Monday, September 23, 2019

From Denial to Diagnosis: Curing Racism in Public Schools

Excellent opinion-editorial by Stephanie Hawley, AISD's new Chief Equity Officer. Racism is indeed in the very DNA of our country.  Scroll below to view Hawley's proposed antidotes to what she terms," the cancer of educational racism."

-Angela Valenzuela

From Denial to Diagnosis: Curing Racism in Public Schools

Stephanie Hawley

Chief Equity Officer at Austin Independent School District
“There is separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.” --Albert Einstein, The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein
As a Black woman, mother, teacher, administrator, racial equity advocate and inclusion strategist, I have been asked more times than I can remember by well-meaning White teachers, leaders, and politicians, "How can you help close the racial achievement gaps?" The question in and of itself assumes that "I," as a woman of Color, may have the cure for the cause of the racial equity gaps in education-- that devastating centuries-old global disease of racism.
Racism is in the very DNA of our country birthed in the bloody legalized genocide of Indigenous people, nourished and gorged for centuries on the "human capital" of enslaved Indigenous people and enslaved Africans and currently sustained by the exploited labor of people of Asian and Mexican descent.
When I ask questioners, "What do you think is the real problem causing the racial achievement gaps," individuals inevitably point to a myriad of stereotypical factors (that often also apply to millions of White students): Black, Brown and Indigenous children's lack of motivation and preparation, poor parenting and most often labels are affixed including economically disadvantaged, in poverty, traumatized, etc. While these descriptors of the conditions with which children of Color (and White students) may live might be accurate, rarely is there a mention of the strengths, resourcefulness, resilience and creativity Black and Brown students bring to the public school learning experience. Most often, well-meaning educators with deficit mindsets about the children, recommend additional supplementary grant-funded programs or extended time with the same failing curricula and the same teachers who are under prepared to support students of Color. Few, if any of the questioners, profoundly and consistently interrogate a public school system perfectly designed to predictably fail students of Color (statistically speaking).
The American public school system is where racism insidiously metastasizes without detection, intervention, and treatment because we've been "schooled" and socialized NOT to examine the system. Antiracist educators are stepping up to transform White cultural conformity in schooling to racially and culturally inclusive learning experiences for all students.
Individually and collectively, we educators may be in denial that we are the system and we are the disease that tacitly and blindly normalizes, centralizes and prioritizes the thinking, needs, values, history, culture and fears of White children and White families. We have been "schooled" to do so. 
Even in the face of alarming data for decades, educators continue to assume the achievement data gaps are telling us how broken the students of Color are, but in fact, the achievement data tell us how well the system is working for White students and how poorly it is designed to serve Black and Brown students. Educating Diverse (including White) students is not about choosing one group or the other, but using researched-based strategies that promote the learning and flourishing of all students.
Educators who are growing in racial and cultural consciousness sometimes shield White colleagues from words like, "antiracist," 'White fragility," "White privilege," "White supremacy" and other terms that might upset their sensibilities and shut down their amygdala for fear they may tune out/run away and never come to the table for courageous conversations and accountable actions to address individual and systemic racism in classrooms and schools. While empathy is critical, coddling and protecting fragile colleagues to the detriment of students have created and sustained an environment that is toxic and unacceptable.
As awakening individuals and those desperately trying to remain racially and culturally conscious in school systems, we may continue to silently wait at the speed of comfort for White educators and administrators who have been schooled and socialized to avoid conversations about race and racism.
While we are patiently waiting for White leaders and educators to "elect" to confront racism and engage in the necessary and uncomfortable ongoing conversations and training needed to be held accountable for taking direct action for change, disproportionate numbers of Black children languish in detention, suspension, and Special Education. The children are predictably placed on the conveyor belt from frequent suspensions to juvenile detention and on to for-profit prisons. This is a hard truth from which we too often protect White privileged and fragile educators whose daily decisions as early as pre-k are one of the determining factors in the fate of Black and Brown children.

