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“White people can be exhausting.”
That’s the first line in Austin Channing Brown’s book titled, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. While this line is most likely jarring for some, I must say, as an African-American woman in a space of Whiteness as an Assistant Principal, it is true. Embarking upon my 14th year in education, I spent the bulk of my career as a secondary English/Language Arts teacher and instructional coach. While I loved teaching/coaching at the secondary level, I decided to finally stop running from the call to leadership. As my equity eye continued to grow, I realized that those who understand the cultural changes that are needed are often scarce in educational leadership, especially among black and brown student populations.
“Confession: By the time I graduated from college, I thought I was the white culture whisperer. I was fearless. I thought any future encounters of racism would rear their ugly heads like purple dragons, and I had no doubt in my ability to slay racist nonsense wherever I found it. I was wrong.” [p. 67]
As a teacher, I thought I had a handle on protecting my students from some of the campus woes of racism. I sat in equity trainings and lifted my voice to help well-intentioned folks understand the danger of privilege and its effects on black and brown students. Helping name inequities and shining a light on unawareness, cultural “norms,” and detrimental mindsets. I conducted book studies and professional development with colleagues and teachers and I thought I had a handle on the journey, but the fight was bigger than I thought.
It wasn’t until I ventured into leadership as an Assistant Principal that I realized this dragon of racism is a vicious beast that seems even harder to fight outside the classroom.
“Far from an imposing beast, I found that white supremacy is more like a poison. It seeps into your mind, drip by drip, until it makes you wonder if your perception of reality is true.” [p.67]
Those drips are from the ocean of privilege and many don’t even know that their mindsets, ways of being, and actions are drowning black and brown students, daily. And therein lies the issue: the overwhelming unawareness of how racism cuts and psychologically binds people of color. Personally and professionally, I fell into a mirage of thinking a certain position/title would give me more power to fight this unwavering battle. One would think that being in a position of leadership gives you more power to improve this cultural gap. However, as an assistant principal, you’re sometimes more the older middle child than the driver of change. You’re able to support and guide over classrooms but don’t have the full power to fully change the trajectory of a campus or the leadership above you. I’ve realized in a short time that my power of influence is the only sword I have to wield against institutionalized racism, white privilege, and inequity. Additionally, the only way I can even begin to have the influence is by the tedious task of building relationships; beginning with proving myself.
African-American professionals have the burden of having to prove themselves in their field and workspaces. While many of us innately feel we don’t have to prove ourselves to anyone, we know deep down that this is still a reality in the game we must play. Just because we were hired isn’t always enough for us to be shown the same respect or for our voices to be given the same weight as other voices (at the table). Our positions, although rightfully gained based on experience and expertise, are also sometimes coupled with that diversity checkmark. (Yay, we have a Black person on the administrative team! So, no one can attack us for not being inclusive). However, diversity and inclusion are not about just having some color sprinkled throughout your campus. Diversity is about having the representation AND ensuring that ALL voices within that representation and across cultures have value to others, a voice that is heard and weighed as equally as others, and a seat at the table consistently. That seat at the table is what whiteness receives and true equity is bestowing the same privileges of whiteness to others.
As an African-American teacher and now administrator, I typically have the following questions in the back of my mind:
Am I valued?
Am I heard?
Am I listened to?
Am I believed?
Are my mistakes going to be magnified and my work minimized?
Is my voice respected?
Am I respected?
No matter how skilled and confident you maybe these thoughts are part of the weight that you carry as an underrepresented educator of color. Nonetheless, I build relationships. I build trust. I pick my battles because I know I have to be strategic in what I lift as areas of growth. I weigh my tone. I carefully pick my words….even when I choose to be bold and specifically state the gaps without sugar coating. We. Must. Weigh. Everything. Even the resentment that can come with having to weigh everything. Even while we watch our White colleagues show unprofessionalism or boldness….because we know that they will never be referred to as aggressive or angry or disrespectful in expressing their true feelings.
We watch black child after black child after black child be kicked out of class, brought to the office, or publicly scolded at a level and volume that cuts to our core. Because see, as a culture we are a collective people and when I see you scar a Black child in class or in the hallway--my instinct is to protect. And my emotions are raw because no child should have to endure the microaggressions and poison of privilege that befalls our Black and Brown students.
I also carry the burden of being “the mama” for all the students of color. Watching out for them while also reminding them that if they step out of line they’ll be proving their white teachers/administrators right. A conversation that puts a bitter taste in my mouth because black and brown students aren’t allowed to make mistakes or make missteps along the way. They aren’t afforded the patience, restoration, time, benefit of the doubt and fresh slates that their white or model minority (Asian/Indian) counterparts may receive. Black and brown students aren’t afforded the chance to struggle. As kids, they are expected to quickly rebound and successfully navigate the same expectations given to adults. Even as an educator of color, you find yourself falling into this same trap and wanting students to improve faster to show the world, “See, our students are capable.” It’s a shameful reality to admit. Putting pressure on ourselves and kids to correct matters quickly that, in reality, are a process. Sometimes kids need more time, patience, and consistent support to turn it around. Unfortunately, as a leader, I watch teachers and principals give up on our students with an appalling urgency and lack of care.
