In the past few weeks, I have felt like I lived in an alternate universe. As a longtime advocate for equity in schools, and an unapologetic Black educator who openly (in person and online) speaks out against racism, I have not always been everyone’s “cup of tea.” In the classroom, I was often reprimanded by colleagues and administrators for my so-called “argumentative” disposition when I questioned inequitable and racist practices in my schools. In my personal relationships, some of my White friends (and sometimes Black) warned me that my stance drives people away, reminding me how I could “catch more flies with honey.” All of that has changed, literally overnight
As of the last few weeks, I have had more open, honest, and productive conversations with White women, men, and educators of all backgrounds on race and equity than ever before. As a whole, those of us formally silenced or scared are now speaking out. It’s refreshing! There is no doubt in my mind, that the current racial uprisings in response to the extrajudicial killings and lynching of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have gotten the attention of many who were unaware of (or ignored) these issues before.
However, the police brutality against People of Color (particularly Black folks) is not a new issue, it’s centuries old. Why now are so many people just as enraged about these issues than before? Could it be the uncertainty in our lives as a result of COVID-19, or is it just the cosmic alignment of a true awakening of the masses? No matter what sparked these wide-spread chants of “Black Lives Matter,” they are welcome nonetheless. As an educator, I am even more excited to see this awakening happening among fellow teachers. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this before, and it can backfire on us if we aren’t careful in our approach.
Addressing racial inequity in our schools has been a longtime reform effort in many educational circles. Research on best-practices such as Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT), Equity Pedagogy, Social Justice Education, and Multicultural Education are foundational in improving marginalized student outcomes and providing equitable learning experiences for currently underachieving diverse student groups (Banks, 2019; Gay, 2010; Gorski, 2016). I’ve been witness to the attempts to implement these practices in some way or another in schools, however, I want the following story to serve as a cautionary tale, not a discouragement in your pursuit of this work. Make no mistake, this work must be done.
During my time at a Title I school, my well-meaning administrators attempted to use some form of culturally responsive teaching to address the needs of our lowest-achieving students: Black males. It began with a review of state assessment results, followed by an introduction to the book study we would be conducting. My administrators choose the book Motivating Black Males to Achieve: In School and in Life by Baruti K. Kafele (2009). A fabulous book. During this book study, each grade level presented part of a chapter they were assigned. Many teachers were upset about this assignment because they thought they were being forced to give “special attention” to a particular group of students, and they didn’t think it was fair. “What about all the other students?” they professed.
After the book presentations were done, the rest of the year consisted of providing so-called “motivational” examples of effective teaching of Students of Color in the form of movies. The first movie we were made to watch during a two-part staff meeting was The Ron Clark Story (2006). The second movie we were made to watch was The Blind Side (2009).
By watching these two films, instead of being given culturally relevant tools to teach our African American students better, White teachers were only reinforced with the dominant view of being a “savior” to the poor Black soul. Hollywood’s version of The Ron Clark Story and The Blindside epitomizes the idea of the ‘White savior complex’. Sadly, this mindset is rampant among many teachers and leads them to think they need to “fix” Black students. Black students don’t need to be fixed. They are not broken, deficient, or lacking. They only need to be accepted, valued, understood, and have the systemic and institutional barriers they face in society and our schools removed.
“Black students don’t need to be fixed. They are not broken, deficient, or lacking. They only need to be accepted, valued, understood, and have the systemic and institutional barriers they face in society and our schools removed.”
These uninformed attempts at bringing cultural awareness and racial equity to the fore for our teachers was not only misguided, and misinformed, but extremely offensive efforts at best. By the end of the year, no one was any more “aware” of the issues plaguing their African American students. Instead, many were “outed” as to the degree of their lack of awareness by their dissonance and otherwise disdain for the focus on African Americans at all. As for me, I was left disappointed and irritated at the lack of authentic engagement in discussing one of our nation’s most prolific educational dilemmas. In the end, no other attempts (while I was teaching there) were made to address this issue.
What was ultimately missing from these misguided attempts was the practice of self-reflection. In the context of becoming a culturally responsive and therefore anti-racist teacher, this process involves a deeper look into our beliefs about teaching, our students and their families, and increasing our knowledge about the diverse cultures, perspectives, and issues affecting our students. It should also include understanding how that knowledge can be translated into what to teach and how we teach it (Gay & Kirkland, 2003). This was not done. As a result, teachers were allowed to continue to hold onto their deficit-oriented assumptions about the reasons behind academic struggles, to blame students and families, and to continue to devalue (and fear) the communities and cultures of their African American students. They were never challenged with a discussion of how the inequities in our school played a significant role in student outcomes. We missed the mark.
Ending the longstanding tradition of racist and discriminatory practices in schools which heavily contribute to the racial achievement gap and racial disparities in discipline rates should not be implemented lightly or introduced as a quick-fix strategy. Transformative teaching such as CRT is a journey and should be experienced as such. One day workshops, movies, Facebook groups, and motivational speeches cannot transform educators into culturally responsive nor anti-racist teachers. Don’t get me wrong, forming a book study group is a great start, (I recommend this one to start) but don’t let the work end there. Equity advocates like myself can help guide teachers and schools through the hard work of self-reflection, examining inequities in schools, and provide you the tools to eradicate those inequalities. Together, we can truly transform our schools into institutions who not only make statements about our commitments to racial equity, but are also capable of showing that commitment by embracing, empowering, educating, and authentically including every student, every day.
Banks, J. A. (2019). An introduction to multicultural education. (6th edition). New York, NY: Pearson.
Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research
Gay, G. & Kirkland, K. (2003). Developing cultural critical consciousness and self-reflection in pre-
Gorski, P. (2016). Rethinking the role of “culture” in educational equity: From cultural competence to equity literacy. Multicultural Perspectives, 18(4), 221-226.
Kalefe, B.K. (2009). Motivating black males to achieve: In school and in life. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.