“She Isn’t Here to Give White Kids a Better Education”
Last year I began the overwhelming process of trying to find a kindergarten for my son. This year, I have taken the task on again, trying to find a better fit for my family for first grade. As a college consultant, public school teacher who has worked in charter and private schools, and single parent who is raising a second-generation American male of color, there are A LOT of competing paradigms at work in this decision.
Recently a colleague asked me, “What kind of message does it send when a public school teacher has her kid go to a private school?” I responded, “I know exactly the message and the reality is that there are too many things to fix here to have my son be the guinea pig.” And one of those things is how we integrate academic rigor with cultural competency.
I believe schools and teachers make the mistake of trying to be all things to all students. One of my greatest gripes is when schools encounter students of color and instinctively try to teach them to be students of color. Committees are formed, books are adopted, new research is looked into but no one ever asks what it means to have nearly all White faculties do this job. Ethnicity and race are important enough for the school to be aware of them, but not important enough to have a person of color tell this story, or to mentor you, or to teach you, or to advise you. Schools look into recruitment of teachers, something they have very little control over, but not retention, something they have complete control over.
We seem to forget that people of color are minority groups so learning to integrate within White spaces started from the moment we left the womb. In other words, the lessons we employ for Black History Month or Latino Heritage Month, among others, aren’t for us. In some cases, they serve to make some teachers feel better about their attempts to address inequities, and in most cases, they serve to make us feel bad for a few moments until the next day when we go about our business as usual. Some people may be surprised by my feelings on that since over the years, I have written a lot of courses for schools, including Ethnic Studies classes and mainstream courses. When I write these classes, I don’t write them with students of color or girls in mind; I write them for a majority audience with the thought that one day they will be in a position of power and able to make decisions that impact the developing world, people of color, girls, and the poor, and I just need them, for a few seconds, to think about one of the outcomes of discrimination, patriarchy, and capitalism.
With all that said, I believe the greatest “favor” any school can do for students of color is to make sure they are academically prepared for college graduation. That includes creating confident and competent learners.
So you can see why it’s difficult to find the right school.
The other day I went to a parent reception for one of the schools we are applying to. Many of the parents of students of color were in attendance. I call the phenomenon, magnets: whenever we are in the same room, people of color find our way to each other. I found myself in a great conversation with a Black woman who is a law professor and has a few kids at the school.
“I know you have different concerns,” she began.
And she was correct. I laid out all of the issues I stated above and her responses so easily encompassed all that I was thinking:
“She [my daughter] isn’t here to give White kids a better education.”
She went on to explain the many ways she addressed the school and how they work with students of color.
“They talked about trainings. Whatever. I give those trainings.”
“Same,” I interjected, nodding.
“But it was about how they looked critically at what they were doing all the time. For example, Who are they calling on when hands are raised? I do it too. I want to get through my lesson so I call on the White, male hands first. Nothing is perfect. So the question is: What happens when you bring the issue to them?”
“I get it. It’s about how they react.”
“Right. And after I brought up that point, a short time later Claude Steele is doing a presentation at the school.” I raised my eyebrows. “Right. See? You know,” she responded.
I do. I thought about all of the responses I have received to those same types of inquiries. Cultural Day once per year. The one person of color on the faculty sitting in the Dean of Diversity position. The one teacher who read Frantz Fanon and truly cares about all students “no matter what”. Or just pointing to me being at the school.
“Some of these schools do a great job of teaching students to be culturally competent, but then they don’t go to college,” she continued. “We can do the cultural part.”
“We just need the school to give us the space to do it,” I finished.
So I think I landed on great schools that give me that space. Single parent who is raising a male of color comes with a lot of responsibilities but my worry lines are slightly thinner in this department.