No one believes White teachers seek out jobs in urban schools with the intent of harming students and offending their families. Most are enthusiastic and want to make a difference.
Unfortunately, that’s not enough.
When teachers enter the classroom with unchecked biases or worse, a savior complex, they end up unintentionally perpetuating racism. This often manifests itself by the use of racial microaggressions: the subtle digs and slights disguised as innocuous comments or even compliments, that communicates something derogatory about a racial group. Whether intentional or not, these slights do serious damage, especially to children.
Every School Could Benefit From Cultural Competency
I am a current parent, have worked as an independent contractor in a variety of roles and held an operational leadership position at four charter schools in Cleveland.
Over the past four years, I’ve met dedicated staff who are committed to seeing children succeed, but I have also seen acts of unwitting racism from well-intentioned people. As the only Black member of the leadership team at a charter school, I was often uncomfortable with the vast difference in how White parents and students and their Black and Brown counterparts were viewed and treated.
Because I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with charter schools in different roles, I was eager to join the human capital team at Breakthrough Charter Schools in expanding a cultural competency program across the network.
And it’s needed—not just at Breakthrough.
The following were some troubling situations I’ve witnessed in my career:
- The parents of a White student who consistently displayed violent and abusive behavior was treated with sympathy and care. Many accommodations were made to keep the student in school so they wouldn’t fall further behind. However, a younger Black student who was also disruptive but displayed less extreme behavior, was subject to constant removals and suspensions. His mother was often ignored and the stated opinion of some of the staff was that she “had too many kids.” When parents tried to advocate for their children, I noticed they were characterized differently according to their race. Difficult White parents were described as “pushy” or “overbearing,” while parents of color were considered “aggressive,” “rude,” or even “crazy.”
- A teacher once told me that she was “legitimately afraid” of a Black male first-grade student.
- In a school with a majority Black student population, Black History Month was not acknowledged. When a parent asked if anything was planned to celebrate the occasion, the principal stated, “We celebrate diversity everyday.”
- A Black 6-year-old kindergarten student threw a temper tantrum and an administrator threatened to call the police if he didn’t behave.
Don’t Touch My Hair
While school is a large part of our children’s lives, it’s not the only one. Racism impacts other areas of their lives, which further illustrates the importance of a learning environment that does not exacerbate its insidious effects but extinguishes them.
I’ve long endured these insidious effects, having been on the receiving end of hurtful, racist comments throughout my life.
I’ve been called “abrasive,” “very opinionated and outspoken” and told that people were afraid of me. I’ve also been called “articulate.” While shopping, I’ve been both ignored and followed around—I’ve also been mistaken for a store employee. I’ve been asked to explain “Why do Black people…?” I’ve been told, “I don’t see a Black person when I look at you, I just see a person.”
I’ve had people touch my hair without my permission and exclaim in surprise, “Oh, it’s soft!”
When I’ve addressed microaggressions directed towards me, I’ve been told that I was being sensitive, that the comments weren’t meant that way, that I was overreacting, that not everything is about race, and worst of all, that I was wrong for being offended.
It’s these messages, along with so many others, sent to children of color that affirm the idea of their inferiority in and out of school.
Race Can’t Be Made Taboo
Too many schools, district and charter alike, don’t push their staff and faculty to confront their own racial biases or embrace cultural sensitivity. I get it—teachers are busy enough already and race is a painful, uncomfortable, loaded topic. But it can’t be taboo in education, not when our children are internalizing negative messages about who they (or others) are and seeing so many tragic events unfold on television and social media.
To its credit, Breakthrough, especially since it’s located in Cleveland, knew it had to do more for its Black students. I wish more schools were this honest.
The human capital team and I work with school leadership to develop a program that best suits their needs. We explore the different aspects of our personal identities as well as learn about racial identity development (developing a positive sense of racial identity that doesn’t assume superiority or inferiority), and how these coincide with child development.
We talk about privilege, poverty and relationships with students and families. We read scenarios (some based on real situations) that teachers and staff may encounter with either another staff member or students and their families and talk through them in small groups.
Cultural Competency Programs Work
Early signs indicate our work is succeeding.
My daughter’s White male eighth-grade social studies teacher at Citizens Leadership Academy started the school year by telling her class their focus would be Black history. He explained that Black history is not a sidestep from American history, but said that it’s been treated as such.
When my daughter shared this with me, the excitement in her voice reminded me of how validating it is to hear such an admission from someone who can choose to avoid making such a statement. I could tell she felt important and that’s exactly what a 13-year-old should feel.
Breakthrough Charter Schools has committed to improving the cultural sensitivity of its staff. The goal is for all educators to consciously behave in an anti-racist way, prepare students to challenge and upend racism and eliminate the idea of a “dominant culture.”
This is hard work that requires dogged commitment and we know we have a long road ahead, but if we have those difficult, necessary conversations, we’ll be able to create lasting change.