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Should schools also speak separately to white students, parents, and staff?

I have been really impressed by the steps taken by schools to speak to the racial tensions engulfing America right now. I have had the honor in my work to also lead some of these discussions as well and will be leading more. As a parent of K-12 children, I have also watched my own school’s response to the crisis in America today. Moreover, I have spent a great deal of time reviewing the responses of schools at the university level. While I have appreciated the fact that so many of these institutions have initiated or renewed a commitment to ensuring that black lives matter, I have found myself asking one question over and over again: what direct message is going out to white students, students, and staff?

            Across the country, many social media posts have popped with some form of @blackat… handle. These are accounts where black students as well as alumni have posted their negative experiences being black at their schools. These stories started to really trend in 2016 after incidents of racism at schools like American University, where I teach. I was inspired by this movement to finally write about my own “black at” experience from 7th-12th grade at Boston Latin School. I believe the @blackat… postings are also a large part of the reason why schools have been feeling more pressure to respond to their black students in ways they have not before. I wonder if, in some unintentional way, that this is leading to black students being singled out in ways that might do more harm than good despite the best intentions of schools. Let’s look at an example.

            One high school I was watching sent out an email that they were having a zoom call for black students, another call for multiracial students, and a third one for all students. I have spoken at enough schools to know that this can backfire. While many black students can be vocal and will speak up on issues, this type of action can lead to black students feeling they have to be the representative for all black people, which is an added burden, particularly in schools where they are not in the majority. Furthermore, not meeting with the white students separately can make it seem like they’re being brought in as allies and not as partners. I have writtenabout how this concept of “allyship” can create more problems than it solves. Another reason this is problematic is because many of the challenges black students face come at the hands of white students in addition to other issues, such as curriculum and staffing. Did I expect the students who wore white hoods in protest of my running for class president to really care for a call to all students about racial unity? Those students needed separate interventions, which never came and made me feel more marginalized. Schools therefore need to create environments where white students can be organized and spoken to directly about the antiracist work they must be doing amongst themselves. Robin DiAngelo speaks in White Fragility to the work white people must do to challenge racism. The book is primarily for adults but much of the work can be instructive for students as well.

            This takes us also to white parents and staff. I have appreciated the calls I have been on and led with parents of all backgrounds, and oftentimes the white parents and staff outnumber the black parents and staff. This makes sense given the makeup of these schools but if the black parents and staff are going to be separated or addressed in separate conversations, which happens, wouldn’t the fight for equity and equality necessitate that white, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American parents and staff be spoken to separately as well? Are schools equipped to even have that conversation? Are they ready to discuss, for example, how many private schools always use a black child as the face for the financial aid campaigns although the school may have more white students in the school on some form of financial aid? Are they ready to discuss the social networks that often form among white parents and staff that often exclude black people unless some form of representation is needed? My wife and I have had to often think twice before sending our kids to some birthday parties because we had to be sure that our kids were really invited because of friendship and not out of a desire to have diversity at a party. Examples like these are endless.

            At the end of the day, I could write an entire dissertation on the ways in which our schools are failing its black students. Many like Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings and Glenn Singleton have already done that work and more are doing it now. What is most important now is that schools realize that black students are suffering for real reasons that go beyond lack of representation of their full history in the curriculum. Much of what we suffer as black students, parents, and staff in these schools comes at the hands of our interactions, or lack thereof, with white students, parents, and staff. If schools are going to be really serious about addressing issues related to the black lives matter movement, they must be equally dedicated to challenging white students, parents, and staff in an authentic way that leads them to understanding their role in this movement. It is obvious that all white people are not to blame and I commend the white student, parents, and staff who are out there doing the work every single day to condemn ignorance and create true equity and equality. It is high time, however, that schools directly challenge their white students, parents, and staff in ways that go beyond a book club and curriculum review. Those are good points of departure but the journey is long and must go deeper beyond this moment.

           

How companies can avoid “Black Lives Matter” and Juneteenth becoming the new Kwanzaa

Over the past few weeks, I have seen “Black Lives Matter” stated by companies, schools, famous people, and everyday people. It has been spray painted across stores in protest and even the Mayor of Washington, DC Muriel Bowser had it spray painted across a prominent street leading up to the White House. I opened up my iTunes account, Amazon Prime and even turned on my PlayStation and there it was again, “Black Lives Matter.” This has been followed by companies like Nike and Twitter deciding to honor Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when the last group of enslaved people in America found out they were emancipated, with days off or some other form of acknowledgment. While I think that these gestures of solidarity with those of us in the black community are indeed appreciated, I find myself asking, “What happens on June 20th?” “What happens after ‘Black Lives Matter’ comes off the website?” Enter Kwanzaa.

I come from a family that has always celebrated Kwanzaa, the holiday created by Dr. Maulana Karenga for African Americans to honor their African heritage. Though it starts on December 26th, it has always been a cultural celebration and not a replacement for Christmas, which is a religious holiday. This is the reason why some black families celebrate both Kwanzaa and Christmas. For those of us who celebrate Kwanzaa, it’s a sacred holiday, which is why many of us became frustrated when it started to become commercialized, starting with Hallmark issuing Kwanzaa cards in 1992. Now there are stamps and debit cards where the 7 candles of Kwanzaa are prominently displayed. Some companies issue statements honoring Kwanzaa or will put out some form of display in their lobbies. This superficial nature of Kwanzaa causes the true nature of it to get lost or never even learned. The true nature of Kwanzaa is black empowerment. To quote professor Keith Hayes, author of Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African-American Holiday Tradition:

Whereas black power uses Kwanzaa to connect black Americans with the continent of Africa, multicultural America uses Kwanzaa to sell products and consumer goods. Whereas black power expected Kwanzaa to liberate African-Americans, multicultural America has tried to use Kwanzaa as evidence of racial diversity and black inclusion.

