The "R Word" – What Schools must Learn about Race


This blog is from the co-founder of Teaching While White and the Associate Director for Mid-West Educational Collaborative, Elizabeth Denev.

A few years ago, I was sitting in a parent-teacher conference. A black mum sat across the table from me as we discussed her son.
By this time, I had been through a master’s program and had been asked to join a diversity committee. I considered myself a “good” white person, now “thinking” about racism (it was still an intellectual exercise for me).
I was particularly troubled by this young black boy who “was not living up to his potential.” I felt that he could do more, but he was not. I expressed my oh-so condescending concern as, “Look at all I’m doing. Why won’t your son meet me halfway?” — a sentiment I have felt and heard in schools more times than I can count.
This mum looked at me and said in a calm voice, “I think you’re being racist toward my son.”
And what did I do?
I doubled-downed. I proceeded to explain to this mum all the ways that I certainly was not racist, how much I had worked with her son, given him extra time. I had not written him off as so many other teachers had done, telling me that I shouldn’t waste my time with him.
Couldn’t she see how “good” I was? I defended myself, and my whiteness, just as I had been taught to do by centuries of white superiority and white silence on this topic.
Years later, I shudder when I recall this conversation. But I do so — and do so publicly — because it brings me to one central question: What if being called “racist” was the beginning, not the end, of the conversation? 
What if, instead of offering a ranting defensive of my intentions, I had taken this mum at her word? What if I considered that she might know her son’s experience better than I did?
What if I had owned the outcome of my behaviour and considered with her how my work with her son was perpetuating racial stereotypes and prejudice? Do you think that might have impacted her son’s experience in my class? In the school? Do you think it would have made me a better teacher?
Here’s what I wish I had known before I started teaching, and what I now try to communicate to all teachers. I want other white educators to know that:
– They are white;
– Being white matters — because, as Parker Palmer notes, “We teach who we are”;
– Their students see race either implicitly or explicitly; and
– Our failure to locate ourselves as white and to talk about what that standpoint/position means is doing more harm than good — for our students of colour and our white students.
When I first learned that I was white — and I mean really white, not just the abstract concept that I was white with no awareness of my complicity in a system of unequal power — I was angry.
And I was obnoxious about it. My husband often calls me the “white tornado,” but a bulldozer metaphor works as well. I was going to solve the problem of racism once and for all — a mindset, of course, that also reflects the arrogance embedded in white privilege.
The hardest piece for me was getting over being colour-blind. I had been carefully taught not to see race or comment on it. It was a huge shift for me to even use the term “students of colour” because for me to see and notice race meant, in my mind, that I was “racist.”
For me to have identified as really white felt tantamount to saying I was a KKK member. I had no examples of white people who had worked for social justice. I had no idea that, for as long as there was slavery in the U.S., there were white people working to end it. Nobody taught me about those people.
In time, I would learn. In particular, I have been profoundly impacted by the research of John Dovidio and his work to illuminate “aversive racism.” He clearly explains why being colour-blind is so pernicious:

“When Whites attempt to be colour-blind, they tend to be self-focused and more oriented toward monitoring their own performance than toward learning about the particular needs and concerns of the person of colour with whom they are interacting.”

In interracial interactions, this will impair the ability of people (particularly less explicitly prejudiced individuals) to engage in intimacy-building behaviours (Dovidio, 2016).
Those “intimacy-building” behaviours are what lead to strong, connected relationships in schools and to academic success. When we are worried about what we might say or that we might be called “racist,” we’re not paying proper attention to our students of colour or helping our white students understand the ways in which they are racialised.
Thus, we are not grounding our teaching in who they are, what they know, and what they bring to the table. And when we’re not doing that, we’re not being excellent teachers.
Along the way, there have been 5 additional critical points of learning:
1) Difference as Difference, not Deficit: The noticing of race is not racism. To understand that my students of colour have a different experience is just that — different. Their experience is not a representation of deficit culture (see Luis Moll).
2) Diversity vs. Multiculturalism: While “diversity” is quantitative, meaning it speaks to differences that can be measured and counted, “multiculturalism” speaks to the quality of life that diversity leads in a school. These two terms are related and connected, but they are not synonyms. White teachers need to not only think about representation, but also consider classroom climate and culture.
3) Equality vs. Equity: “Equality” means giving all students the same thing. “Equity” mandates that we give each student what she or he needs to be successful at school. Equity pedagogy signals that the playing field is not equal, thus including elements of power and privilege in our analysis of what students need (my gratitude to Paul Gorski, writer, educator and founder of EdChange, for holding our feet to the fire on this topic).
4) Safety vs. Comfort: White folks will often complain that they feel “unsafe” during conversations related to race when what they are generally referring to is a feeling of discomfort. We have to be willing to wade into this topic with our white colleagues as this “complaint” usually goes unchallenged in white circles. (See Robin DiAngelo’s research for an excellent analysis of “white fragility” around topics of race.)
5) Intent vs. Impact: While I cannot crawl inside your head and know your intentions, I can see, hear, and feel the outcome of your behaviour. If we spent even half as much time owning and dealing with the outcomes of our behaviours as we do defending our intentions, we might actually create classrooms that are equitable.
In our society, we have inherited a carefully crafted structure by which white people routinely avoid and ignore the topic of race, in any way possible to avoid being seen as “racist.”
However, by doing so – we are keeping white teachers from learning why our awareness of our own white identity is so critical to being excellent teachers.
As if white educators can learn how whiteness impacts their teaching, it will certainly benefit black boys. But most important, it will allow white educators to be excellent teachers for all students.
It will allow them to be educators who are wise to the fact that racial identity has, and will probably always, impact teaching and learning in profound ways.

Through the Black Lives Matter Movement racial equality and social justice have now been firmly placed back on the agenda and schools must be at the forefront as agents for change.
Black children and black teachers need to know that in the UK education system their lives really do matter and see this evidenced as part of their lived daily reality. Headteachers and Senior School Leaders have a key role to play in making this happen.
Together, you shape the culture, the vision, the ethos for your school. Together, you determine in practice what racial equality and social justice look like. And together, you must decide the leadership that is needed for these times.
This is a courageous path that you will have to travel, because it will require you to explore issues of identity and integrity and what they truly mean in the context of your own school settings. It will require you to have difficult conversations and face uncomfortable truths.
Yet it is these sorts of conversations which truly define leadership and are fundamental to growth and positive change. What’s more, it’s only by leaning into the uncomfortable spaces and finding with help and support that something new, something better can be brought to life.
That’s why we have now developed our new ‘Race, identity and School Leadership’ Programme to provide a safe spaces for reflection and discussion for School Leaders to explore the implications of recent events and begin to unpick implications for themselves and their schools.
The programme will provide spaces for School Leaders to explore:
– Identify key principles of racial equality and social justice and what best practice looks like in individual school contexts
– Question and reflect on the prevailing narratives that have shaped the discourse on race, identity, education and the achievement of Black pupils
– Use a narrative enquiry framework to identify how to create personal and organisational narratives that support the achievement of Black pupils
– Equip Senior School Leaders with the  necessary psychological and emotional tools for engaging in difficult conversations about race
– Increase leaders own sense of personal agency and ability to act as an agent of change

Find out More


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