There is no secret that Black students are subjected to some of the worst school funding formulas, least experienced teachers, and least rigorous courses. Black students are over-policed, subjected to the harshest discipline, and all of these factors create hostile learning environments for Black students.
Despite all of this, many white teachers, who make up 80% of public school teachers, want to convince themselves (and you) that race isn’t an issue, that anti-Blackness isn’t pervasive in our schools, and that they don’t need to confront their views about race, class, and privilege.
It is a peculiar type of privilege when an educator chooses to consistently ignore and deny the impact of his/her mindset on their students’ outcomes.
As listeners to our 8 Black Hands podcast can tell you, anti-Blackness doesn’t solely rest with white educators. Everyone breathes the smog that is anti-Blackness. And, everyone needs to work on themselves by interrogating their thought patterns, looking for trends, asking Black students and families about their experiences, and doing the internal work of confronting their biases against Black children.
But, too often, those who make up the vast majority of teachers can be heard saying, “I don’t see race.” The same folks who lock their doors when they see Black people, sit on juries and send innocent Black people to jail, discriminate against Black people in hiring practices, walk into schools and want you to believe that they magically don’t see race anymore.
How exactly does that work?
To combat this issue, Tracey A. Benson, a former teacher and principal, and her colleague, Sarah E. Fiarman, decided to write a new book, “Unconscious Bias in Schools: A Developmental Approach to Exploring Race and Racism.”
Benson notes that as a principal, she found many inequities at the school she inherited; Black students were subjected to the least effective teachers, white students had access to the honors classes, Black students had a disproportionate amount of substitute teachers, etc.
When Benson began to make changes grounded in equity, white teachers railed and rallied – encouraging white parents to protest against the equitable practices Benson was implementing. All in an attempt to further weaponize their biases. Several of these teachers decided to leave. For those who are accustomed to privilege, equity feels like oppression.
The work to address biases against students of color must be carried by the overwhelmingly white educators in schools with an increasingly Black and Brown student population. Ignoring the smog that has been consistently ingested and informs so many decisions about our students will continue to make the experiences of our students oppressive.
To confront biases that wreck the school experiences for so many Black students, white educators are going to have to develop the courage to make themselves very uncomfortable by diving into issues about how race, class, and privilege impacts their interactions, thoughts, and patterns when it comes to students who do not share their backgrounds and privileges. For us to have safe spaces for our Brown and Black students, we need the adults to create brave spaces for themselves.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.