The school leadership team’s discussion of the Buffalo grocery store shooting, which I joined at the beginning of this week, was as typical as it was frustrating. The principal and deans of a largely white suburban high school were making plans for how to support their handful of African American students and teachers in the wake of these racially motivated murders. When I, in my capacity as a consultant, raised the question of what programming they were planning for white students to understand the roots and prevention of such horrors, I was met with blank stares.
At least, they were willing to listen. A different suburban principal once told me in no uncertain terms that he would not authorize any whole-school assemblies or activities to address the police killing of Eric Garner, both because the principal didn’t want to touch “politicized issues” and because this issue just wasn’t “relevant enough” to the overwhelmingly white student body.
When white people—especially white educators—conceive of racism as an issue somehow relevant only to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, it’s like addressing drunk driving by talking only to pedestrians. Students of color indeed need support at times like these, but these are also precisely the times when white students, and adults, most need antiracist education. Unfortunately, these days they are less likely to receive it: 17 states, through outright legislation or other avenues, have adopted vaguely worded policies limiting teachers’ discussion of the history and present conditions of racism in the United States. Even in my famously progressive home state of Massachusetts, a student teacher in one of my graduate classes bemoaned a mandate from her principal to “not teach anything about race that happened after 1968.”
The problem with the “not past 1968” approach that guides what most white people learn in their K-12 education—and I was no exception—is that it creates a false narrative that racism in America was perpetuated by long-dead people and was resolved 50 years ago. Stopping the story at Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring that racially segregated schools were inherently unequal, leaves the wrong impression. Without learning about the many court decisions, some as recent as 2012, that perpetuated and accelerated school segregation into the modern day, too many white people see the present “savage inequalities” in educational opportunities as the product of vague and impersonal economic forces alone, or worse, that the inequalities reflect communities of color somehow placing less value on education. Stopping the story at the Civil Rights Act of 1968 keeps white people ignorant of the ways in which structures and established practices in present-day health care, hiring, criminal justice, and drug enforcement continue to massively disadvantage people of color.
With schools increasingly constrained in what they can teach, too many white people—like the 18-year-old accused Buffalo shooter—wind up receiving their education instead from racist social media communities that promote the conspiratorial “replacement” theory and other racist propaganda that portray white people as the modern victims of discrimination.
When white educators conceive of racism as an issue somehow relevant only to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, it’s like addressing drunk driving by talking only to pedestrians.
The Buffalo shooting should be a rallying call for schools to offer white students a genuine education about present-day racism and how it is not just perpetrated by gunmen but also reinforced by the unconscious everyday actions of so many of us ordinary white folk. Teachers can draw upon a deep bench of authors—Zaretta Hammond, Patricia Devine, Robin DiAngelo, Diane Goodman—offering resources for identifying and combatting biases that many whites are unaware of and would be eager to correct if they knew.
For example, school administrators and teachers can conduct bias audits where they gather data on patterns in course placement, school discipline, college recommendations, and more to reveal where well-intentioned white educators might be subconsciously disadvantaging Black and brown students in favor of white ones. White students can learn how small, unintentional, and easily avoided comments or gestures (“microaggressions”) can contribute to an atmosphere of bias and supremacy and resolve to not commit them. If we confine our definitions of racism solely to conscious and bestial acts like those of the Buffalo shooter, white educators like me risk perpetuating the conditions that breed acts like his as well as indulging in a sense of helplessness in preventing such actions.
We’re not helpless, and committing to change the landscape isn’t just a call for altruism. Well-researched resources like Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project (explicitly banned in some states’ curricula) can teach white students and teachers alike not only about structural racism’s effects on people of color but also how institutions like slavery and Jim Crow shaped and continue to shape injustices in our economic and democratic institutions, from which white people also directly suffer. White students need to learn not only about civil rights heroes of color, but also about the whites who fought—and, like Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and Viola Liuzzo, sometimes gave their lives—to undo racist systems that hurt us all.
Such an education makes fighting racial injustice seem much more relevant and much less like learning “someone else’s story” for no other purpose than to evoke guilt or sow division. Every civil rights victory was also, in some part, an active decision by white people to recognize, legally and personally, the humanity of their countrymen and to change their own behavior to reflect this.
These are the active, antiracist decisions that every new generation of white people needs to make in order to prevent horrors like Buffalo, or the Atlanta spa shooting, or Ahmaud Arbery’s murder. Educators need to prioritize teaching white students the knowledge and skills that inform such decisionmaking.
A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 2022 edition of Education Week as We Need to Talk About Racism With White Students Now