How do we progress in exploring questions about race and schools that many try to avoid?
The evidence keeps mounting—research, articles, and videos about students of color marginalized, stigmatized, or even traumatized in schools by peers or school staff. The aftermath is predictable: School administrators and teachers express shock that an act of racism has been wrought on their campus. They believed their school was immune. Their blind spots of bias now illuminated (often in the press), they scramble to have long-overdue conversations. Yet we might understand why they put these conversations off. Discussing how we’ve been socialized to accept disparate outcomes for people based on their racial or ethnic identity can be messy (although necessary), as the following parable illustrates.
Anywhere County was a typical farming community with farms that spread from the crests of majestic hilltops to the plains in the lower valley. It was a seemingly ideal place for people to live, learn, and work—a place where farmers readily talked about weather, football, and families, but avoided one topic that was too painful to broach.
Decades ago, the native mountain residents had been forcefully removed from their land and relegated to lands in the valley. The mountain land was then redistributed to new farmers. The valley farmers protested these actions, but their objections were met with violence, courts that ignored their claims, and various forms of economic and social marginalization. Subsequently, the new mountain farmers routinely restricted the ability of valley farmers to purchase farming supplies or equipment and limited their water supply. That’s not all: Valley farmland had smaller acreage per plot and exorbitant mortgage interest rates. Smaller plots also meant fewer jobs and lower pay. The valley farms and facilities fell into disrepair. Valley residents were left to grapple with internalized frustration as the new mountain farmers grew oblivious to the implications of their actions on valley farmers.
All except one mountain farmer—Leroy. Leroy recognized vast disparities between the farms in the valley and those in the mountains. Mountain crops were lush and well cultivated. Leroy could see that the mountain farm families benefitted from the actions of their predecessors, although they wouldn’t dare endorse those kinds of predatory actions currently. He observed that valley farmers were treated differently in public spaces—and Leroy refused to look away. He felt the need to be a vocal ally for valley farmers and decided it was time to have a necessary conversation. He hoped his neighbors might agree. But he misjudged them.
When approached, most of Leroy’s neighbors seemed visibly uncomfortable, or changed the subject: “Why talk about this now? How does this affect us?” Some farmers deflected by demanding, “Why aren’t we talking about how the valley farmers treat each other?”
Leroy reached out to more mountain dwellers with questions and uncomfortable truths—like reminders that the water intended to support farms in the valley had been diverted to mountain farms. Some farmers complained that he was blaming them for a situation they didn’t create. Others broke into tears when he mentioned the valley and accused him of attacking them. Certain mountain dwellers challenged Leroy’s facts about the stolen land and diverted water. They showed Leroy media materials they produced to support their position. Even citizens who accepted the historical facts argued, “What’s done is done. It’s time for everyone to move on.”
As Leroy pushed for discussion, things escalated. Some mountain farmers grew enraged. They contended that the valley farmers were responsible for the condition of their own farms and mocked them for moving to the valley.
These reactions and arguments all deflected discussion of the glaring disparities between valley and mountain farms while maintaining a pattern of injustice—which mountain residents had the power to improve. They failed to recognize how a collective structure of actions over time had placed the valley landowners in a cycle of oppression and inequitable outcomes. Eventually, most of Leroy’s neighbors extinguished the necessary conversation. It was just. Too. Exhausting.
As absurd as this parable and the mountain farmers’ reactions may sound, it has relevance to U.S. educators. A tangled history of policies and actions that effectively displaced and disenfranchised groups of people while granting disproportionate economic and legal power to others produced an economic chasm that is still felt in many communities today (Kozol, 2005). The subsequent individual and institutional racism and oppression directed toward those same groups of people—and maintained through violence, the courts, and various forms of economic and social marginalization—have decimated communities and the schools within them. The disparate behavioral and academic outcomes we are seeing in schools today are rooted in the unexamined perceptions, policies, procedures, beliefs, and distorted narratives perpetuated about racial and ethnic differences.
The need to understand and confront disparate outcomes for students and the connections between school conditions, historical injustice, and race is urgent. African American, Latinx, and Native American students are suspended and expelled in disproportionately greater numbers than their white peers—including at the preschool level! This is true in most states, most school districts, and most schools across the country (Carter et al., 2016; Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010). Students of color are over-represented in special education (Griner & Stewart, 2013) and underrepresented in Advanced Placement classes (Taliaferro & DeCuir-Gunby, 2008). High school graduation rates for black and Latinx students are significantly lower than those for whites and Asians.1
Such disparities are best understood by examining the historical context that created them and the underlying beliefs that perpetuate them. We cannot achieve justice for our students if we cannot discuss injustice in our schools.
A Way Forward
But too often, those who try to spark in-depth discussions about injustice tied to race feel as frustrated as Leroy. Some educators may derail conversations by becoming defensive or disengaged; trying to refocus the conversation on another topic; or saying they feel blamed, personally attacked, or made to feel guilty. People may also demonstrate resentment, anger, agitation, or blind denial (DiAngelo, 2018).
These behaviors thwart productive conversations about race and function to maintain conditions of inequity without addressing productive ways to dismantle those conditions (Cicetti-Turro, 2007). Often, the default response is to halt the conversation and attend to the emotions of the affected participant. However, this may result in a perpetual holding pattern where the discussion on inequity seldom moves further than the last person’s emotional outburst.
Educators need to respond more constructively on the issue of systemic and institutional actions that have disadvantaged some students while benefitting others—and I believe we can. But we have to ask ourselves: How can we explore these questions rather than avoiding them? To successfully facilitate discussion on race in school settings, consider four recommendations.
