When Blackface is Worn in Schools

I know a few Black male teachers, however I know more Black male principals and vice principals. It’s not that more Black educators choose to be administrators over teachers per se. Rather it’s because Black male teachers are often streamlined from the classroom to the principal’s office. That’s because district officials often recognize the positive impact Black male teachers have on students in the classroom and hope their impact can translate on an administrative level.

I know from personal experience.

I was approached by my district’s leader with an opportunity to serve in vice principal-like role during end of my 3rd year in the classroom. In just my second year in the classroom, I won teacher of the year. During my 3rd year teaching, my work with the English department contributed to higher than average test scores for our junior class. In addition to all of that, I had the respect of my students and my non-hater colleagues.

I was on the radar of district leadership. So it was no surprise that at the end of my 3rd year teaching, I was approached by my district’s leader with an opportunity to serve in vice principal-like role starting the next year. I took the position.

The next year, I was excited about the opportunity to work with teachers on behalf of our students. However I quickly realized that I was being looked at by teachers, as well as administration, as the chief disciplinarian.

Among administration, I was viewed as the Blackface they believed could get Black and Brown students to comply with the rules and procedures; no matter how archaic, meaningless, ridiculous or oppressive they were. Among teachers, I was viewed as the Blackface that would keep students in line when teachers reported students for discipline issues; no matter if the teacher could have diffused the situation themselves, no matter if the teacher misinterpreted a cultural cue, no matter if the teacher really didn’t like teaching Black and Brown children.

What I wanted to do was work with our primarily white teaching staff to become more culturally competent. I wanted to build on the walking tour and discussion of the neighborhood, I collaborated on with colleagues, with more professional development centered on culturally responsive pedagogy and utilizing culturally responsive resources.

My goal was to reduce the number of suspensions and increase the academic performance of our students without compromising who I was. What I wanted didn’t matter. To teachers and administrators, I was simply administrative Blackface.

Blackface is vintage Americana; a staple of minstrelsy dating back to the 19th century. Sadly but not surprisingly, white people continue to wear Blackface, including high ranking holders of public office. Blackface has even adapted with the in the form of digital Blackface performed by white people in social media spaces.

Blackface is Americana in many of our schools as well. Unfortunately, there are instances of white teachers and white administrators wearing Blackface. Those occurrences are problematic, but equally problematic is the Blackface that white educators expect Black principals to wear while doing their jobs.

During the height of Blackface on stage, it was not out of the ordinary for Black actors to wear Blackface; it was the best way to get work on stage. The same is true for Black men in education; the role of principal or vice principal is available because there is the hope of Black men wearing administrative Blackface to police Black student behavior.

I suspect that’s how Ted Howard, former principal of Garfield High School in Seattle, felt as principal.

The majority of Garfield High School students are Black and Latinx, however a white parent informed Mr. Howard that “[white people] run this school. You’re just a caretaker, and don’t you forget it.” Howard was expected to discipline only his Black and Latinx students; not the schools white students.

But he received pushback from various constituencies. He received backlash from Black parents who said that he devoted his leadership to selling them out. Howard received criticism from white parents at the school for attempting to discipline white students for an off-campus hazing incident.

Howard was expected to perform his duties in administrative Blackface. But he decided to do things different later during his tenure. He allowed school leaders to handle discipline through restorative justice measures, he attempted to create a mentoring program for Black male students and place all incoming freshman, regardless of race, in honors history and English.

Even with these initiatives, Howard still wrestled with the expectation that he be the disciplinarian. Black parents continued to give him grief when operating as a disciplinarian with what they considered a heavy hand. White parents continued criticizing Howard also; they thought he was lax – with Black kids.

I struggled too when in my vice principal role.

White teachers who entered the classroom without the cultural competence to be successful called my office often to either remove a student or to have me come get a student who was being “disruptive.” I received countless emails from teachers demanding that students receive an administrative detention for every infraction; without a warning. One teacher told me that the student handbook was the student’s warning and it was their fault if they didn’t read it.

I felt like a sellout. Who I became as an administrator was everything I was against as a teacher. At the start of the 2nd semester, I stopped with the administrative Blackface.

I stopped assigning administrative detentions. I stopped removing students from class. I held mediations for teachers and students. I observed classrooms and gave teachers critical feedback to support their instruction. I gave professional developments for teachers on building relationships with students and building their cultural competency. I also confronted adults who used their status and position to bully students.

I challenged our administration to consider why we discipline, who tends to be disciplined more and why.

I was doing the work of an administrator that put the school community first. However, I wasn’t asked to return the next year in that role. It wasn’t that I did a horrible job. Rather, there wasn’t enough investment in what I wanted to achieve and quite honestly, I pissed too many people off speaking truth to power.

I had to learn to be more measured in my approach, but my resolve that year helped shaped me as an educator and advocate.

Although I went back to the classroom the next year, I didn’t feel defeated. I felt defeated at the midway point the year before. However, I choice to be the educator my students in our building needed me to be; not one in administrative Blackface. It was someone who was firm but fair; someone who held adults to a high standard in order to support students.

As Black men, our role is too important for us to regret how we function. Although administrative Blackface is often the default view of a Black administrator, it must never become an option for Black educators in administrative roles.

Being an educator isn’t about walking fine line – although it may seem like it most days. Being an educator is about being prophetic enough to speak the truth, political enough to function in truth and courageous enough do both each day on behalf of students.

We mustn’t be Blackface. We must simply be Black.

What do you think?

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Rann Miller

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