Anti-Racist Work in Schools: Are You in it for the Long Haul?

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, educators and schools across the nation are planning anti-racist work. How will you ensure your school isn’t just going through the motions?
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Last year I received a consultation request from a school after two students posted pictures in blackface on social media. When I asked what time and resources they were committing to this issue, they said they had set aside 45 minutes of their upcoming staff meeting to address bias and racism. They were not interested in investing beyond that session. 

Being called in reactively to support teachers and staff after a racist incident has never sat well with me. But now, as Black Lives Matter protests have swelled throughout the world, our entire country is reacting to centuries of white supremacy and violence experienced by the Black community. 

As an anti-bias anti-racist (ABAR) facilitator and educator-in-progress, I’ve had the opportunity to partner with public, charter and independent schools across the United States and can tell you firsthand that there is no “one size fits all” approach to this work. There are, however, a number of things schools should consider as they create objectives for the short and long term. 

ABAR is trending in mainstream spaces, and more schools are recognizing its importance and reaching out for resources and training. I do believe that it’s better late than never, but schools must be intentional and thoughtful as they begin this life-long commitment. 

While there is urgency in ABAR work, urgency cannot be prioritized over relationships or centering the voices and opinions of marginalized community members. Without careful thought and planning, schools risk alienating Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) stakeholders, reinforcing white saviorism and derailing the possibility of future efforts. Standards and skills can always be retaught, but school culture is too important to get wrong. Your north star is always centering your most marginalized and under-resourced students. 

As schools and organizations plan for professional development in the weeks, months, and years ahead, consider the following thinking points and questions: 

If this is the first time your school has focused on ABAR, why is it a priority now

ABAR must begin with an honest evaluation of current practices. Recognizing how—and why—this work has been deprioritized in the past can help your school identify and plan for potential roadblocks in the work to come.

If your school has remained silent or limited work to surface-level diversity initiatives in the past, how, when and why did that happen? Remember that celebrating diversity and multiculturalism is not the same as anti-racism or dismantling white supremacy. Check out Paul Gorski’s Avoiding Racial Equity Detours for examples of school practices that are often mistaken for ABAR. 

How will you ensure ABAR is not just a box to check, and that no one is able to opt out? 

While diversity directors or committees are important, ABAR cannot be compartmentalized within one or a few individuals. Oppressive practices exist at every level of schools, and people who work in every department and in every role have a stake in this work. 

School leaders have immense power in creating a culture that values and supports ABAR. I have often heard from hesitant principals and administrators that they’re concerned certain staff members of the community are resistant and unwilling. I’d ask them to remember this phrase: “What you permit, you promote.” Every choice we make either upholds white supremacy or seeks to dismantle it.

To fully embrace ABAR education, schools must be willing to dive deep into their culture, policies, curriculum and the individual mindsets of all stakeholders. If you are truly dedicated to anti-racism, are you willing to let go of members of the community who are working against these goals?

How will BIPOC be centered in this work? 

Consider who is directing ABAR at your school, who decides the priorities and determines if objectives are met. This work must center the voices of staff, families, caregivers and students of the global majority. Even if you have a racially and ethnically diverse staff, ABAR work is still necessary and important. Anti-Blackness and colorism are issues in every community, and these biases must be addressed. 

Many schools are currently selecting books and resources for summer and fall professional development. But leaders should be careful. Particularly in predominantly white institutions, a focus on consuming and intellectualizing stories and histories of racial trauma can further perpetuate a savior mentality, inspiring pity rather than encouraging people to understand one another and work as accomplices and co-conspirators against racism. If books that center whiteness (such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility) are on the summer reading list, what else is being offered? There must be a balance of centering BIPOC history and narratives while also learning about culture, identity and joy. 

At the end of the day, no matter how many books, podcasts, and documentaries your staff reads, an intellectualized account of racism will never outweigh the voices and lived experiences of BIPOC.

How will BIPOC be supported in this work?

There is a fine line between centering BIPOC and expecting them to do the work for others. While BIPOC should have the opportunity to lead this work, schools cannot expect or demand they expend more emotional labor in both experiencing racism, and having to educate others about it. 

If you’re asking BIPOC on your faculty and staff to lead ABAR training, how are you ensuring they are additionally compensated? If books and resources are being assigned that center racial trauma, what trauma-informed practices will you use with staff members of color? 

How are you working to create long-lasting change in your community? 

Having a person or a group that drives ABAR work forward is important (especially if these people have the power to hold the community accountable), but the goal is to embed ABAR within the culture of your school.

If this person left the position or the committee disbanded, how would you ensure all focus wouldn’t disappear? ABAR is a lens that must be applied to school policies, curriculum, pedagogy, and interpersonal relationships. It is not just a teaching strategy. 

Pay attention to the significant institutional support needed by those leading ABAR work. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and those who are the most active are likely to face emotional fatigue. 

Despite being framed amidst the violence targeting the Black community, anti-racism work is often glamorized in the mainstream media, and some people do enter from a place of saviorism and expect recognition, which can lead to burnout for those who have been committed far before the latest media cycle. 

The truth of the matter is, when you commit yourself to ABAR, you’re in it for the long uphill battle. Prioritizing ABAR is not comfortable. Mistakes will be made. Parents and caregivers may complain. Some staff members may leave. It is unrealistic to expect that your school will get it right at the first try. At the end of the day, it is our job to center our students, and that means improving ourselves to set the example for the world they will inherit.

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