Deciding To Stay or Leave: When Is Institutional Racism Too Much To Bear?

The white supremacist terrorist insurrection of Wednesday January 6, 2021 was an ugly day in American history; an ugly day in a long list of ugly days. As a result, members of the Trump Administration have resigned in protest, including transportation secretary Elaine Chao and education secretary Betsy DeVos.

It’s too little, too late in my opinion, but I digress. Don’t gleefully steer a disastrous, wayward, and rabidly racist ship and then bail in the port at the last minute.

I don’t know any of these individuals personally, however I don’t believe the repugnancy of racism isn’t why they resigned. If so, it’s plausible to think they would have already resigned. Rather, I believe that being associated with Wednesday’s disgraceful behavior wasn’t a good look; especially if they have professional ambitions beyond their former positions.

But what about those individuals who do resign from their positions, high-ranking or otherwise, in protest of racism; people who resign to make a point and make a stand? People like Dr. Ben Danielson, the former medical director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic at the Seattle Children’s Hospital. 

The Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic (OBCC) at the Seattle Children’s Hospital is tasked with providing quality pediatric care to low-income children of color; a worthwhile mission. However, like most schools, hospitals, and government entities, OBCC is a white institutional space whereby the norms, agenda and culture is white by default. 

It’s why, according to Dr. Danielson’s, two high-ranking Black administrators at OBCC were removed and his complaint about a high-ranking white administrators use of racial slurs, including the n-word and japs (to describe members of the Asian community), went unheard. Even more egregious was the hospital’s failure to consult Dr. Danielson during the current pandemic with respect to allowing a family to visit a child maskless.

According to Dr. Danielson,

The institution is replete with racism and a disregard for people who don’t look like them in leadership.

Dr. Danielson didn’t resign for fear of how he looked working for an institution that blinked at the racist behavior of its employees. Rather, he resigned because the institution he worked for failed to do anything about said behavior. As important was his responsibility to oversee the humane and competent treatment of patients of color is his responsibility to hold his employer accountable for ensuring a hospitable work environment for people of color. 

The decision to leave was tough. However, Dr. Danielson’s rational provide the moral basis for why his decision was necessary:

I’m privileged enough to know that this children’s hospital is not a unique organization, that these are all the same kinds of ills that many institutions have baked into their systems. And I understand that whatever I whine about personally and experiences I’ve had around leaders using hate speech and racial language relating to me, the experiences of low-income people of color are still miles worse than anything I experienced.

I can understand why Dr. Danielson’s position was tough. He was an advocate for Seattle’s Black community; he spoke for racial disparities in health, he spoke for the city’s displaced, and he was one of the only Black people in leadership. He took on the burden to speak up for Black folks.

Black educators do the same; everyday amidst cultures, policies and people deemed racist — just like Dr. Danielson. Oftentimes, Black teachers, particularly Black male teachers, may be the only Black male or Black person in their building that is not a part of the security or janitorial staff. Personally, I can count the number of Black teachers I’ve ever had and the number of years where I wasn’t the only Black teacher in my workplace on the same hand.

I put the obligation of remaining in the classroom on myself. Days like the terrorist insurrection at the Capitol is why I still long to be in the classroom again — it’s due to the obligation of being a Black voice for Black ears. I was able to speak life and light to my students concerning the murders of Travyon Martin, Michael Brown Jr. and Freddie Gray. I was available to voice truth when lies were told of Colin Kaepernick. I became a resource for Black parents; a bridge for members of the community. Those things personify why Black teachers are necessary in schools.

My service to my students, the families and the community made me proud to be a Black teacher. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I was worn down by another obligation; the one where I was the “Black student whisperer” for white educators. That’s when you’re consulted when Black students are failing a course or courses, posing behavioral problems and in need of a Black man to mentor them. Yet suggestions to mandate use of culturally relevant resources, courses and instructional techniques usually fell flat.

I eventually left the classroom and it was partly because of those reasons. Nevertheless, it was one of the toughest decisions I ever made. However, it wasn’t my job to fix racism and neither is it Dr. Danielson’s job. Our job as practitioners is to provide the people with what they need. For Dr. Danielson and others like him, they provide quality health care. For myself, and others like me, we provide a quality education.

However, no matter how equipped we are to fight against systemic racism with our praxis, we’re rendered ineffective when our institutions fail to join us in that fight. Therefore we wrestle; we wrestle with the decision to remain in institutions that don’t value our knowledge, passion and purpose for the sake of our people or walk away for both our own sanity and to expose the lie — the lie being that antiracism and equity are a priority.

For many of these institutions, we are only a priority when our stories can be exploited to generate funds that pay for services and salaries. I’ve worked in organizations that did that; I venture to say that many Black people either have or currently work in organizations that do that… on top of ignoring racist behavior; both theirs and others. 

So, should we stay, or should we go when the racism is just too much to bear?

That’s a question every person of color must answer for themselves when the question knocks on their door. Dr. Danielson left and while he didn’t have another job lined up, it can’t be ignored that the next opportunity wouldn’t be hard to come by due to his education, experience, and reputation. 

What about the first-year Black teacher or that veteran teacher of color with financial obligations or the Black teacher who knows they are the only teacher of color their students have… how should they answer that question?

I don’t know the answer. For Dr. Danielson, the Seattle Children’s Hospital forced his move and he exposed their weakness as an organization. For years, he fought to strengthen that weakness — for the people’s sake. Even when he left, he never lost sight of the people. When the question arrives at your doorstep, the answer will never be as important as never losing sight of the people. You’ll find your answer when you focus.

What do you think?

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Rann Miller

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