It’s almost impossible these days to read an education article, watch the news, look at social media, or even have a conversation with a friend or colleague that doesn’t somehow touch on racial equity. We’ve seen our country grapple with a worldwide pandemic while simultaneously trying to reckon with the severe racial inequities that are ever-present in our society – and in our schools. And whether you’ve been thinking about racial equity for one month or decades, if there’s one key thing we’re learning, it is that the work is never easy. In fact, if it’s easy, it’s probably not the right work.
The field, and the country, are definitely paying attention. And there seems to be a willingness and desire to engage in dialogue on racial equity. But because evoking the word “equity” somehow signals one is paying attention, I worry that we (educators) are not doing enough. In fact, I worry that we are actually just hiding behind the word without addressing racial equity at all. It is easy to attend webinars or virtual education conferences that have the word “equity” in the title, or to read one of the many education publications that have dedicated entire issues to the topic of equity. And even as we look to the work being done in school districts, such as equity audits, examination of curricular materials through a lens of racial equity, or providing professional development on culturally relevant pedagogy, we are not seeing the impact one would hope to see. In my opinion, the great miscalculation being made by many in our field is that we are too often seeing activity and mistaking it for impact.
Why Racial Equity Matters in Schools
The true work of addressing racial inequity will never have an impact if we continue down the road of it being a process in which we expect individuals, and entire systems, to simply watch and learn. While reading and learning are critically important to becoming racially literate and more racially conscious, this is only the first (and easiest) step in the process. In fact, the road to anti-racist action in public schools will be a long and complicated road to travel if we’re truly committed to ensuring that our schools are places in which people of color, both staff and students, are spending their days in environments that deal honestly and openly with the realities and impacts of racism, engaging all members of the community in deepening their understanding and commitment to anti-racism, and actively confronting the structures of white supremacy with each other and our students.
It’s quite easy to immerse oneself in learning about the topic. It’s a completely different experience to engage – really engage. The reality is that there is no quick fix, and we must be prepared to address the systemic inequality that the field has openly acknowledged for decades but unsuccessfully addressed.
As educators and district leaders across the country work to address racial equity, we’re learning some very valuable lessons about how to engage more deeply, and more effectively, in the work. And unlike less personal topics such as student assessment or content standards, engaging in learning on racial equity and stepping into anti-racist action should and will feel quite personal from the minute one begins. But are schools and districts structured and equipped to effectively engage in this important work? In many cases, the answer is likely, “Not yet.”
But this is not something that can wait. In fact, ready or not, the conversation is happening and educators must be prepared for it. Given the importance of the conversation, and the fact that we and our students are living in communities that are demanding that we finally and deliberately address race and racism in our schools, we must find ways to learn from each other in this work. If we’re going to have the impact we desire, we’ve got to commit and dig in. And this is much easier said than done.
Are We Doing Everything We Can to Achieve Racial Equity in Schools?
Although I’d never pretend that an article such as this will unlock the keys to overcoming racism, we have learned some valuable lessons that may be helpful as one examines how to move beyond the “equity window dressing” we’re currently witnessing to a place of deeper (and hopefully impactful) engagement.
- If the goal is racial equity, name it specifically. The word “equity” seems to be the new “diversity.” (I know I’m showing my age, but if you were teaching in the 90s like I was you likely know what I’m talking about.) And equity can mean many things. It’s a term that is used so pervasively that it’s easy to use it as a feel-good term – and use it to apply to almost everything we do. The reality is that race, and racism, are specifically what we’re trying to address. If we’re not willing to name it specifically and shine a bright light on it, it’s likely that the emphasis will fade or people will hide behind the term and broaden it to mean we’re focusing on supporting all kids. Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here – we absolutely need to focus on effectively supporting all students. However, that’s different that ensuring we’re overcoming racial inequality in our schools.
- This work takes time and will require a balance of urgency and endurance. As educators, it’s in our blood to act with urgency and speed, particularly on topics that impact our students in such significant and life-altering ways. But if you think you’re going to “address racial equity” in the short term, think again. Despite our best attempts to accelerate this work, particularly in environments where there is immense pressure to do something quickly, the reality is that moving from the structures built to perpetuate white supremacy to communities that are indeed racially equitable is a long process. In fact, I think we’d all be best served if we just acknowledged that there will be no end point to this work in any of our lifetimes. The urgency requires us to start, but it should also remind us of the long road ahead and the importance of not over-simplifying the learning and subsequent action that is needed in order to actually have an impact.
It’s also important to note here that it will be easy to retreat when the going gets tough. Because the work of addressing racial equity is so complex and will require both short- and long-term action, it will be easy to let it fade as priorities change or issues arise. And if we’re being honest, most educators know the “this too shall pass” phrase for a reason. Of all the topics addressed through professional learning in districts, some educators may be inclined to wait this one out. Additionally, for those leading this work, there will inevitably be both internal and external push back. Fortitude is required to both maintain the pace of the work and defend its importance.
