Racism is like water. When racism finds a way in, it seeps into every opening it can find. Does racism exist in your school? If you said no, then dig deeper because you’re probably missing something. If you answered yes, what are you doing to lead racism out of your school? Racism in schools is perhaps more prevalent than realized. As the leader of your school, are you brave enough to face racism head-on?
Educational Leadership’s article, Reducing the Effects of Racism in Schools (April 1999) the writer defines racism. The writer states, “Racism involves beliefs, attitudes, and symbols legitimized by those with cultural and/or political power and socialized in successive generations. Although the article is over 20 years old, the statement holds. Racism falls into four categories: internal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural.
Deeper Meaning of Racism
Let’s look deeper into the meaning of each category of racism. Internal racism is who we are and what do we believe. Interpersonal racism is how we interact or don’t interact. Institutional racism is the systematic distribution of resources, power, and opportunity in our society to the benefit of white people and the exclusion of people of color. Lastly, cultural racism is a concept that applies to prejudices and discrimination based on cultural differences between ethnic or racial groups.
Surely, you have seen one or more of these types of racism in schools and your lifetime. Perhaps you did not fully recognize it at the time. However, now that you have base definitions, you can reflect on racist moments that may have made you uncomfortable. In schools, racism exists in books, curriculum, school funding, the discipline of students, interactions among teachers and students, and the hiring of teachers.
Teacher Statistics by Race
Our nation’s teacher population is not very diverse. According to the National Center of Education Statistics in 2015-2016, 80% of teachers are White, 7% are Black, 8.8% are Hispanic, 2.3% are Asian, and 0.2 are Native American/Pacific Islanders. Seventy-six percent of teachers are female, and a little over 23% are male. Taking a look at the experience of teachers in the United States shows that 9.9% of teachers taught for less than three years. Twenty-eight percent have three to nine years of experience, and 39.3% have 10-20 teaching experience. Over 22% showed 20 years or more of experience.
As you can see, there is a range of experience. All of these educators come with their beliefs and attitudes about race in America. Some are more attuned than others, but racism will rear its ugly head in your school at some point.
You are the principal. How do you react when you recognize incidents or issues of racism in your school? How do you lead racism out of your school? Before you can lead racism out of the school, you must be self-reflective and aware of your beliefs and attitudes. Mica Pollock, editor of Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School says, “Educators must develop an everyday consciousness about race in schools. Be aware, ask questions, and keep inquiring.” As the school leader, you must be observant of what is going on in the classrooms, hallways, main office, etc. That means you have to get up and out of your office. Be aware of the human interactions happening between student-to-student, teacher-to-student, teacher-to-teacher, and teacher-to-parent. When you see something, do not brush it under the rug. You must be prepared to act and respond to racism.
Dark History of Racism
While a principal’s responsibilities are numerous, letting racism fester in your school and classroom causes social and emotional distress for the victims. Our nation has a dark history of racism, and in 1954 the Supreme Court ruled against segregated public schools and tied it to the 14th Amendment. The decision also spoke on the basis that segregation was psychologically damaging to Black children. Despite the ruling, it took years for many states to adhere to the court’s decision. Other federal courts mandated busing to desegregate schools in various states. Many White people did not want their children to attend school with Black children.
Over the years, schools remained desegregated, but in 2020, school districts are not very diverse. Segregation remains due to institutional racism such as redlining, banks not providing mortgage loans to Blacks, etc. Some Majority White school districts exist and also majority Black schools. Unfortunately, disparities in funding exist, which harm schools with a majority of Black students. The same is for schools where Hispanic students are the majority. I saw first-hand the disparity if funding and resources when I served as principal in a school with a 97% poverty rate and 98% of children of color. My staff and I had to fight or beg for additional monies and resources. It is not fair and has not been in a very long time.
Systems are not fair, so our responsibility is to even the playing field as much as possible. When racism seeps into your school, here are a few things you can do.
Be observant, present, and listen to what is going on. Include in your schedule classroom visits each morning and afternoon. Visit each classroom in your school for five to 10 minutes. Your morning and afternoon tours are non-evaluative. If you have a large school, divide the number of classes to visit with your assistant principal. Try not to disturb the lesson or activity. While in the classrooms walk around the room and listen to conversations among the students. Observe how the teacher interacts with the students and take mental notes. Students and teachers become accustomed to you visiting the classrooms. You become more conscious of what goes on in the classrooms. Do not forget to walk-through the lunchroom, recess areas, and during transitions times such as entrance and exit time or passing time between classes.
Equity in Discipline
Pay attention to how Black and students of color are disciplined. Blacks are more likely to be suspended for acts of misbehavior than Whites. Also, recognize if you are complicit in suspending or expelling Black students for minor infractions while giving a slap on the wrist to the White students for the same violations. Take a look at the data for suspensions among your students? What does it show? Review discipline referrals from teachers and see what students receive the most referrals. What teachers are sending the most referrals, and why? Look at trends so that you can later address the data with your staff members.
Do you dare go into the teachers’ lounge and listen to the conversations about particular students or parents? What are staff members saying about children and parents of color? What are you saying about them? Are you complicit, too?
2. Intervene if you observe acts of racism by children or adults. Teachers, parents, visitors, and other staff members are considered adults in the school community. Sometimes the grown-ups are the worst offenders of racist acts. Remember that no child in a school should experience no harm physically, psychologically, emotionally, or socially. The intervention does not have to be public shaming, but a meeting should take place in your office or a private setting. Always document the reason and outcome of the meeting.
3. Give a clear message that racism is not tolerated by anyone. Make sure students, teachers, and parents the consequences of racist acts. Also, review your district’s policy about racism and discrimination to learn what are the legal ramifications of the consequences.
4. Assess the school climate before, during, and after an incident. Reflection about what led up to an event. Then reflect on what happened during the act or occurrence. After the intervention or consequences, what occurred afterward.
5. Always follow up with the victim(s) after the incident. Victims need to know you care about their well-being and safety. A school must be a safe zone for all students.
6. Don’t forget to address the bystanders who witnessed the incident and did not intervene. They must know it’s okay and safe to speak up or to confide to you what occurred.
7. Investigate all angles, witnesses, victims, and the person who committed the act of racism. Everyone is entitled to due process. Document your findings and follow up with all parties.
8. The principal must be an advocate for all students. You must ensure anti-racism is a priority and guiding force among all staff members, students, and parents.
Other things you can do to lead racism out of your schools are;
Form a committee of teachers to review textbooks and classroom libraries that perpetuate racism.
Review the curriculum, lessons, and projects for activities that may be racially offensive or sensitive.
Advocate for equitable school funding at school board meetings. Contact state politicians to address the effects of inadequate funding.
Provide professional development for teachers about teaching tolerance, bias, and micro-aggressions.
Recognize the racism your students and their families may experience and how the experiences may shape their relationships with you and their teachers.
When walking through your school, pay attention to posters, bulletin boards, student work, and photos to see if they represent the students’ ethnicities and cultures.
Principals, you have tough jobs. I know from personal and professional experience what racism looks and how it feels. Emotionally, a racist act can knock the wind out of a child’s sail. Please recognize that racism affects the Black and teachers of color, too. They should not have to carry the heavy burden of shielding the students from the harshness of racism. You have to shield the students, especially as the leader of the school. You have to face it head-on and lead racism out of your school. Let’s all do our part to root out racism in our schools.
Causes and Effects of Racism in Schools
Reducing the Effects of Racism in Schools
National Center of Education Statistics
Stop Punishing Black Children Just Because They Are Black
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