Systemic Diagnosis & Systemic Cures

Racism is a disease that takes on many forms and avoids the light of analysis while it benefits, privileges and profits all systems: health care, city governments (gentrification), insurance, housing, collegiate sports, banking, tech, law enforcement, entertainment, the multi-billion testing industry, for-profit prison industries and yes, public schools.
No child in America should be segregated by low expectations, imprisoned by illiteracy, abandoned to frustration and darkness of self-doubt. . . .Now some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less -- the soft bigotry of low expectations. . . .
-George H.W. Bush, 1999 Improving Education Speech
Denial about racism (a common symptom of the disease) is so deeply entrenched in the individual and collective American psyche, many educators and administrators truly believe ourselves to be innocent and unaffected by racism because we are not directly involved in overt and intentional acts of hate. By focusing on our intentions instead of looking at the serious and daily impact and damage of individual and systemic decisions and policies that routinely exclude and criminalize children of Color, we educators, leaders and politicians believe our hands are clean. Racism is insidious and can be difficult to detect if educators are enmeshed in the traditional time constraints of schooling, focused on bureaucratic routines, and initiating the latest "quick fix"interventions.
Certainly, more questions could be asked to detect the cancer of institutional racism, but those below are an introduction to compassionately interrogating the system and are worthy of discussion with elected officials, families, colleagues, principals, board members and the community:
1.Are the system's annual measurable achievement goals lower for Black and Brown students than those established for White students?
 2. Are Black, Brown and Indigenous children disproportionately placed in suspension, detention, mental health facilities, alternative learning environments and Special Education?
3. Are Black, Brown and Indigenous children consistently "missing" from gifted and talented programs?
4. Are the system's most experienced teachers placed and/or allowed to select teaching assignments in predominantly White schools, historically supported by strong leadership, rigorous programming and modern facilities?
5. Are students of Colors historically and disproportionately zoned and assigned to old buildings that are in disarray, unattractive, poorly maintained and plagued by high teacher absenteeism and new, failing or developing leadership?
6. Are administrators, staff and teachers allowed to "opt out" of ongoing cultural proficiency, culturally responsive teaching, racial equity and inclusion training because they are "good" teachers, don't appear to be racist or simply express discomfort with the topics?
7. Are cultural proficiency and antiracist training experiences such low priorities in the system that when training opportunities emerge throughout the year, funding is difficult or impossible to secure?
8. Are antiracist teachers and administrators ostracized, silenced or isolated for speaking up about race, racist policies and differential treatment and outcomes for students of Color and students belonging to other historically marginalized groups?
A "yes" to even one of the questions is a sign racism is alive and has infested the district, school, program, department, and the classrooms.
Fortunately, we have had the cure for racism in education for many decades. Unfortunately, individually and collectively, we simply lack the political will to do what we know we must to bring about racial equity. We often blame the children, funding and politics (code for fear of making White people in power uncomfortable) for our individual and collective failure to do what we know works for Black, Brown and White children.
Over many decades, thousands of Black and Brown families and children have told us what is needed through interviews and research studies. What is needed to close the gaps is no mystery. It requires belief in our collective ability to transform the system with daily courageous action.
First steps with antidotes to the cancer of educational racism include several do-able actions:
  1. Ensure all leaders, board members, administrators ad community partners are engaged in ongoing training and development sessions to build relationships and community to establish and monitor the achievement of realistic equity goals.
  2. Ensure all Black and Brown students are taught and supported by excellent (experienced, culturally conscious and antiracist) teachers, staff and administrators with high expectations.
  3. Ensure curricula and teaching materials are culturally responsive, rigorous, relational, inclusive and affirming with positive images of students and achievers of Color and support varied approaches to critical thinking and interactive instruction.
  4. Ensure buildings are modern, clean, and well-lighted; make certain external and internal facilities are welcoming and reflect respect for the culture(s) of the community.
  5. Hold all leaders i.e. boards of trustee members, superintendents, and principals accountable for allocating the appropriate funding and developing policies and strategies to recruit, hire, develop, retain and reward excellent (experienced, culturally conscious and antiracist) teachers and staff.
The actions above are a mere primer for beginning the work to interrupt racism to close the racial achievement gaps. All actions require the "grit" constantly demanded of students of Color and students who have been impoverished by multiple racist systems since birth. Taking action to interrupt racism requires consistent courage and commitment to "unlearn" years of unconscious and conscious socialization and conformity to domineering White cultural norms in the P-16 system.
Public education is by design and default deeply and unconsciously racist as evidenced in the enrollment and academic outcomes data and the continued acceptance of the dominance of White cultural norms, segregated and low performing schools and poor building conditions for students of Color. I've been told many times over the years that teachers' unions, individual White educators, White parents, the nation, the city, the county, school districts, and school cultures are just not ready to accept responsibility for engaging in and benefiting from racism, let alone curing racism-- even when presented with evidence and tools to interrupt the privileges and damages.
Civilly and relentlessly examining interactions, policies, practices and communication that exacerbate and feed racist outcomes is only the beginning. Collectively, we can and will heal racism in public schools with a systemic commitment to lifelong "unlearning" of our socialization and public schooling that has had no time for self-diagnosis or the meaningful inclusion of the history and strengths of all cultures and races. The healing of educational racism will begin when politicians and educators actually engage in culturally proficient leadership, assure culturally responsive teaching for all students, and when immersing Black, Brown and White students students in inclusive and affirming learning experiences is the only way schooling is done in America.
The question from White politicians, educators and administrators will no longer be "How can you (Black educator, administrator and equity strategist) close the racial achievement gaps," but the core question will be,"What am I doing with my power as a White person to individually and collectively identify and eradicate the malignant disease of racism that creates racial equity gaps in education?"
While heralded as an antiracist by many African Americans, Einstein himself, struggled with deeply racist views of people of Asian descent as reported in his own diaries. However, like Einstein, educators cannot "be quiet about racism" and like Einstein, we all have unexamined racist beliefs and values that have yet to be addressed and transformed. The time is now for us to begin to heal ourselves individually and collectively so that we can cure a racist educational system that disproportionately wounds Black, Brown and Indigenous children daily.
How are you engaging in self-reflection, community-building and direct action to eradicate racism in public education? Let's chat! Contact me at

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