Category Archives: School climate and social justice

White fragility as resistance on university campuses


Francis Kendall, who writes about the need to examine white privilege, wrote a semi-autobiographical book about her own privilege which I use in my classes. Often it is eye opening for my students, who are majority white, to surface the ways in which they benefit from privilege. I use the book so that they can begin to understand their own identities, how they are impacted, and how power has been inequitably distributed as a result. They do indeed begin to understand their own privilege, but this sets them on a course of racial identity development which can lead to real road blocks.

I teach at a predominantly white institution, and there are very limited opportunities to address race and racism, until there is an incident of racism. Without these ongoing opportunities to talk about race, race becomes something unusual to discuss– both exciting and taboo. This is not only true in my classes, among students, but with colleagues and administration as well.

Among students, as I said, they are usually animated by the discussion of race, but often express in evaluations that their professor brings a liberal politics that make them uncomfortable.  Among colleagues, a conversation about race is challenging as well. When  our new vice president of diversity addressed our education faculty, she talked about the importance of creating a more tolerant campus, but what people remembered was an off-handed remark she made about her unhappiness with the Trump administration’s influence on the climate on schools and college campuses. Faculty members balked at her being too political.

Another example comes from my own experience of planning a conference on equity and education. The conference will focus on race and the need to address it at all levels of education in order for us to more effectively and equitably educate young people. The focus on race was met with surprise and anxiety from administrators. I was asked numerous times if I was sure this was a good idea to focus so narrowly, if I was sure we should use the terms Black and Brown youth, and if I was sure that the focus would make enough people feel included in the discussion.  One white faculty member was suspicious of the single focus on race, and wondered if it was “promoting an agenda” and was “exclusionary.”  I argued that this was an opportunity to engage directly with race and racism, which has been a major problem since we have not fully grappled with it as faculty or as a society. This was met by silence. The message was clear, there was real resistance to focusing on race and racism.

This year, I had a white colleague call me, at home, out of the blue. Someone with whom I had never really spoken. She told me that she felt that the climate for faculty of color, and anti-racist faculty was inhospitable and they were feeling vulnerable in a time of Trump. This and all of the examples I mention is worrying because we cannot expect our students to be comfortable talking about race if we are not.  It is these set of experiences that cumulatively have shown me how the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the reproduction of white domination continues, leaving campuses like mine inhospitable to the experiences of Black and Brown students as well as faculty.

If directly confronted, I am sure that white students, teachers, faculty and administrators I know would say that they are interested in dismantling racism on campus. They would reiterate their support for inclusivity and would celebrate diversity. But celebrations will not get us to where we need to be. If we cannot have open discussions about racism, then it is clear the university cannot create a welcoming space. Of course, there is always the possibility that things will improve. The university hired a new administrator to focus exclusively on diversity. She immediately identified the problem of silence around race and racism on campus among faculty. I don’t know how successful she will be, but the alternative is that the campus cannot engage fully in the work of changing its culture.

Still, I cannot shake the worry that white people cannot handle the conversation about race, their fragility and discomfort is problematic at best. I do not have the answer for how to proceed, other than to keep on talking about race and confronting racism when I encounter it.




What do schools do post presidential election?

By now the election of 2016 is over. Donald Trump is the president elect of the United States. Leading up to the election, the country was engaged– or at least glued to social media– as this election was like no other. There were personal attacks, accusations of law-breaking, tampering to gain the advantage, and grandiose promises. Comedians took this and ran. Saturday Night Live may have had its most-watched series of episodes as it lampooned the debates between the candidates.  As adults were consumed with every move that Trump and Clinton made this fall, young people were as well. In response, schools across the country held discussions, civics lessons, and mock elections. It was a great time to be a teacher of English and social studies as it was an incredible opportunity to teach debate, rhetoric, government, and the electoral process.

However, this election was also filled with discrimination and hate. There was talk of inner cities as “hell,” banning Muslims from entering the country, and objectifying and belittling of women. The election also elevated talk of law and order in response to police brutality and immigrants as dangerous.  For the most part, Trump grabbed the headlines for making these insulting remarks about race, class, and gender, and young people were listening . For schools, it was an opportunity for all teachers to discuss systemic oppression as well as tolerance  with their students in the classroom.


