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Racism is a System...Not an Event - Dr. Diangelo

Hello Educators. First…Happy Father’s Day to all of the dads out there. Your presence and connection to the children you father is invaluable. Thank you for being you…and all that it brings. Hoping you’re being supremely spoiled today. To all…how are you managing? How are you staying plugged into the reality of this moment and where you find yourself situated? I ask these questions because I find that they are great ways to ensure that we can identify when apathy begins to set in or when we have begun to unplug from the work that is needed for our personal growth. Let’s stay actively and willingly uncomfortable to bring about the change that’s needed.

I once conducted a training with staff from several schools and brought up the concept of implicit or unconscious bias. I’ve trained on this concept many times without a hiccup on this particular part so imagine my surprise when a white teacher announced to the group that she read in the research that this “theory was debunked.” “Really?” I replied. “Can you point me to the research study where it was debunked?” She couldn’t exactly remember where it was. I proceeded to tell her that even without all of the research, we know that as human beings we have preferences and biases that show up and we may not always be able to identify the source from which they are derived. Fast forward to the end of the training and the same teacher comes up to me and thanks me for the session. She proceeds to say that she has had the most challenging year of her teaching career with a culminating experience being that while teaching a unit, the students took something that she said completely out of context and accused her of being a racist. She was appalled that they would believe her to be a racist because of a misinterpretation on their part of what she said. She felt misunderstood by the students, unsupported by the administration, and was wondering about her next steps as an educator. I couldn’t help but wonder if her unwillingness to accept the concept of implicit bias could have left her unreflective and pushed her further into her own biases that inadvertently reinforced the system of racism.

At the end of last week’s post, I stated that we would begin to dive into the systems in education that require dismantling and currently uphold racist beliefs and practices and...we would start with discipline. Oftentimes when discipline is discussed, we look at the educator and identify breakdowns in systems or routines and consider the lack of classroom management or poor instruction yielding limited student engagement. We may also look at the students themselves and deem them as individuals who do not value education or demonstrate an inability or unwillingness to remain plugged into the learning process. There is work that can be done and should be done to remedy all of these potential factors but this post is not about either of these. There are enough books and research studies available to look at the technical elements of student discipline. To me, it makes the most sense to align this conversation with the current context so we can begin to understand the practical ways in which we uphold the system of racism even in a construct as specific as student behavior.

According to the online etymology dictionary, a system is defined as, “a set of correlated principles, facts, ideas, etc.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary explains it as, “an organized set of doctrines, ideas, or principles usually intended to explain the arrangement or working of a systematic whole. If racism is a system, and we the people are the individuals fueling its organization…what doctrines, ideas, beliefs, and principles might we have that empower the system and breathe life into its existence even at unawares? How are we bringing those same ideas into the process of student discipline, classroom management, and student engagement? I am convinced that if anyone has spent any significant period of time immersed in the culture of this country and even more importantly if one attended school here, we have been indoctrinated to some extent. Our beliefs and opinions of those outside of the dominant culture have been adequately influenced to elicit a response from within that may not be what we would prefer it to be. Until we intentionally work to learn a counternarrative and accurate historical and current contextual knowledge, we remain at risk of having negative impacts despite our positive intentions.

According to the 2015-16, Civil Right Data Collection from the U.S. Department of Education, Black male students represented 8 percent of enrolled students and accounted for 25 percent of students who received an out-of-school suspension. Black female students represented 8 percent of the student enrollment and accounted for 14 percent of students who received an out-of-school suspension. Latino male students represented 13 percent of student enrollment and 15 percent of students who received an out-of-school suspension. Latina female students represented 13 percent of student enrollment and 6 percent of students who received an out-of-school suspension. Students of color are disciplined more frequently and more harshly than their white counterparts. They are also more likely to be disciplined using exclusionary practices which render them even more disengaged upon their return to school. And finally, black male students who have been labeled as having a learning disability have the highest likelihood of experiencing a suspension during their time in school; leaving the students who are furthest behind with minimal chance of ever catching up.

With all of this in mind, we can only be okay with these facts if we are convinced that black and brown students simply demonstrate more misbehavior and disrespect than their peers and are not fit for public education. Or…we can begin to question the myriad of interactions, the office referrals, the policies and practices that leave them on the outskirts of the educational process. We can also consider the power dynamics that leave them and their families or caregivers voiceless as they feel the inequities deeply but are unsure of how to begin to advocate for any level of justice.

Effective student discipline begins with the self-discipline of adults to examine and undo poorly constructed ideas, beliefs, and biases about who our students are and why they present as they do. This undoing opens the door for deep and authentic relationships built on empathy and a willingness to recognize issues of inequity and navigate conflict constructively when they arise. It requires that we take the seat of a learner and allow those we are tasked to serve to teach us what we may have missed when attempting to engage.

It demands a high degree of humility and a dispelling of the myth that as educators we are all-knowing and acknowledge that on the issue of the identities of our students, we may be woefully inept.

When a student feels like a teacher is being racist and refuses to comply with simple requests for the sake of conformity, let’s not label it as disrespect. Let’s address the behavior alongside our willingness to collaborate with our students and allow them to teach us where we fell short. We must create the space to hear where we continue to minimize their experiences and stamp out their identities with the approaches that we use. To students, racism is likely not one rude comment that one might label racist but the constant swipes and backhanded comments and impressions whether verbal or non-verbal that seem to gnaw at the very essence of who they are. It is the systemic devaluing of their personhood or the silence and lack of recognition/appreciation for the diversity they represent.

As a school counselor, I used to ask…if behavior is a form of communication, what is the student attempting to tell me with what I’m encountering right now? Coming from this angle allowed me to continue to see the student as a human being with needs and to reposition myself from an easily offended adult to a learner in determining the best way forward. It was rare that I wasn’t able to land on a better path forward after such an inquiry. Maybe steps such as these might serve as the initial shifts needed when considering changes in the system that makes up student discipline. What do you think?

Remember, if you would like to stay a part of this conversation; be sure to subscribe by clicking this link and submitting your email address on our page where it says…” never miss a thread.” As always, feel free to drop ideas into the comment section. Have a wonderful week.

In Solidarity and Love,


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