1. Embrace Vulnerability
It’s OK to feel vulnerable when having discussions about race. To talk about racism authentically, we take off the masks we’ve grown so accustomed to wearing, exposing our beliefs, values, and personal experiences. We accept the risk of feeling judged, hurt, or embarrassed in exchange for learning from each other. There may be genuine fear that speaking our truths could lead to social, emotional, physical, or economic retributions, and facilitators should acknowledge this up front. Assure participants that it’s fine to feel vulnerable, insecure, and unsure of one’s efficacy at first. Work together to create a safe, honest space for conversations. People will take their cues from you, so be willing to share what has brought you to this point in your development of cultural competency. Reveal your best intentions throughout the process. If you unintentionally offend someone, own your part and resolve to do better. Reassure participants that we’ve all been socialized in a racist society, and even the best of us are occasionally surprised at our unconscious leanings.
2. Examine Systemic Racism
Examine the systemic and institutional racism that manifests in our society. This is not to diminish the presence or abhorrence of individual acts of racism. However, modern racism is made invisible through policies and rules that disguise the inequitable outcomes for people of color flowing from such policies (Kohli, Pizarro, & Nevárez, 2017). It’s important for educators to learn together the historic and current context of racism that perpetuates oppression in schools, institutions, and communities.
Scrutinize policies, procedures, and practices that may be contributing to inequitable outcomes. For example, if a student has been suspended from school for the length of his braids or for certain attire, review the actions and policies through an equity lens. Identify what school policy allowed this outcome and discuss whether that policy is equitably applied to all students. Does it benefit some and disadvantage others? Is there historical context or precedent for controlling certain people’s hairstyles or clothing? What are the intentional and unintentional outcomes of the policy? Probe the role of power in school policies and procedures. Who has power, who does not, and why?
Ultimately, educators should ask, What is our vision for equity in this school and does this policy advance it? Elevate the discussion to center on collective empowerment, advocacy, and action to dismantle systemic practices of oppression.
3. Prepare Participants for the Discussion
Discussing race and injustice openly can lead to tough questions that may not be neatly resolved. Let educators know they may wrestle with topics they’ve typically avoided, including:
- The social construction of race.
- How culture and racial identity influence us as educators and learners.
- Privilege and power through a historical and critical lens.
- Policies and practices that perpetuate inequity, and beliefs and values embedded in those practices.
Agree together on how you’ll talk with and learn from each other by establishing conversation norms. Advise participants that the dialogue may feel uncomfortable or tense at times. There may be participants who have been deeply and personally impacted by racially motivated aggressions. It shouldn’t come as a surprise when painful emotions—or even exhaustion—arise. Despite these challenges, commit to working through the discussion together. Help people unpack the feelings they’re expressing before redirecting the focus back to the content and the objectives of the conversation.
At the end of each session, evaluate your conversation and consider what you might do better next time. Talking about race and educational practices is a growth process.
4. Keep Students as the Focus
of educators’ foremost reasons to discuss race is to create more equitable outcomes for all students. While the work includes understanding the historical and contemporary sociocultural context in which we are educating children, the goal is dismantling systems created to maintain disparity and stopping practices that perpetuate inequities in students’ lives.One
Pollock (2016) recommends posing this question: “Does this communication help support equity (the full human talent development of every student, and all groups of students)?” Additional questions that can refocus an equity conversation include:
- What are the implications of this discussion for our work with students?
- How do we support our students, given what we’ve learned?
- Will the current discussion further our goals of creating more equitable opportunities for students? If not, let’s refocus by examining this topic in relation to students.
Sidestepping a Necessary Conversation
How many more research reports, videos, and photos of students marginalized and traumatized in schools do we need to see before we come to the table to have a necessary conversation? My ardent hope is—none.
The tragedy of the parable is that the mountain farmers sidestepped a necessary conversation by leveraging emotional responses that detracted from the real issues of inequity and the circumstances that created it. We need allies like Leroy to persist in asking questions, raising the level of concern, and progressing to action that will result in distributing power, resources, and opportunities equitably.
Conversations on race or racism are seldom easy. But they’re absolutely necessary to address the gross disparities that have been created in education. Students need the support of all of us (mountain dwellers and valley farmers alike) to eliminate historic barriers to success.
Carter, P. L., Skiba, R., Arredondo, M. I., & Pollock, M. (2016). You can’t fix what you don’t look at: Acknowledging race in addressing racial discipline disparities. Urban Education, 52(2), 207–235.
Cicetti-Turro, D. (2007). Straight talk: Talking across race in schools. Multicultural Perspectives, 9(1), 45–49.
DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Gregory, A., Skiba, R. J., & Noguera, P. A. (2010). The achievement gap and the discipline gap: Two sides of the same coin. Educational Researcher, 39(1), 59–68.
Griner, A. C., & Stewart, M. L. (2013). Addressing the achievement gap and disproportionality through the use of culturally responsive teaching practices. Urban Education, 48(4), 585–621.
Kohli, R., Pizarro, M., & Nevárez, A. (2017). The “new racism” of K–12 schools: Centering critical research on racism. Review of Research in Education, 41(1), 182–202.
Kozol, J. (2005). Shame of the nation: The restoration of apartheid schooling in America. New York: Crown.
Pollock, M. (2016). Schooltalk: Rethinking what we say about—and to—students everyday. New York: The New Press.
Taliaferro, J., & DeCuir-Gunby, J. (2008). African American educators’ perspectives on the advanced placement opportunity gap. Urban Review, 40(2).
April 2019 | Volume 76 | Number 7Separate and Still Unequal: Race in America’s Schools Pages 79-83