As a teacher educator and partner to public schools, I saw teachers engage in dialogue  about civics and debate as well we tolerance and hate.  There were resources flying around the internet and discussions about how to teach the election. Some teachers shared their own feelings with students to open up the classroom dialogue, to make discussions less abstract, and more personal about the country’s current state and its future. As the election ended, however, things become more tense. In my blue state of Maryland, many teachers were very surprised that Trump would be elected. Many students were too, and came to school on November 9, 2016 with tears, questions, and fear as well. Teachers were tasked with helping students as young as 5 with discussing the election. In my own children’s schools, there were amazing discussions about feeling about the election, how the electoral college works, how Trump won, and implications of his presidency. With so many students and teachers who felt the same way about the election, the classrooms were by and large peaceful, safe spaces for children and teachers to share their perspectives. There were many schools that fell into this category.

In other schools I visited, however, there were different things going on. In a number of schools I was in, Latino students reported students– of all other races– saying things like, “bye, bye” and “guess I won’t be seeing you anymore.” There were reports of this around the country. From California to Michigan to my own context in Baltimore, there were reports of this kind of hatred, from micro-agressions to hate speech and attacks. There were also reports of similar incidents regarding Muslim students. On the other side, there were also calls for tolerance and unity. Teachers largely took that stand in the schools I visited, letting students know that they were safe in the school and that as a school community they should all try to get along.

Of course tolerance and unity is a positive message to send to young people, but with the teachers I spoke with, it was often a defensive posture rather than a rallying cry. It was a way to avoid talking about conflict and racism. I spoke to teachers who were not sure of what to say when students in their class made racist remarks. They were not sure how to keep their Latino or Muslim or other targeted students safe. Rather than engage, one teacher told me that she spent 10 minutes letting students discuss the election and then it was onto math! There is a long history of teachers avoiding conflict. Diane Hess, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has written:

“Even when teachers believe a topic is a controversial issue, they do not necessarily include it in their curricula. When talking with a group of high school teachers about what Supreme Court cases they think deserve attention in high schools, I encountered an example of avoidance: virtually all of them said they did not teach Roe v. Wade (1973) though they acknowledged it was a landmark case and that abortion rights were still an important controversial issue in the United States. Their reasons for avoiding this controversy fell into two categories. First, some teachers were afraid that the very mention of abortion in the classroom would cause uproar in the community. More prevalent, however, was the influence of the teachers’ own views.Thus, these teachers avoided including issues in the curriculum not because they thought it was an insignificant issue, but for precisely the opposite reason: Their strong views about the issue prevented them from teaching their students about it in the pedagogically neutral fashion they assumed was possible,”(Hess, 2004).

This is interesting. For teachers avoiding the topic of racism in their classroom, it may be because of uproar, conflict, or upset parents calling the school. It also could be because they are worried that their own views may be racist or considered racist. If that is true, then we need to be really concerned as people who teach teachers and for those who supervise them once they are in the classroom. What can we do to help teachers feel comfortable with controversy in the classroom? What can we do so that they can really be allies to students who are targets of aggression and prejudice? How can they make their classroom spaces that are free for students to feel like they can express themselves without worry? There is much to say about these questions, including research and great work being done to show teachers how they might lead discussions about difficult topics. But all of it starts with a willingness to do it. Teachers, and all of us, need not to avoid conflict and always keep the peace. We actually need to actually dig into conflict and controversy and be willing to be wrong, to make mistakes, and to be uncomfortable. That will help students develop civic capacities that would assist them, as adults, in engaging in healthy political debate, which is what we need now more than ever.


