You need to find in your heart that small spark of accountability. What is there that I can do to make the world a better place? The truth is, we are going to have our differences, we are going to be angry with each other, but let’s channel that anger into righteous action… Pay attention, find what’s wrong, don’t ignore it. Look at it, and say to yourself, “What can I do to make a difference?” — Susan Bro, mother of Heather Heyer, at her memorial in Charlottesville, Virginia
We are in a critical moment in America, one that places urgent demands on us as educators to consider how we trouble whiteness. Recent racially tinged incidents across America present challenges we may not feel equipped to take on in our schools, yet our calling to better the lives of all young people requires it.
As a white educator, I often ask myself, “How does my whiteness show up in the ways I interact with or view people of color?” I have learned that to trouble whiteness requires learning to be truly present, understanding the triggers that pull me into avoidance or silence when a courageous question is needed to open dialogue. This work demands persistence, planning, resiliency, and risk, qualities familiar to us as educational leaders.
To trouble whiteness is to unsettle it, to disturb its naturalness as a way of being or seeing the world that purports to be superior. To trouble whiteness is to not turn away from needed conversations about race because they are unsettling — for when we do we knowingly or unknowingly allow the inequities that we abhor to continue to be seen as just the way things are. As leaders, to disrupt whiteness is to call attention to the moments of invisibility and silence that too often go unquestioned, the taken-for-granted, routine privileges of access, resources and power that whiteness transforms into the standard through which all are measured and judged.
Troubling whiteness is not about blaming white people. It is not a judgment, but an invitation to think deeply about equity. It invites an opening to understanding the context and history, the centuries-old systems and power structures in America that are deeply entrenched with racism and bias. It is an urging, a calling to educators to be pro-active to express and demonstrate that they have a stake in changing education to benefit all students.
Often white educators feel unprepared to do this work. We may come from different backgrounds or life experiences from their students, and may not understand or be aware of their students’ experiences or points of view. In fact, more than 80% of teachers in the U.S. are white, while more than half of our students are of color. For school leaders and teachers, here lies an opportunity and a responsibility to become students of our students, to develop a learner’s lens to understand what is happening with students outside of school.
I have seen school leaders take a couple of critical leadership moves with their staff – teachers, cafeteria workers, office support, building maintenance, security guards – to trouble whiteness, taking on these tough conversations and creating steps for change.
Examine historical context and review the power and impact of inherited structures
To understand the influence of whiteness and bias in a school system requires an honest and courageous reading of the map of American history and the potential of equitable schools to redraw that map. How has racism been perpetuated at different points in history? Historian Eric Foner recently wrote that historical monuments are “an expression of power, an indication of who has the power to choose how history is remembered in public places.” For example, most monuments to Confederate general Robert E. Lee went up years after the Civil War, between 1890 and 1920 during the rise of the Jim Crow laws and the KKK, a result of white power at that time.
On the school level, we can construct an “equity audit” that looks at the persistent forms of disproportionality in the school and community. How are resources being allocated? Are black and brown male students being suspended and expelled at higher rates than their white classmates? Do we believe that these young people can be educated? Have we figured out how to teach them? Have we developed effective restorative justice practices that enable them to reflect on their behavior and still be a part of the school community? We have got to work hard and build a community that can disrupt and challenge the attempts to not address issues of race, racism, and discrimination.
I saw this work recently in a high school where the principal developed a mentoring program for young men of color. In just a few short months, these students have changed their perceptions of themselves. They believe they can do great things, and they support one another. At the same time, the principal’s conversations with teachers about the program and the students have also pushed several teachers to look more carefully at these students, and to see them as the scholars these young people want the chance to be.
Another principal I have been working with on addressing the inequities in her school realized that many of her teachers do not live in the school’s neighborhood. To develop a critical lens and shift the mind-set from deficit to asset based ( and to develop resources for project-based learning), the principal and some teachers enlisted a school alum to take them on a community tour. Such efforts can create a space to discuss and name whiteness as a set of blinders and open possibilities for sustained dialogue to understand the ways we are complicit in the underachievement of some of our students.
There are a number of resources you can use to support and extend conversations about race, and that you can help teachers use in conversations with their students.
It’s easy to denounce the “alt-right” forces in their disgusting display of torches, shields, Nazi salutes with their chants of “Jews will not replace us.” Yet we do a disservice to the work of building equity if we allow ourselves to simply take comfort in the fact that we are not like the white nationalists. What does it mean to be white in this country, what privileges do white people continue to enjoy that people of color do not? Where and how does that normalized discrimination creep into our schools, and what does that mean for the way we are educating our students? While we may not have created these structures, we are all implicated by them and must act to disrupt them.
At the NYC Leadership Academy, when we work with educational leaders on issues of equity, a critical first step in these discussions is examining how an educator’s race and background affect how she leads her district, school, or classroom, how race and inequity shapes policy and practice. A willingness to look inward is vital to developing the resilience to talk about racism. Self-reflecting can be an uncomfortable challenge, but it is at the heart of how we can create change within our spheres of influence.
As we do this work, we can, as Heather Heyer’s mother urges us, pay attention, find what’s wrong and stand by our core values of equity and humanity and ask, “What can I do to make a difference?”