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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.

           

From allies to partners: how white people can be better listeners

I’ve heard and read several stories about what white people need to do right now. Many of those stories talked about the need for white people to listen. That is absolutely true, but there are two points that need to be added: how to listen, and what to do after whites listen. I must say that I have heard for years that white people will only listen to other white people and they need to have their own conversations. While I do believe that white people need to do more amongst each other to further the work to end racism, we must ask what would happen if people like Dr. King believed he couldn’t speak to white people? With that, I am going to share my thoughts on how white people need to listen and what to do after they do so.

Les Brown once said to me that we have two ears and one mouth and that we should use them in proportion. So the first step in listening is to truly commit to not responding to every point brought up by black people who are speaking up about racism. For example, when I conduct my trainings on black boys in our educational system, I’ve been told by white educators that the issue isn’t race, it’s class. It’s not race, it’s gender. It’s not race, it’s this or that. Are you someone who is quick to say you want to listen but then shoot down the arguments made by the person you claim to be listening to? There is a difference between listening to what you want to hear and what the person speaking has to and often needs to say.

So rather than listen to correct, listen to respect. Rather than listen to analyze, listen to empathize. Rather than listen to teach, listen to learn. After you listen, acknowledge the words shared with you and acknowledge what you didn’t know. You don’t lose anything by being honest. I’ve had multiple conversations with white people in the last few days who have said things like “I really didn’t understand until I saw that video of George Floyd being killed” or “I really thought we had turned a corner once Obama was elected” or “I don’t know what to do as a white person right now.” Many of us in the black community get frustrated by these comments but I have also heard these and similar comments from black people who also thought these days were behind us. We have to take people for what they know when they know it but then it’s time for action.

The next step after listening is not take the patronizing mentality of “I’ll be your ally.” There is a certain level of arrogance that has started to develop with this term “ally.” We don’t need allies. We need partners. Allies help out and go home. Partners work together for a common good. Allies go to the sporting venue to cheer on their team and go home after the win (or loss). Partners are on the court as a player on the team and fight together for a common cause, win or lose. Where do you fit in the stadium of effective listening?

Once you believe you have become an effective listener, it’s now time for action. Action takes many forms but the first form is educating yourself. What’s on your bookshelf? Who is on your podcast favorites? What documentaries are you watching? Reading lists such as these are great ways to get started. Dr. King said that the two most dangerous things in this world are sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. You don’t know what you don’t know. You have to get out and learn so that you can engage from an informed position. That way after you start to listen, you can simultaneously engage in the work needed to challenge racism, systemically and individually. Systemic work looks at ways you can challenge racism wherever it presents itself in society. Individual work looks at conversations you should be having with your neighbors, co-workers, and especially family members who espouse racist ideas.

I saw a sign during the protest that said “White silence equals police violence” and several spins on that. Whether you agree with that or not, it is indeed true that silence equals compliance. By not becoming an engaged listener, educating yourself, and speaking up when you witness ignorance or injustice, you are part of the problem. There is no middle ground. As you can see, this country is in an all hands-on deck approach. Where do you stand? How will you stand? We are working with or without you but I believe that success is better together. Dr. King said that he would rather see a good sermon than hear one. The world is waiting to see your sermon. Let’s go!