Overwhelming Whiteness in Ed Spaces is Hurting Students

This post was originially written by Nicole Knight-Justice under the title “White Women’s Comfort is Suffocating Students,” and is being reblogged from Blackgirlmusings.com.

Black Girl Musings is unapologetically designed to be a safe space for black women to celebrate their dopeness and share their frustrations.

It is a place that serves as a mirror, a couch, a sounding board, a prayer closet and anything else it needs to be to help us do life.

It is about empowering, encouraging, and reminding women to speak their truth and walk boldly and confidently into the calling placed on their lives.

Black Girl Musings isn’t a lifestyle blog.
It’s a doing life blog.

Because no one needs to tell you how beautiful and difficult it is to be black and a woman.

But sometimes you do need a space to celebrate, cry, and critique that fact.

And what I’ve realized is that in addition to being the mirror I envisioned BGM to be, it has also become a window.

It has become a window to people who are not black women.
It has become a window to people who will feel incredibly uncomfortable with what I’m going to say.

And it does not escape me that some of those people, who will sit in discomfort, control whether or not I’ll have a job next year or will be able to continue to advance within my organization.

And then I’m reminded of black folks who feared far more than a crucial conversation with their HR department or whether or not they’d get a promotion and I get my entire self together again.

I know that if Black Girl Musings is going to be the space I envisioned for black women to boldly and confidently walk in their truth, I have to stand firmly in mine. And the following expresses my truth and no one else’s.

One of the things I love most about where I currently work is that my students can look at the staff in our building and see themselves.

From the principal to the front office lady our kids walk through our building knowing that they can occupy any of the spaces us adults do.

I can say this not only about my school, but the schools we are connected to.

Black and brown kids see black and brown teachers and leaders.

Black and brown teachers and leaders have a seat at the table.

But what this year has affirmed for me, is there’s more than one table.

One table is filled with staff of color working hard to be mirrors and windows for kids.

One table is filled with white women charged with making instructional decisions for kids.

I realized this isn’t just the case in my city. A tale of two tables is something that permeates my organization from the regional level all the way to the national one.

Last week I had to travel for work to give my recommendations for a new iteration of curriculum that is coming out next school year.

I was hyped for the trip.
I got to enjoy a king sized bed (and ya’ll know how I feel about middle of the bed sleep).

I spent the day before the meeting navigating a new city, buying books, and drinking the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had.

Basically living my best life.

Middle of the bed sleep and great books were short lived as I entered the room where I’d spend the day providing edits to curriculum…and while I had a whole lot of feelings, shock wasn’t one of them.

Instinctively, I took a quick survey of the people in the room and found there were:

25 people
6 people of color (who I could immediately identify by skin tone)
1 man
18 white women

Everyone charged with curriculum creation for thousands of black and brown children were white women.

The day started as most days do in a room full of strangers, introductions, pleasantries, and idle chat about the weather. As the day progressed so did the conversation as we provided feedback about changes we needed to make to next year’s iteration of resources that kids across the country would use and from which they would learn. Time flew as conversations became more robust.

The morning came and went.
A quick lunch break happened and then we dove into the next section of our day:

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.

This was not a topic brought up by those in charge, rather teachers from various parts of the country who saw a need that wasn’t being met from the top and so they made a choice to do something about it.

My insides turned to mush.
And again, I had so many feelings…but surprise wasn’t one of them.

Suddenly, a room filled with thoughts and ideas was met with radio silence and only the people of color in the room could find their voice.

As we discussed things like ensuring the resource that referred to slaves as “involuntary servants” was changed (Girl.) 2 of the 19 white people in the room spoke.

And while I am constantly reminded that it is not my job to help unpack white folks biases and how they impact the way they show up in their work, I also know that what adults do not work out with each other will be worked out on children.

And while I hear you when you say that people need to feel “comfortable” before starting the important work of unpacking bias and how it impacts the way they approach their work, I can’t help but remember all the students and adults of color who have never been afforded the privilege of comfort when dealing with racism.

I also know that 90,000 kids–primarily kids of color–were at stake and they were being suffocated in the silence that this majority white room had chosen when we began to talk about what it meant to be culturally responsive in our curriculum and our practices.

So I called it out.

I called out the numbers I gave you all earlier in this post and reminded folks of the importance of having people at the table–all the tables— who mirror the race, class, and experiences of our kids.

To which a white woman charged with writing curriculum looked at me and said, “Well, since we have to start somewhere maybe we should create a list of diverse texts teachers can use.”

Wait. What?

I’m talking about creating space for people and you’re talking about creating a word document?

Slowly white people spoke, and all but one failed to address how problematic this overwhelmingly white room was.

Providing solutions that while “well-meaning” protected their whiteness and their position in an organization charged with serving kids of color.

At one point, a white woman told me she didn’t want my “voice lost in the majority”.

One white woman asked me about the types of work I would like an all white executive staff to engage in if  people weren’t going anywhere. As if I somehow became the authority on blackness and as if work could be done to replace the power that comes with sharing the racial identity and/or socioeconomic status of our children.

Folks squirmed at words like racist and anti-racist because suddenly they weren’t being used at the safe distance of identifying men dressed in hooded robes.

It was a conversation that was uncomfortable.
But it was also a moment for white people–holding the curriculum kids of color would use, not only to learn academic standards, but also affirm their identity–to lean in to that discomfort in service of kids.

And they decided in that moment, their comfort was more important than a difficult conversation.

Although in no physical danger, their comfort was more important than speaking about the lack of representation that if remedied could enrich and improve the learning experiences of children across the nation.

A part of me left that meeting feeling like I was ready to find a new job. (This original post started with quoting Solange’s FUBU)
Another part of me was ready to bring my folding chair to the table…and then bring a few more for folks who look like me and some more for those who didn’t.

And I’m writing this without an answer.

I don’t know where I’ll be next year or where I want to be.

What I do know is that if I felt like this I know there are other black women feeling this way too.

Children may not be who is at stake in your life.
White women may not be the ones protecting their privilege instead of the humanity of others at your workplace.

But if any version of this is playing out for you right now, I just want you to remember:

You aren’t crazy.
You aren’t unreasonable.
You aren’t overreacting.
You aren’t responsible for helping people in positions of privilege unlearn all of the things that are suffocating and oppressing people of color even when it feels like you are.

And being mad is totally and completely okay.

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.
-James Baldwin

There’s magic in our musings…even when there aren’t answers,


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