I find myself constantly torn between my position to influence change and wondering if it’s worth the fight. I know it is worth the fight, but I can’t help but to honestly wonder at times. That’s why racism is such a poison. It can even make you question the need to keep fighting while slowly killing your will to fight. But when I look into the faces of students, I must keep going.
I must keep:
- Naming inequities and differences made between kids of color and white students.
- Reiterating points when my voice is devalued or dismissed.
- Calling out white fragility when I explain issues of inequity to hire ups or principals and I get responses of “I’ve taught Black kids before.” That phrase is equivalent to “I have a Black friend.” That doesn’t absolve you of bias and racism and proximity to Black people in no way makes one an expert on the black experience.
- Explaining to faculty why black mamas are upset, distrust the administrative staff, and feel that their children are being targeted in school.
- Teaching and informing teachers on how to communicate with students and families of color. How using phrases like “He can’t follow directions” and “She’s disrespectful” is a trigger for many families of color.
- Naming how some classroom management practices are really designed to control black/brown bodies.
- Continuing to teach about cultural differences and realities. In 2019, we still have to tell educators and administrators that students looking down is not always a form of disrespect. Some cultures are taught to look down when being reprimanded.
- Requesting diversity training for staff.
- Pushing for daily and year-long development on culturally responsive practices.
- Educating about the need for restorative practices in working with students.
- Being the one that uplifts, builds, and SEES students of color until more are educated on the necessity of this.
- Communicating that descriptors like head shaking, eye-rolling, and sighing printed on referrals will disproportionately affect Black and Brown students.
- Teaching faculty that getting in students’ faces, shaking a finger, and snapping will only escalate versus deescalate (These actions can also be a trigger to students of color).
- Calling out microaggressions and problematic phrases like “these kids, those kids” when used by teachers and other administrators.
- Monitoring discipline/consequences and checking inequity when Black students are disciplined at a harsher rate.
- Demanding respect when my voice is minimized because the truth I may speak is feared.
- Checking on teachers of color, specifically teacher demographics that are underrepresented on campus, because I know how it feels to be the only one.
- Facilitating affinity groups for students who also feel alone and underrepresented on campus.
- Striving to build and create community among students and staff.
- Advocating for more representation on campus for students.
- Lifting the growth that is needed across campus and throughout the district in equity work.
- Being an activist for change.
Why am I weary? Because the list above is my DAILY to-do list on top of my responsibilities as an Assistant Principal. It’s tiring, lonely work….and yet and still is the cultural burden of a token Assistant Principal. Does completing my cultural to-do list make a difference? It must. While the unaware bask in their naps, I must remain woke. Woke enough to carry the duties with periodic rests to settle my soul. I must stand in the shadow of hope, despite my frustrations. In the words of Austin Channing Brown,
“It is working in the dark, not knowing if anything I do will ever make a difference. It is speaking anyway, writing anyway, loving anyway. It is enduring disappointment and then getting back to work.[...] Because I must demand it anyway. It is my birthright. It is the culmination of everything my ancestors endured. [...] How dare I consider surrender simply because I want the warmth of the sun?” [p. 181-182]
To my fellow educators of color who find themselves in a kaleidoscope of worry and weariness in the fight for equity, stay in the shadow of hope. Know that while it hurts to have to carry the cultural burden for those who “don’t get it”.....we are the ones (at the moment) that SEE all the things. We understand the nuances, the gaps, the biases. And while it is not our responsibility to do all of the work, we’re often charged with beginning the work. To put a notch in the walls that must be torn down.
To principals and district personnel who are part of the majority and have scarce representations of people of color on your campus and on your team, take note. Make a point to ensure that you’re listening to and respecting marginalized voices on your campus. And if you happen to notice that your campus leadership team and staff are void of people of color…..start there. Drive the charge to increase representation and increase the diversity of voices you’re hearing. This matters. This work is needed. ALL students need to SEE themselves and have advocacy. Also, just imagine. Imagine what it would be like to be the only voice in a system that was built for only one demographic; different than your own. If you find yourself skeptical of this call to action or not understanding the need, I implore you to seek the knowledge you need to awake from your slumber of unawareness.
“An educator in a system of oppression is either a revolutionary or an oppressor.” -Lerone Bennett, Jr.
Be a revolutionary.