Breaking down the school-to-prison pipeline

flyernov9       On November 9, 2015, Towson University hosted a conversation about the school-to-prison pipeline. The panel featured A. Adar Ayria of Associated Black Charities, Jamal Jones, Baltimore Algebra Project, teachers from Matthew Henson Elementary, and Dr. Reginald Thomas, a pastor from Gesthemane Baptist Church, and Pat Welch, the dean of Morgan State University’s college of education. While I moderated the panel and introduced the idea of the school-to-prison pipeline comes from,  each panelist shared a perspective on how we have gotten to where we are with regard to this pipeline. MinorInfractions_5310ca4cab5cf_w1500

Institutional and structural racism was indicted as the culprit behind this process. This was not an academic conversation in which processes were named and research provided. Rather, the institutions, including Towson, were implicated in how it is that we need to be doing better to inform how we educate our future teachers to be aware of their role in contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Using harsh punishments, low expectations, and limiting the access and opportunity for young people of color to rigorous academics, teachers can derail the educational futures of youth. After raising awareness, faculty need to prepare future teachers better to deal with the students they serve culturally, social-emotionally, and academically. This is a paradigm shift for the university and for the schools themselves. The event was meant to kickstart a longer conversation in how teachers can serve the needs of students of color in a more supportive way so that we move away from the pipeline to prison toward a pipeline for further education and agency for young people of color. We take it up again in 2016.

What is the alternative to police in schools?

South carolina officerThe story of a white school police officer attacking a black student in South Carolina horrified and shocked  people when it went public. Some had no idea that there were police in schools, while others thought that this use of force was extreme. The incident involved a high school student using a cell phone in class. When she was asked to put it away, she didn’t, and the teacher asked her to leave the room, a command that the student also  refused. A school safety officer was called in and he attacked the girl when she would not get out of her chair. Since we have a video of the incident, we can see the physical attack on the student. It is a jaw-dropping assault on a black teen. There is no excuse for using this level of force on a young person who did not want to put away a cell phone.

However, despite the use of physical force, the situation actually shows weakness on the part of the teacher and the school. The teacher saw the student not obeying her rules as a signal of disrespect, and her response was to demonstrate the power of the school’s authority, and to put the student her place. This response, resorting to calling in school safety orders when students refuse to comply, demonstrates that the teacher had no relationship with the students in the classroom in the first place. Teachers resort to this behavior when they perceive they have no other alternative. By calling in the school police, the teacher admits that she has no connection with the student, that she is not interested in connecting with the student, and has no tools for connecting with students. Thus, in the end, the student will end with even less respect for the teacher than before the incident began.

What complicates this case is that it is a white police officer exerting power and authority over a young  black person. Not only is this an echo of what happens outside the school building between police and youth of color, but it is an example of the disproportionately severe discipline that black students endure in schools every day, putting them often on the school-to-prison pipeline.

The school safety officer has been fired, but that will not address the problem. The presence of school safety officers, calling them in to address “infractions” by students, and then the use of extreme force is the problem.  Schools need to reconsider how they work with students, and what their goal is with them. If the goal is to get students to understand their place in society and teach them obedience and deference to power, then the South Carolina school was doing exactly right. But, if the goal of the school is to educate the students and to prepare them for their adult lives, then students need to trust the teachers and teachers need to have relationship-building at the center of their work. If they have that as a central practice, then they will be dealing with these incidents in radically different ways. The teacher would have known and understood why the student wanted her phone out in class. They may have had some class agreements that they could refer to in a discussion. Also, the class could even engage in a restorative circle where the class discusses the incident and resolves the conflict as a class community.

Restorative practices are not new, but are an important component to how schools need to reimagine their work to improve the climate in them. The National School Climate Center suggests that schools attend to the social and emotional needs of students, and teach them the ethical and civic components of learning. They have a whole set of recommended practices and toolkits for school staffs.

Getting schools to use these practices involves a paradigm shift. A shift away from authoritarian practices in which hierarchies are adhered to and strict rules make the tiniest infraction a major event toward practices where there is structure but also care, healing, and restoration. The Dignity in Schools Campaign has worked diligently to campaign for this kind of paradigm shift and has had successes across the country, showing that there is an interest but the campaign continues because there is still resistance to making schools places that value all young people.