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An Educational Leadership Field Guide for Addressing and Unpacking Antiracist Inhibiting Mindsets

In response to the Black Lives Matter protests following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, a principal I support engaged in conversations with members of her staff to express support and solidarity with Black colleagues, and to invite feedback on moving forward as educators during a massive civil rights movement. While some conversations were productive, others posed a challenge. This principal was at a loss as to how to effectively address those responses by some of her white educators that highlighted their unrealized privilege:

“I’m not a racist.”
“I don’t see color, just kids.”
“I’m afraid discussion will only drive a wedge between us.”

These statements will be familiar to anyone who regularly engages in conversations around race with educators. They may be said with good intentions but they are misguided and counterproductive. They must be addressed. But how?

This field guide is intended to help school leaders better understand, address, and move with fellow educators beyond these commonly shared mindsets that inhibit engagement in the critical work of antiracism. Because 80 percentage of K-12 educators and principals are white, it’s imperative that we recognize our privilege in order to better serve colleagues and students of color, regardless of where we are in our own antiracist education.

Following a brief introduction of each mindset, you will find a list of critical understandings along with an exercise or resource designed to raise awareness, guide reflection and discussion, deepen understanding, and incite action.

 


“I’m Not Racist”

This is something we’ve all said, and we mean it. But as any English teacher will tell you, “not racist” is passive voice. You must be actively antiracist, which requires consistent, intentional, and enthusiastic engagement with antiracist work. Saying, “I’m not racist,” not only demonstrates a complete lack of awareness of your privilege, but it also indicates that you’re opting out of the personal reflection and action required to be antiracist.

Not being racist doesn’t help anybody; being antiracist means you’re dismantling racist structures and actively working towards personal and community improvement.

Critical Understandings

1. The fight against racism can’t happen without you. Extraordinary and groundbreaking civil rights leaders have dedicated their lives to paving the way for racial equity, but sustainable reform will only be achieved with individual and collective cooperation by white people to consistently and intentionally use their privilege in their familial, social, and political spheres to demand change.

2. Whether or not you see yourself as responsible for racism, you are a beneficiary of white privilege. Your whiteness has and continues to come with social, political and economic benefits and advantages denied to people of color. Many of us likely hold certain marginalized identities, including, but not limited to, our sexuality, physical and/or mental abilities, religion, and income. Recognizing your white privilege doesn’t diminish the struggles you may face as a result of these identities – it means recognizing that your race is not a factor in your marginalization.

3. It is simply not enough to be not racist. Your silence is a form of compliance. Silence is what has allowed the structures of racism to continue to grow and mutate unchecked over centuries. As a beneficiary of racial privilege, you have a responsibility to unearth, call out, and work to dismantle racism, prejudices, and discrimination. This is the work of being antiracist.

Quote

“Racism is a white problem. It was constructed and created by white people and the ultimate responsibility lies with white people. For too long we’ve looked at it as if it were someone else’s problem, as if it was created in a vacuum.”

– Robin DiAngelo, Author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

Exercise

Participant Directions

  1. View video (3 Minutes)
  2. Silently and independently respond in writing to the prompts (10 Minutes)
  3. Discuss responses with a partner or in triad (15 Minutes)
  4. Engage in whole group share responding to each question – 2-3 volunteers per question (20 Minutes)

 

VideoPainful white silence – from the perspective of a Black mother

Video Description: In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and with Black Lives Matter protests sweeping the country, Black mother Catherine Ayeni explains why it is so painful when white people fail to acknowledge pain in the Black community.

Prompts for Discussion

  • What words or sentiments were new to you?
  • What does “silence is compliance” mean to you?
  • When speaking on people of privilege, Catherine says “the least you can do is acknowledge the pain.” Why does that matter? And if you are white, what does it look like for you?
  • What impact does Catherine’s message have on your plan for talking to your students about racial inequality and injustice?

 


“I Don’t See Color, Just Kids” [Color-Blindness]

If you don’t see color, you may want to have your eyes checked. While this attitude is usually well-meaning, societies across the globe are built on white supremacy, which means that the global majority don’t have the choice to opt out of seeing color. Regardless of intent, saying, “I don’t see color” establishes whiteness as the standard and all other racial identities as the “other.” It’s vital that we do see and acknowledge color in order to adequately engage with and meet the needs of students and parents impacted by racism.