But is there real diversity and black inclusion in your organization? While “Black Lives Matter” has become a great slogan to show solidarity with black causes, there are black employees in every sector from schools to corporations who have been saying for years that they want to matter within their organizations. They’ve called for this in the form of demanding equal pay, demanding a shattering of the glass ceiling, challenging everyday discrimination on the job, and so much more. And this is also happening with Juneteenth. Most black employees I know would rather have a shot at equal pay or an opportunity to advance in their positions than a day off, which in reality should be a day on in terms of continuing the work of racial and social justice.

If companies are serious about “Black Lives Matter” and Juneteenth they have to immediately re-evaluate their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. They have to do the work to finally hear the complaints and concerns of their blackstaff. They need to challenge systemic racism that may have existed in their organization for years. This is the same country where a statue was built to the father of American gynecology James Marion Sims, whose work was performed on black enslaved women without anesthesia. It’s the same country that touts having some of the most prominent universities in the world, but they were built by enslaved Africans. And it’s the same country where some companies have engaged in global travesties such as the Holocaust and apartheid.

But this country has the ability to self-correct and so do companies, schools, and other organizations. The statue of Sims came down. Schools like Georgetown have begun to create programs so descendants of enslaved Africans that were sold to keep the university afloat can go to Georgetown for free. Companies like Kodak, Coca-Cola, General Electric, General Motors, and I.B.M. did end up divesting from apartheid but none of this happened without activism, similar to what we are seeing now. This is how you show that Black Lives Matter, which is an organization started by three incredible women named Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Before organizations state “Black Lives Matter” I would strongly suggest visiting the Black Lives Matter website to truly understand its commitment to social, racial, and economic justice. “Black Lives Matter” is about a way of life for society that is truly committed to equality, not band-aids on an open wound still seeping blood from the sword of systemic racism.

I have had some very powerful courageous conversations with companies and schools in the past few weeks. Some organizations are very far ahead in their work on diversity, equity, and inclusion and some are just starting out. Wherever your organization may be on the road, what’s most important is to stay on that road and not veer off. If we’re honest, almost everything organizations need to do in order to bring true diversity, equity, and inclusion matters to the forefront has already been documented by the black employees in those organizations. Companies must go beyond the external displays of solidarity to internal responses to the concerns of their employees. This is the best way to truly show that #blacklivesmatter beyond the hashtag and to celebrate Juneteenth 365 days a year.

Breonna Bland Arbery-Floyd (a poem for the slain)

George Floyd

George Floyd


Watch hip-hop music video here

I’m tired, I’m tired, but also inspired

Time to vote folks out get these DAs fired

Grandmas stand in front of cops defendin’ they kids

Grandpops now the man of the house if they ain’t dead

And I ain’t watching more videos of me getting killed

Cause I see myself in every video that’s real

And if I don’t see me I see my whole family

My best friends, my students, my community

If you don’t see yourself where’s your humanity?

What you gonna do to stop this insanity?

If you won’t stand up for you will you stand for we?

Show that black lives matter, fight for unity?

But I’m a let you know we ain’t waitin’ for you

We gonna fight until “all lives matter” too

Before the next one is murdered, we gon’ see this through

And make change with the girls and the boys in blue

Let me also point this out ’fore I continue to rock

The McMichaels, Zimmerman and Roof ain’t cops

So when they murder us in church or on the block

They represent white supremacy and that whole flock

And along with these cops they represent a system

Designed to take a black man and convict and kill him

Aligned to take a black woman and make her a victim

Then put ’em both on trial to dehumanize them

Then put ’em on TV to verbally brutalize them

Then never share stories of these cops and brethren

Then they let these killers prep the same story

And rarely ever charge ’em with a felony

The justice system doin’ what it was built to do

Protect the cops at all costs no matter what they do

But real change is gonna come it’s long overdue

Cause we had something that we never had before…YOU!

Jamar Clark, Breonna Taylor, Ousman Zongo

Cameron Hall, Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo

Tamir Rice, Sean Bell, Jemel Roberson

Eleanor Bumpers, Walter Scott, Fred Hampton

Harith Augustus, EJ Bradford, Trayvon Martin

Lajuana Philips, Antwon Rose, RaShaun Washington

Daniel Simmons, Robert White, Tony Green

Clemente Pickney, Philando, Botham Jean

Sandra Bland, Stephon Clark, Alberta Spruill,

Nathaniel McCoy, Russell, Travares McGill,

Cameron Hall, Yvette Smith, Anthony Hill

John Crawford, Danroy Henry, Emmett Till

Yusef Hawkins, Michael Brown, George Floyd

Jerame Reid, Kayla Baker, Rekia Boyd

Juan Jones, Miriam Carey, Jordan Edwards

Atatania, Ahmaud Arbery, Medgar Evers

Deantea Farrow, Danny Thomas, Linwood Lambert

Marcus David-Peters, Diante, Michael Stewart

Malisa Williams, Claudia Gonzalez,

Ronnell Foster, Prince Jones, Anthony Baez

Jordan Baker, Henry Glover, Tony Robinson

James Brisette, Shem, Tanesha Anderson

Shermichael Ezeff, Freddie Gray, Ronald Madison

Oscar Grant, Ayana Jones, Dondi Johnson

Raheim Brown, Victor Steen, Cedric Chatman

Timothy Thomas, Aaron Campbell, Tarika Wilson

Ajibade, David Raya, Steven Washington

Nehemiah, Orlando, Patrick Dorisman

Ramarley Graham, Terence Crutcher, Daniel Simmons

Manuel Diaz, Alesia, Tamon Robinson

And to all the Chris Coopers and the coulda-beens

Could be you or me tomorrow, we must never give in!