Feature Pages 41-43
The challenges of effectively educating children of color when fear and unconscious biases prevail in school communities
BY CAPRICE D. HOLLINS
I’m at the checkout stand of the school district cafeteria where I run into a woman I don’t know well. Our exchanges typically are brief, but that day she had more to say than just a passing hello. “I’m so sorry they are letting you go.”
It takes a moment to register what she is saying. Confused, I reply, “What? Who? What are you talking about?”
She quickly realizes I hadn’t heard the news. She shifts uncomfortably, unsure whether to say more. “Uh, I just came from a meeting and found out the Department of Equity and Race Relations is being eliminated.”
I confidently assure her she is mistaken. “No, I’m still here. They didn’t let me go. You must have gotten some bad information, or maybe you’ve confused my department with another one.”
Caprice Hollins runs a consulting group that addresses race relations in professional environments.
As we say our goodbyes, she gives me that “poor you” look. I head off to my table of friends, anxious to share this odd encounter and the rumors that clearly are circulating. “You guys are not going to believe what I just heard.”
I don’t get a chance to finish. I didn’t need to. The looks on their faces tell me something is definitely wrong. I no longer am hungry.
Three hours later I’m sitting in the office of the superintendent with the chief academic officer by her side, listening to two black women tell me, “Race and equity is everyone’s job.” My thoughts are racing, and my heart is pounding. I’m trying not to lose my cool. Of course it’s everyone’s job! I know it’s everyone’s job! But how is “everyone” going to know it’s their job and what that job is without a Department of Equity and Race Relations leading them?
That scenario took place in a large urban district more than six years ago, a fair amount of time to reflect and heal. I no longer blame them nor am I angry. In fact, the experience has deepened my appreciation of the many challenges school leaders face.
Conversations about race and actions that lead to dismantling institutional racism always breed considerable fear in the hearts and minds of people across this nation. Two experiences from my school district days capture this state.
As a district, we sent students and teachers to a renowned national conference on white privilege. Shortly before, we distributed a districtwide letter reminding staff that not everyone celebrates Thanksgiving and that for some cultures it’s even considered a day of mourning. In no time at all, these two actions led to a bombardment of news media attention and stacks of hate mail from the local community and beyond.
I began thinking more deeply about what it must have been like for Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Angela Davis and countless others who fought for social change. I could only imagine the fears they had to face.
While school leaders can openly talk about the achievement gap in terms of race, my experiences have taught me that raising a claim of racism is an enormous risk that easily can put a school district into a state of frenzy like a hurricane tearing through a town with little warning. Almost overnight you find yourself confronted with the fears, doubts and anger of the white community that has the power, privilege and resources to make its voices heard loudest.
Whites become afraid that meeting the needs of students of color means their children will lose their advantage in a country that ranks 17th in education in one international comparison. Immediately, leadership abilities come into question. “What about our children?” “We can’t afford to have standards lowered!” and similar outcries are voiced during school board meetings. No Child Left Behind is momentarily forgotten until school system leaders smooth things over and the whole notion of “educating all children” goes back to being just that — a notion.
I don’t blame fear alone for this phenomenon that ultimately led to the dismantling of a vital department in a large metropolitan school district. I believe the decision also had to do with leadership’s lack of understanding of institutional racism. While some may be surprised that two black women would dismantle a department put in place to serve the very children who look like them, it’s important to recognize that skin color does not automatically equate to expertise. Just because someone is identified as a person of color doesn’t mean the person understands the intricacies of racism. Most people of color readily can name personal experiences of racism, but being able to identify it institutionally and then effectively work to dismantle it comes about through education.
Conversely, whites frequently encounter being viewed as incapable of having any understanding of racism due to the color of their skin when, in truth, many have developed knowledge and expertise.
Contrary to these stereotypes, I have met both leaders of color who unknowingly perpetuate racism and white leaders who effectively advocate for social justice even though they will never personally experience racism. Whites have an advantage in that they often are praised for being innovative, courageous and committed to social justice for “all” children when addressing race issues. Alternatively, leaders of color run the risk of being seen as “only” interested in the education of students of color.
I often quote Jamie Washington, a faculty member of Social Justice Training Institute in Baltimore, Md., who said: “Just because I am doesn’t mean I do understand and just because I’m not doesn’t mean I don’t.” Institutional racism is so deeply rooted in our societal subconscious and such an acceptable and “normal” part of our everyday culture that it can easily go undetected, regardless of skin color.
Uprooting systems of advantage requires we work toward cultural competence. This means we have to recognize the bias and stereotypes we each have unconsciously internalized. We must understand the diverse cultures around us. Unfortunately, awareness and knowledge are not enough. To build a better education system that truly meets the needs of all children, we must practice engagement across cultures in ways that honor rather than demoralize people of color.
Courage at the Helm
Finally, we can become agents of change and uncover policies and practice that create achievement gaps based on opportunity. To do this, we must participate in culturally relevant professional development, research, reading, critical reflection and engagement in courageous conversations on an ongoing basis.
The challenges we face in effectively educating children of color when fear and unconscious incompetence are at the helm are not a surprise to any of us. In our work with school districts, my business partner and I identified 10 qualities of culturally competent leaders that begin to eliminate disparities in achievement. Five follow:
Culturally competent leaders are learners. They don’t profess to know everything that needs to be done for students of color, so they participate in ongoing culturally relevant professional development. School boards, superintendents and senior leadership participate together. This approach provides a common framework and language to discuss gap-closing strategies, making the work everyone’s responsibility.
Culturally competent leaders are courageous. They are not driven by the fear of making mistakes or of upsetting white communities but are bold and innovative in their thinking, making tough choices that bring about equity for students who have historically been marginalized. Some districts are moving forward through culturally responsive training of teachers and staff with an approach developed by Glenn Singleton of the Pacific Educational Group.
Culturally competent leaders are inclusive and transparent. They frequently communicate with the rest of the organization and the community about what they are doing, why they are doing it and how it relates to their mission and vision. Culturally competent school leaders openly discuss equity and race with their communities and invite students, parents and community members to participate on committees aimed at closing the achievement gap.
Culturally competent leaders are sensitive to history and the impact of institutional racism. They accept responsibility for the past and understand the attitudes, beliefs and feelings of community, staff and families exist for a reason. When they step into their leadership role, they don’t dismiss the past but listen with understanding, taking ownership for what has been. Departments like the one I led are popping up in districts across the country, an acknowledgment that racism is an issue that needs to be addressed.
Culturally competent leaders are strategic. They figure out best practices for undoing institutional racism, allocate resources and understand the urgency while at the same time recognize cultural competence can’t be rushed or accomplished through haphazard approaches. We are working with school leaders who are taking a second look at their strategic plans to infuse them with a culturally relevant approach. This allows them to stay on course and monitor progress rather than respond impulsively to every request or new idea.
Unfortunately, no cookbook approach or surefire way exists to avoid the controversy that is certain to arise when school leaders take on institutional racism. However, if more leaders prepared for the resistance they will likely encounter, increased their awareness and knowledge, and found the courage needed to take action, we can be successful as a nation in eliminating opportunity gaps.
But if we let our fears override the needs of our children, we will never see real change. All of us can become culturally responsive leaders.
Caprice Hollins is co-owner of Cultures Connecting in Renton, Wash. E-mail: Caprice.Hollins@CulturesConnecting.com