Critical Understandings

  1. Taking a colorblind stance to race serves as a refusal to acknowledge the struggles endured and discrimination faced by your students, as well as their families and community.
  2. If you fail to see color, you fail to see all of who your students are. Race plays a significant and often defining role in the way in which we see and navigate the world. By not seeing color, you are ignoring one of the most salient features that comprise the character and worldview of the children you serve.
  3. A failure to recognize color undermines your ability to leverage the wealth of cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and unique learning and performance styles of your students to make learning encounters more relevant and effective.

 

Quote

“Rather than being a virtue, I see color blindness as a form of cruelty. To say you don’t care about another person’s race is to say you don’t care about their racialized experience.”

– Michelle Alexander, Author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Exercise

Participant Directions

  1. View video (15 Minutes)
  2. Silently and independently respond in writing to the prompts (10 Minutes)
  3. Discuss responses with a partner or in triad (15 Minutes)
  4. Engage in whole group share responding to each question – 2-3 volunteers per question (20 Minutes)

 

Video: The Exceptional Negro: Fighting to be Seen in a Colorblind World

Video Description: Traci O’Neal Ellis, a Chicago-based attorney, exposes the mythologies of colorblindness, using her own experiences as evidence that colorblindness perpetuates, rather than prevents, racism.

Prompts for Discussion

  1. What does this quote from US legislator and civil rights leader Julian Bond mean for you: “To be blind to color is to be blind to the consequences of color…”?
  2. How would you explain to someone the importance of being “color conscious” rather than “color blind”?
  3. Where do you see the consequences of colorblindness in education?
  4. What’s one tangible way in which you can practice color consciousness when advocating for your students?

 


“I’m afraid discussion will only drive a wedge between us”

Think about a time when you’ve chosen to avoid thinking about race because it made you uncomfortable. Imagine never having that choice.

Although we all have different comfort levels when it comes to discussing race, our whiteness means that we’re often able to easily exempt ourselves from these conversations. The ability to disengage is unique to white people, and it’s a form of privilege. It’s time for us to catch up to conversations and movements that have been in session for centuries. This will feel uncomfortable, but discomfort is where the work lies. If you’re not feeling discomfort, you’re not challenging yourself.

Critical Understandings

  1. We are late to the party. If we, as white people, are able to identify racism in our circles, we can be sure that everyone else has already clocked it and is talking about it without us. It’s our turn to bear the discomfort of initiating and engaging in difficult conversations about race and racism.
  2. Our society is designed so that white disengagement is rewarded by positional authority and control. Choosing to engage means letting go of the upper hand and rejecting the comfort and safety of silence.
  3. Facing the discomfort of racial discourse head on is a necessary first step in the process of healing and transformation. You can’t build a muscle without exercising, stretching, and putting pressure on it. Doing this work right means sitting with a lot of pain, anger, denial, and fatigue – you may go through the stages of grieving your former ignorance, and the ease that came with it. All of these processes are valid, but they must not get in the way of progress. Acknowledge them, name them as distractions, and move forward down the path to positive evolution and meaningful change.

 

Quote

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

– James Baldwin

Resource

“We must be prepared to enter the conversation and be prepared to be changed by it.”

– Cornel West

Leading and navigating courageous conversations is not easy work. It takes not only tools, time and preparation, but humility, empathy, vulnerability, courage, and the willingness to not only challenge others but be open to challenge, growth and even transformation in oneself. To this end, Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools has drawn acclaim from educational thinkers and leaders and anti-racism authors and educators. This resource provides engaging exercises and concrete tools to interrogate race and unearth privilege for the purpose of obtaining equity across your school(s) while supporting you in the journey deepening your own racial consciousness.

By Richard Frank, Managing Associate, Partnership Manager, CT3 & Isaiah Frank, student at Northwestern University, studying Theatre and Playwriting

CT3 transforms the quality and culture of education for youth, especially those in traditionally disenfranchised communities.

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