WE WERE THERE: Notes on “Creating Racially Equitable Schools”

Like so many writers, I also teach. Like so many teachers—especially of literature, especially of younger students—I am female. This profession is largely and historically comprised of a female majority, so it’s no surprise that so many media outlets hate on teachers, so many leaders bust teachers’ unions, and so many good citizens ensure that teaching is not afforded social prestige. And yet, teachers in schools across the city and country are engaging with some of the hardest issues America faces. On June 18th, I joined a packed room of educators and parents from across New York City to learn more about racial inequity in schools. “Creating Racially Equitable Schools” was a panel discussion and fundraiser for Border Crossers, held at the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School. The notes below are woven together from quotes and paraphrases of the five panelists: filmmaker Joe Brewster, school leader Martha Haakmat, educator and filmmaker Ali Michael, Professor Pedro Noguera, and Professor Howard Stevenson.

Creating Racially Equitable Schools

REAL: New York City schools are among the most segregated in the country.

VISION: In racially equitable schools, all children see themselves reflected and respected in the curriculum and in the pedagogy. All staff understand the history of race and racism in the United States.

REAL: New York City is diverse—in the daytime. People ride the subways together and work in the same buildings, then go home to their largely segregated neighborhoods.

REAL: 80% of teachers are white.

REAL: Most teachers don’t know how to navigate moments that are racially stressful. Every day, children struggle through interactions with well-meaning adults. Young people can absolutely tell when they are experiencing microaggressions.

VISION: Document the microaggressions. There are too many to document. But begin to anyway.

REAL: Even when they are engaged in pretend play, we attribute adult characteristics to children of color.

REAL: Kids of color are expelled at higher rates, even though they don’t act out at higher rates.

VISION: Take off your rose-colored glasses.

VISION: End academic tracking in schools.

REAL: Racial stress undermines relationships. Even minimal racial conflicts harm relationships.

VISION: Teach kids healthy racial comeback lines that are neither under-reactions (swallow your stress) nor overreactions (escalate the tension).

REAL: Racial inequities in schools reflect the societies they are in. We have disparities in everything that matters in this country. We can’t solve racism in education alone.

VISION: Let’s get busy creating and being in healthy multiracial communities.

REAL: Some communities, based on race and economics, are totally marginalized. Brownsville.

REAL: Race is confusing. Who belongs in what category? And where did the categories come from? (Hint: Race was created to rationalize domination.)

VISION: Affinity groups. Try them. They will be a mess. Send teachers to Undoing Racism workshops, to Border Crossers.

REAL: We pretend we are an ahistorical society.

REAL: White supremacists hold on to the fact that race is biological. It is not.

REAL: Lots of educators/people think of race and racism as an “opinion” rather than a lived experience.

VISION: We engage in conversations about race not just with ourselves, but with the broader public. Start by asking what are we afraid of in this conversation? Why is it important to have this conversation?

REAL: Tests show that black kids physiologically “spike” when exposed to another person, to the same extent as when exposed to snakes or spiders. This is not true for white kids.

REAL: Racially stressed teachers are less good at classroom management.

REAL: Kids of color struggle with their identity. And they will struggle for the rest of their lives.

VISION: We support teachers in supporting positive racial identity development for students.

REAL: But this is hard to do if the teacher doesn’t have a positive racial identity. And white people ask: “How can I feel good about myself and not be a white supremacist?”

VISION: Acknowledge racism and white privilege and leverage that privilege to work against racism.

REAL: We want to talk about it, but what we get is whispers. “I want to be a part of this, but I’m afraid.”

VISION: We talk about race and racism in order for it to be undone. We talk about it openly. Our racial conversations are consistent, persistent, and enduring.

REAL: You can have a multicultural curriculum and not have an anti-racist classroom. You have to consider everything: pedagogical strategies, seating arrangements, parent conversations, discipline policies, school events, everything.

VISION: Explicitly teach about sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, power, privilege. Give kids the language and critical basis to unpack oppression.

VISION: Failure is not an option.

REAL: Claiming “colorblindness” is often code for “let’s not talk about race or racism.”

VISION: We form racial inquiry groups. We do readings. We attend workshops.

REAL: Race always plays a part in how kids are perceived. Always.

VISION: Start taking risks. Start sharing personal stories.

REAL: For every young black man killed, maimed, or kicked out of school, there are hundreds of thousands dealing with implicit violence. It’s a dogfight out there.

VISION: We decisively integrate our schools.

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