- Engage the individual and give them the time and space to learn. Building upon the previous point of urgency, because we want to have an immediate impact, we often jump to trying to figure out what “the system” can do right now. We almost intuitively start thinking about what school or district leadership must do to support staff and students. And often, the end result is an equity plan with a list of to-dos and next steps. But in my experience, the most important first step is not springing into action, but rather stopping to engage in deep, real introspection. And I’m not talking about a brief reflection that can be captured in a journal entry or reflective conversation.
We must first start by implementing structures that allow and encourage a personal and individual learning, introspection, exploration, and ultimately action. As individuals committed to racial equity, we must all be ready to reflect on the true history of racial oppression in this country, how our own racial consciousness has impacted our view of race, and how we (particularly if you’re white) are indeed contributing to racial inequity and racism in this country and in our classrooms, likely without even realizing it. We simply cannot skip this step, and educators will only build their capacity to engage in this work if they’ve first had an opportunity for deep personal learning. Rather than placing expectations on educators that their first (and only) order of business is addressing the racial consciousness of the students they serve, we’d likely be better served if we were simultaneously engaging educators in the work of assessing and deepening their own racial competence.
This work will be uncomfortable, so expect discomfort. Don’t expect to make major shifts by addressing the “easy stuff.” Once the work has begun in earnest, the discomfort will/should show up immediately. Individuals will experience discomfort as they begin to realize that what they’ve known and believed about race for so many years is inaccurate at best and damaging at worst. For example, white individuals will likely struggle with understanding how they’ve indeed benefited from white privilege despite the fact that they’ve never seen or felt it. And this will only be the tip of the iceberg. As both Americans and educators, we start to see very quickly how we’ve held up inaccurate accounts of history, downplayed the role of racism in our treatment of students and their achievement (or lack of opportunity), and failed to recognize gaps in our own understanding for so many years.
Racial equity work cannot be confined to a few days of professional learning with staff. It’s not as simple as hiring more educators of color and expecting students to react in ways that increase their ability to learn and achieve. It cannot simply be about a book study, attending a conference, or providing relevant reading to those we support. This is the easy stuff. True racial equity work, when done well, is actually about all of these things and so much more. And with “so much more” comes a level of understanding that, without fail, leads to a deeper, truer understanding of the realities of racism that will inevitably be accompanied by a discomfort that will be hard to name, impossible to dismiss, and linger for a long time. We must acknowledge the discomfort and actually embrace it, or we’ll immediately shift to being defensive – at which point the learning will stop. And once the learning has stopped, we’ll never make progress
Examining whiteness must be a central aspect of the work. As a white educator, naming and understanding my whiteness and the benefit it provides was the most critical part of my journey. It was also the aspect of the work that was the hardest to acknowledge and took the longest to understand. For many years, my focus as a teacher, instructional coach, and administrator when it came to racial equity was about acknowledging the race of my students as a way to ensure they felt seen in my classroom or school. I placed great value on culturally relevant pedagogy, worked to build classroom and school environments that celebrated the “diversity” of my students, and openly championed the importance of really knowing our students and creating spaces in which they could all achieve. But in all of that work, I had never reflected on how my whiteness impacted my thinking – and my inaction. Once I finally understood that understanding my whiteness was the necessary first step, it completely transformed how I engaged in every single conversation moving forward.
I don’t only make this point because about 80% of teachers in our public school system are white. I also mention it because it is not until we acknowledge the impact of whiteness and the structures of white supremacy that we can truly examine how it has served as the measure against which all other races are compared. Whiteness sits central to the conversation on racial equity. If you’re white, the discoveries you’ll make about being white will permanently impact how you engage with race for the rest of your life. And isn’t that the goal?
The Truth About Racial Equity in Schools
We owe it to our students, and quite frankly, ourselves, to deliver on the goal of becoming more critically race conscious educators and human beings. It’s time we acknowledge that much of the equity work to date has been incomplete and failed to ensure schools are places in which all students and educators, regardless of race or ethnicity, can find success. Our schools, and the educators within them, are not naturally equipped for this work. We’ve been raised in a society that was built on white supremacist beliefs but then spent centuries pretending this wasn’t the case.
But I know educators. I’ve worked alongside them as a teacher, school leader, and district administrator and now spend my days supporting their growth and development. I know that despite the fact that many of us have a lot to learn, we’re ready to engage because we love our work and we are deeply committed to the students we support each day. It’s time for all of us, particularly if you’re white, to step into this work with the goal of anti-racist action in earnest this time. We’ve spent decades addressing the ever-present achievement gap and implementing culturally responsive practices without having a significant impact, as is evidenced by the abundance of data highlighting the inequities faced by people of color today.
Let’s not forget that our children, our own and those we educate, are watching, listening, and feeling, and we want their stories to be better than ours. But in order for that to happen, we must fully understand and accept our own stories for what they are as well. We must identify the aspects we can still change and engage in meaningful ways to counteract those forces that are prohibiting our students, family members, friends, and colleagues of color from enjoying a life free from the damaging effects of racism so deeply embedded in our culture and in our schools.
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