There is No Neutral Ground
To say our national language has become polarized is an understatement. Even topics that seem innocuous are somehow linked to the voracious political arguments that have been so divisive in recent memory. Everywhere, voices decry side picking — on January 20, President Joseph Biden called for unity in his inaugural speech and National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman used her time at the inauguration microphone to deepen that call in bold, awe-inspiring words:
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
we close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must put our differences aside
we lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another
Though it is not time to pick sides against one another, it is past time to pick the side against racism. Racism is so deeply rooted in America’s beginnings, America’s history, and America’s contemporary structures that it is impossible to avoid, and it needs to be further exposed because it is sometimes difficult to see, given the depth of its roots. This is especially true in our schools, where racism deeply impacts those who are least able to defend themselves. School policies and practices, long considered as the way we “do” school, often support racial oppression across multiple spheres — voice, access and opportunity, culture and history, body and health and more. Sometimes it may feel impossible to surface all the ways that this separation occurs, but we must intentionally act against racism, all the time, in every move we make to support our scholars and educators.
It is time to question and evaluate oppression based on race constantly; to deconstruct the personal and structural behaviors, systems, and policies that support oppression based on race; and to build equitable replacements that create a more racially just world. This is the definition of anti-racism that we use at CT3.
For readers who may be thinking, “I am not racist; this isn’t about me.” Wrong. It’s about all of us. I am moved by Ibram Kendi’s words here:
“But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies as an antiracist…the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it.”
In other words, there is no neutral ground. We may think that walking away when the teachers’ lounge conversation turns to people’s discomfort about the African-American 4th graders’ lower achievement scores is being neutral, or “staying out of it.” Yet, walking away misses an opportunity to ask questions about which systems, policies, or practices drive towards the lower achievement scores. Questions like…
- What are we doing to broadcast African-American students’ lower achievement scores as unacceptable, and a systemic and adaptive challenge everyone in the school must focus on solving?
- How are African-American students engaged to see themselves in the content being taught?
- How are we supporting them to integrate their own experience into what is laid out in the texts they read?
- How are we intentionally and actively disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline for Black boys? Or the criminalization of Black girls (who are suspended at six times the rate of White girls?)
- Where are the opportunities to determine the specific gaps that are contributing to their lower performance, make an intentional plan to close them, and then execute that plan?
- How is everyone involved in that plan, and how do we pay close attention to the success of their efforts and adjust as required?
No special talent or ability is required to ask these questions, and we all can take on the responsibility of asking questions immediately and in the moment. Failing to do so makes us complicit in continuing to uphold racist structures, regardless of our identity. We must turn all our attention to the urgent work of acting to oppose and dismantle racism — in all its forms and wherever it raises its ugly head. And to do so, we need to reject the idea of “staying out of it,” of “walking away,” of remaining on neutral ground. There is no neutral ground.
This idea of neutrality has been rejected across time, thinkers and segments of society. Recent examples continue this trend of rejection — on February 23, 2021, the Virginia Senate passed a measure declaring racism a public-health crisis in the state, the first southern state to do so. The bill’s sponsor, Delegate Aird, released a statement saying that the resolution “provides a framework for all of us to formally and finally reckon with those injustices so we can build a more equitable and just society for all.”
Reckoning with these injustices means offering our scholars a sense of safety in an unsafe world. Here, safety has to be more than physical — emotional, intellectual, and cultural safety. These, joined with safety of identity, safety of communication, and more, align to how we have to help our scholars be their whole selves and become more whole ourselves in the process. When our schools create that level of safety for our scholars, we set the foundation to catapult their achievement to the highest levels.
Any neutrality towards racism undermines student safety and student achievement. A clear and measurable rejection of racism says to all members of our school communities and our larger national community that we give more than lip service to the ideals on which this country was founded. There is no neutral ground. You are either actively anti-racist or you are contributing to the proliferation of racism — actively, or silently — by remaining neutral.
We must build equitable replacements that create a more racially just world. Anything else would cause untold damage to us, to our communities, to our children. At CT3, we are working towards Amanda Gorman’s call, “so we can reach out our arms to one another.”
Will you join us in rejecting silence and neutrality about racism, in service of a more perfect union to save the lives of our children?
By Nataki Gregory, CT3 CEO
CT3 transforms the quality and culture of education for youth, especially those in traditionally disenfranchised communities.