minds of students to a create a more inclusive, accepting, equitable future. So if questioning how you’ve been accidentally complicit in perpetuating systemic racism, and diving into the list above excites you too, let’s chat.