It matters how we show up for racial justice in schools. Still, after being in education for over fifteen years, there is a troubling refrain that I unfortunately continue to hear in equity-based education circles. It is this: “I’m afraid to focus on race and racism because I don’t want to offend anyone.”
Every time I hear someone say this, my facial expression immediately turns to this:
I get frustrated, and yes, I still sometimes roll my eyes. But, seriously, I still feel some type of way when I hear this because this type of “benevolent racism” does nothing to disrupt systems of oppression that schools are built upon. To confront the deep-seated racism and white supremacy in schools requires us to anchor our work in a bold, non-neutral form of racial justice. Therefore, in today’s article, I am going to share with you three reasons why neutral racial justice is no good.
#1 Neutral Justice is Racism
The famous quote by Bishop Desmond Tutu rings true here. He said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Put simply, to be neutral is to side with the oppressor and the existing racial status quo.
Practicing neutral racial justice reminds me of when I take my car to the drive-through car wash, the ones with the automatic conveyor belts. Before I drive my car onto the conveyor belt, there is someone putting soap on my car and who is always yelling “put your car in neutral.” Then they point frantically to the neutral symbol on a nearby sign, signaling again to me that my car needs to be in neutral. The interesting thing is that, if my car stays in neutral long enough, then the conveyor belt will take over. If fact, it will move my car in the direction that the system was designed to flow.
Once this happens, regardless of my desire to go forward, backwards, or sideways, I lose that control because I’m overtaken by the conveyor belt system. And sometimes to make sure that my car stays on the conveyor belt, there’s someone at the car wash who actively pushes my car forward. So this means that there’s an automatic system and someone actively affecting my car.
How does this relate to showing up for racial justice in schools?
I share this example because it is similar to what happens in schools. Indeed, schools in the U.S. context were founded on systems of oppression and exclusion such as settler colonialism, anti-Blackness, racism, and genocide (I will write posts on these topics later). To be clear, these systems are still in operation in schools today. And not only that, there are people who are actively pushing in the direction of the current system, just like the people do at the car wash. Therefore, one cannot remain neutral with issues of racial justice, because if you do, then you will continue to go in the direction of the larger system and the people who are pushing towards that way, regardless of your good intentions to do otherwise.
I’ve come to learn over the years that schools hide a lot of inequities behind the word “all.” This often shows up in schools by people using the language of “all students” or phrases like “all means all,” etc. Of course, all students are important but that goes without saying. However, all students do not directly experience anti-Black racism, Black students do. So saying “all students” when Black students continue to experience racial, physical and psychological violence in schools is like saying “All Lives Matter” at a Black Lives Matter rally. Besides, many times when people use phrases like “all” we can miss the truth that racial justice picks sides and does not reside in the space of neutrality that hides behind the language of all.
In other words, racial justice is on the side of anti-racism, not racism. It is on the side of equity, not inequity. It is on the side of Black freedom and racial liberation, not white supremacy. Racial justice is on the side of racial humanization, not racial dehumanization. Therefore, racial justice chooses sides, and it chooses the side of justice.
The goal of racial justice work in schools is justice, not comfort and perfection. However, some people still say they don’t want to center race and racism because they don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable. Yet, when they make statements like this, they fail to realize that racism is literally killing Black and other youth and adults from minoritized communities, not merely making them uncomfortable. And here’s the thing, as I heard one of my colleagues say, “If you think talking about racism is uncomfortable, then think about how it feels to directly experience it every single day.”
Moreover, since systems of racism are not neutral that means you can’t be neutral either. In other words, when people reinforce racist ideologies, practices, policies, you, I, we, have to collectively interrupt these things. Certainly, we can’t just go along for the ride in the name of making everyone feel comfortable. And when people say they don’t want to offend or make anyone uncomfortable, who is the proverbial “anyone?” In reality, what people really want to say is that they are afraid to make white people uncomfortable. However, when this is the case, my reply is always that you (all educators) must be bold and courageous enough to want racial justice more than white comfort. But, again, the goal is racial justice not white comfort.
A Few Critical Questions
To sum things up, it is impossible to build racially just schools if our notions of racial justice are neutral. So, here are three quick questions you can ask (yourself, your team, your school and/or district) to locate whether or not you are in a space of neutrality. To be clear, this is not an exhaustive list, but something to get you started:
- How and in what ways have you and your school/district taken a definitive position in support of anti-racism and Black freedom as evidenced through ongoing actions beyond a Black Lives Matter or equity statement? What evidence is there to support your answer?
- Are the decisions being made in your sphere of influence and school reinforcing white power interests and comfort over racial justice for Black and other racially minoritized communities? If so, what might you do differently to confront this?
- Do you and your school/district only have crucial and courageous conversations but fail to engage in ongoing courageous confrontations to dismantle racial systems of oppression and rebuild racial systems of liberation? If so, what might you do differently to confront this?
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