Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Racist Schools Without Racists? Research Says No.

Recently I was at a workshop with many adults who work in schools. Several high school kids who went to school in the district were also participating as assistant facilitators. 

We completed a "continuum" activity. You've probably done one of these before. One side of the room is labeled strongly disagree and the other is labeled strongly agree. The facilitator posts statements, and you move to the side of the room (or the middle) depending upon whether you agree or disagree with the statement.

One of the statements was: "Our school system is racist, classist, sexist, heterosexist and xenophobic." 

I moved over to the strongly agree side, along with one other adult (not coincidentally, she worked with kids who've been removed from traditional school settings due to behavior.) Almost all the kids moved to strongly agree as well.

This left most of the adults on the disagree side.

One of the students said to the group: "We're the kids. We're the ones living it and that's how we see it."

However, the adults didn't see themselves as racist, classist, sexist... and so they didn't see the system they were part of as being those things.

Research tells us that the kids are right. Most folks in education know that Black boys are 3 times more likely to be suspended than White boys, but fewer know that the disparity is even greater for Black girls -- they are SIX times more likely to be suspended.

Even well-meaning adults often believe that these facts are due to something in the children -- that because they are poor, or hungry, or living with trauma they act out more, hence they are suspended more often. These people don't believe the situation is right, but they also don't see themselves in the equation (or if they do, they see themselves as benign helpers.)

New research, however, shows us that it's not the kids. It's how we see the kids. (The research is new, but I think it will result in a big DUH from a lot of people).  The study published in Psychological Science, showed that teachers rated hypothetical students' behavior as more troubling if the imaginary kid had a typically Black name versus a typically White name.  The behaviors were exactly the same.

This echoes similar research related to grading, professional experiences, etc. And we can see links to today's current climate of police brutality toward Black men; it suggests that unconscious bias causes us to view behavior by Black people as more serious and dangerous than that of White people, despite evidence to the contrary.

Again, this is a big DUH to a lot of people, including those kids I met at the workshop who are living with that bias every day. 

There are no easy answers, but I think that we owe it to these kids to start admitting that the system is biased and that we are contributing to it. Our current cultural norms make it taboo to admit that we have biases of any kind. Calling out others' biases is similarly taboo. I've been lucky to work in a place where we are able to talk openly about race, racism, classism ... anything you can put an -ism on. 

It can feel hurtful and shameful when we admit that we aren't the people we think we are. The kids have already seen behind the curtain, though. And they are ready for us to come out.

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