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School & District Management Opinion

What an Anti-Racist Principal Must Do

By Mark Anthony Gooden — October 13, 2020 5 min read
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What does anti-racist school leadership look like? And why would you, a principal, want to pursue it? These are questions at the heart of my longtime work with school leaders. An anti-racist principal commits to seeing how race is used to isolate, disadvantage, and make power inaccessible to Black people and other people of color in schools. An anti-racist principal is alert to unequal outcomes since she knows that race- or culture-neutral policies are not enough to level opportunities across racial, cultural, and linguistic groups. An anti-racist principal’s work must rest upon a strong moral foundation.

These are difficult times, yes. But in the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “The time is always right to do what is right.” With that perspective, the anti-racist principal works to dismantle racism in schools. She supports and shares power with her staff, youths, and families, especially people who have been deemed “minorities.” In those ways, she strengthens a sense of belonging and encourages contributions from across her staff, helping to make the school a place of both equity and excellence.

To have impact as an anti-racist school leader, a principal must abandon the idea of merely being good and start doing good. It’s not enough to say (or think): “I am a good person because I don’t speak those nasty racial epithets like a 1960s bigot.” I call this kind of a position “nonracist” leadership. It’s a passive stance in both language and practice that demands no action to dismantle inequitable systems. It thus preserves the status quo. Another familiar nonracist response is this: “I need to be good at this equity work before I can really start doing it.” For example, a nonracist principal hears students being called the n-word in school but decides to do nothing. Doing good means you start the work today with an anti-racist learning community to determine what should be done. Doing good requires you to engage in ways that challenge you to develop even when it’s not comfortable. You don’t have to be perfect. But we lead with who we are, so knowing yourself is key to being able to influence others. Pointing out the faults of colleagues who resist anti-racism or make insensitive comments while failing to see your own attachment to racist notions is a slippery slope you want to avoid.

True, resistors can sting us deeply when we are in vulnerable places of learning new, difficult content. And you may be tempted to react by morphing into a self-proclaimed, self-righteous anti-racist leader overnight. These flames are fanned nowadays in social-media spaces where one-ups on who’s the most anti-racist proliferate. I’ve even found myself saying lately in workshops: I was anti-racist when anti-racism was not cool. But defensiveness harms a principal’s ability to connect. You need your community in this work so remain open, humble, and curious. Here are three broad actions to get you started on your path to anti-racist leadership:

Meditate. Anti-racist work calls for practical application of anti-racist theory or in the words of educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, “reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed.” So, start with introspection. Stretch your thoughts in a racial direction. Ask yourself the deepest questions you can about who you are. Questions might include: When was the first time I encountered race? What was I thinking or feeling at the time? Where was I, and who was present? Have I thought about it since? This will be hard at first, but many principals report that it is an enlightening, even rewarding experience that clarifies their mission to effectively lead for equity. The work also helps leaders become more empathetic and relatable.

Educate. Principals often politely nudge me for a hack to doing anti-racist work. Truly, principals are very busy people, and I understand they’d like me to hand them a neat package of “how to” knowledge even as I share as many resources as possible. But to be anti-racist requires a personal commitment to ongoing reading and studying. You have to do your own work. Yes, principals must educate others, but thankfully, educating in this sense is to collaborate, to learn and create together. Anti-racist leadership is initially a pull-you-along versus a push-you-along approach. Ultimately, a purpose of educating is to build a community of trust that provides a space for brave if challenging dialogue that’s directed at changing the structure. Importantly, this process should not overburden or traumatize Black people, Indigenous people, or people of color (sometimes referred to as BIPOC) to educate white people. For example, white principals should take the lead on questioning racial disparities in school data and also persuade white staff members to lead activities like anti-racist book studies. Brave spaces require full participation of people from all social-identity groups. Actions should not suggest that “race” is a BIPOC issue.

Demonstrate. This work more than anything requires people of all racial backgrounds and varying degrees of racial identity to get involved and take serious action. How you lead your school must demonstrate your solidarity with the community that is protesting injustice. For example, an anti-racist leader can easily recognize that Black students have First Amendment rights in school to wear masks imprinted with “Black Lives Matter” as long as doing so comports with the ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. Many of us were forever changed when we saw the killing of George Floyd on television in May as a pandemic ravaged the country. Black, brown, and Indigenous people recognized that this horrendous act was not new, not isolated, and definitely not uncommon in their communities. In fact, a recent Harvard study confirms that Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. The actions of leaders must reflect these realities. Anti-racism leadership is just good leadership, not an add-on. To summarize, consider that school leaders must meditate on their own racial identities and how they wish to lead. They should build an anti-racist community of trust by educating themselves about content as they sit with others to share that knowledge. Finally, principals must demonstrate that they have a sense of the challenges of the changing world and they know the impact of those changes on their people. In these ways, leaders move beyond being good to actually doing good.

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2020 edition of Education Week as What an Anti-Racist Principal Must Do

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