In the wake of Donald Trump’s recent comments about Mexican immigrants, I want to take a second to discuss a type of racism that is more nuanced, subtle and difficult to recognize. I call this “nice racism” because it is expressed in a way that many people would find more palatable or acceptable.
A new study from Rutgers University shows that school systems that are less ethnically diverse are less tolerant of students’ race-related comments. The study involved a survey of 9th graders in the New York City district of Mott Haven, Bronx and Flushing, Queens, and found that while the minority students were more likely to make racist remarks, Mott Haven students were the most likely to be suspended for their comments. In Queens, students who used “code words” or “coded language” were also more likely to face punishment.
I recently stumbled upon an online interview with Dr. Robin DiAngelo on MSNBC about the release of his new book, Cute Racism: How progressive whites perpetuate racist evil. When I first looked at the book, my eyes immediately fell on the title, which gave me a strong white-hot feeling. As a black person, I honestly don’t like the term soft racism.
I find the oxymoronic nature of the title emotionally exhilarating and hard to process because I keep thinking: There is nothing good about being deeply entrenched and oppressed in a white society your entire life. Regardless of my personal feelings, the title caught my attention and got me thinking about how this fun racism plays out in our schools.
Racist microaggressions are perhaps the most popular and disgusting form of sweetheart racism there is. Whether white teachers make racist assumptions that all Asian students are strong in math or lavishly praise their black students for their exemplary yet amazing oral skills in English, it’s hard not to notice. Nor should we forget their attempts to deny their racist acts by baselessly claiming that they are colorblind.
While white teachers may see their sympathetic comments as compliments, they must realize that their comments come across as ignorant and insensitive to their BIPOC students. The only way for them to fully understand the racial bias inherent in their comments is to examine the historical context of these microaggressions.
In many schools, there are white teachers who are consciously (and unconsciously) working to save white people. White salvationism prevents BIPOC students from seeing the greatness of who they are and who they are destined to become. How can we expect our students to develop a sense of self and function as independent critical thinkers if our performance constantly indicates their inability to be great?
Essentially, white Salvationists are only interested in feeding and stroking their own ego. They have implicit biases against BIPOC students that lead them to assess the intellectual abilities of their BlPOC students through a deficit-based lens, as opposed to an asset-based lens that focuses on their abilities and potential for academic flourishing.
As a teacher, when you walk into a classroom thinking you need to fix your students, you are already letting them know that they are failures who cannot function or succeed on their own. Instead of trying to improve them, you should spend your energy enabling them to develop self-esteem in everything they do.
DIVERSIFICATION VERSUS DECOLONISATION OF THE CURRICULUM
While racial and cultural diversity in academic programs is paramount and necessary, it must be done with the intention of eliminating racist narratives. It is not enough to have books and teaching materials that present figures on BIPOC. We must also pay attention to cultural appropriation and misinformation about BIPOC that appears in children’s books, textbooks and other educational resources.
For example, many Native American children’s books are stories told through the lens of non-Native, usually white, authors. Despite their good intentions, the truth is that the stories they share are written for the white man’s benefit.
As anti-racist educators, we must fight whitewashed curricula by conducting audits that assess the historical accuracy and credibility of learning resources relevant to BIPOC. Seven Forms of Bias in Teaching by the Sadker Foundation and Tools of Whiteness by Dr. Bree Pickauer are two excellent resources teachers can use to address this task.
COMPLICITY THROUGH PUBLIC SILENCE (DISCREET ALLIES)
White teachers can play the role of ally or co-conspirator in this anti-racist movement. The distinction between the two roles is particularly clear in situations where racism is discussed in a school context. In this particular context, some white teachers demonstrate quiet altruism by not openly denouncing racist acts with their BIPOC colleagues at a staff meeting, but by sending an email or message after the meeting to privately express their support and thank them for speaking out.
While their feelings of empathy and compassion are greatly appreciated, the reality is that by not openly condemning racist acts, they are complicit in perpetuating the racist treatment BIPOC students face in schools. Society’s silence perpetuates racism and keeps white people comfortable.
For the white teachers reading this, I feel sorry for them. Talking about racism is uncomfortable, scary and even frightening, but that’s what it means to be a true accomplice of BIPOC. This level of transparency is necessary to clearly demonstrate the racial bias that our BIPOC students suffer from.
To combat racism, we must formulate our criteria on what racism is. Are there any white people in our schools who are openly racist? Absolutely. But the most dangerous white people are the good guys who don’t even realize how racist they can be, as the Cute White Parents podcast series proves.
For my fellow BIPOC teachers reading this, we need to hold our trusted white colleagues accountable with love and education. By following this practice with them, they will then be willing to do the same with other white colleagues.
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