School Climate & Safety Opinion

Facing Racism

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 07, 2013 4 min read
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Adding the element of race to a discussion makes people uncomfortable. It is as if some illusive, powerful force has entered and takes up all the air. For all the hope we hold as our national image, we can be a hard place. In fact, we have a horrible and unhealed history. It becomes difficult to move forward because we are not expanding our understanding. It is a rare moment....and one of true opportunity...when someone opens a door to welcome a different perspective and a dialogue is entered that can hold multiple truths of those whose life experiences are vastly different. Yet, educators cannot avoid these face to face encounters...in fact, we must seek them out... if we aspire to create environments safe for all students and produce a generation of young adults who will lead well in a multi-cultural, multi racial world.

What must it feel like to be judged by our appearance? Most of us have had an experience with otherness. We were the farm child at the centralized school, the girl who wanted to play hockey, the boys’ sports, we were the only Jewish family in a community, or we were the lone black child on a bus or the Asian child struggling to learn English. Remember when people feared that a Catholic president would turn the country over to the Pope? There may be some among us who have always been the majority. We live in a country in which good-looking people are elevated to hero status, especially in high schools. Taller people have traditionally risen to higher ranks of leadership than shorter people. Men have been accepted into top positions more than women. Many have worked to break those barriers but barriers are strongly embedded in our culture.

While NBC and other news outlets report on the recent incidents in which persons of color were held and questioned because of purchases they made at Macy’s or Barney’s, our students are watching. Why did suspicion arise over those purchases? The youth of America are watching as even well known personalities are held for questioning for simply purchasing an expensive item. They watched while the television reported how Trayvon Martin was shot and killed. Now, another Martin in Florida raises race and bullying. Our students are watching as Richie Incognito tosses racial insults into the Miami Dolphins rookie hazing and the team and the sport struggle to determine what is in bounds and where the lines are drawn.

Is it possible that profiling only takes place in big ways, like what makes national news? Is it possible that only people outside of education make judgments about persons of color? Is it possible we are truly color-blind when working with children? “Today, the color-blind ideology provides a veneer of liberality which covers up continuing racist thought and practice that is often less overt and more disguised (Feagin, as cited in Derman-Sparks & Ramsey 2006. p.33).

The beginning of an anti-racist journey for adults starts with a breaking of the silence. Derman-Sparks and Ramsey say,

It is about people recognizing the reality and implications of their white racial identity and undoing their learned racial superiority and entitlement. It is about overcoming fears about losing connections with family, colleagues, and friends because of these choices. However, the anti-racist white journey is also about becoming more whole, healing the wounds of alienation and dehumanization that racism creates, and opening up to the richness of human diversity in our country and around the world (2006. p.21).

These words may be difficult to digest for some. But we must face the issues of racism in ourselves and in our schools. We cannot simply turn the channel and go on about our business. Perhaps, the intertwining of poverty and race will force us to enter this seemingly treacherous territory.

Beginning with the ending of legal segregation, and further strengthened by the election of America’s first African American president, many White people argue that White dominance and racism are a thing of the past (2011. p.39). However, recently Time.Com reported that the father of Ted Cruz who is a member of the Tea-party, openly called for our President to “go back to Kenya.” While we can dismiss this as pretty typical politics, it would be quite a good thing if the biases and prejudice within them were not part of our present. Racism is not a thing of the past.

And each of us is a more courageous leader if we wrestle long with ourselves to know whatever bias lives in us. We have children watching and waiting for us to do something. We cannot ignore the revelations that appear in the news. They are our opportunities. These are difficult steps to take and guidance along the way is essential. No matter the process chosen, the first steps have to be to open the doors for the adults to begin to examine their own bias, or ignorance, or prejudice. If we do not begin in earnest, to face the truth about our societal beliefs about being white or black or Asian, we cannot lead schools that are safe for children of color and we will not be preparing our students for lives as adults in welcoming, multi-cultural world.

In Derman-Sparks’ and Ramsey’s second edition, they say, “Still, the United States is not a post-racial society. We have a long way to go to fulfilling the dream of ending all forms of institutional and individual racism” (2011.p.36). It is in us and our schools. We are not suggesting that we are bigots. But we are suggesting that we need to lead into this territory because others probably won’t. Even if we do it awkwardly at first, it is still the leader’s path.

Derman-Sparks, Louise and Ramsey, Patricia (2006) and (2011). What if All The Kids Are White? Anti-Bias Multicultural Education with Young Children and Families. New York: Teachers College Press.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.