Well, I guess it’s about time.
After 156 years, last week, President Joe Biden signed legislation that officially made Juneteenth a federal holiday. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865. It is the day when enslaved Black People in Galveston, Texas were notified about the Emancipation Proclamation that President Abraham Lincoln signed more than two years prior. I do appreciate that Juneteenth is now a national holiday. However, it is interesting that The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was signed into law at this time. Currently, state policies are being passed to ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in public schools. In addition, the U.S. Congress has yet to pass reparations legislation for Black people whose ancestors were enslaved. And there are no federal policies in place to stop law enforcement from killings Black people. As a result, making Juneteenth a federal holiday has left many people (including me) feeling like this is another symbolic gesture. The problem with symbolic gestures is they do little to nothing to make substantive racial change. Honestly, when I first heard the news that Juneteenth is now a national holiday, this was my response:
What about Juneteenth and Schools?
But, I have been wondering? Do schools have to follow suit and make the celebration of Juneteenth symbolic? Instead, can Juneteenth be an entry point to do something more radically powerful for Black youth in schools everyday, not just one day? In today’s article, I want to share 3 Substantive Ways that Schools Can Celebrate Juneteenth Year-Round.
I will share three ways in this article that span multiple levels in a school: institutional, cultural, and fiscal. And, while I focus on schools, the content in this article is applicable to school districts, and honestly, any other organization beyond schools such as universities, nonprofits, corporations, and places of worship, to name a few.
#1) Confront Anti-Black Racism Everyday
The announcement of Juneteenth may have happened in one day. However, the effects were supposed to be lived out and experienced by Black people everyday. And this truth is something that we must keep at the forefront in schools. But, making Juneteenth a federal holiday does not end the over-representation of Black youth in special education and the racialized relationship between schooling and incarceration for Black youth (e.g., the school-to-prison nexus). It also does not end the reality that Black girls have had the fastest growing suspension rates of all students over the last decade. Ending these realities only happens through confronting anti-black racism everyday in schools. By confronting, I mean interrupting these dynamics through several processes. These processes may include: critical questioning, offering alternative explanations and actions (e.g., policies, practices, solutions, etc.), and working within your sphere of power to center the lived experiences, agency, and perspectives of Black youth.
Moreover, what I listed above are just a few examples of how anti-black racism shows up in schools. But, anti-black racism is also about the default systems, organizational logics, and school conditions that frame Black youth as less intelligent, dangerous, and aggressive. In turn, these framings of Black youth are often used as justifications for why they need to be controlled and made to assimilate into white educational norms.
How Might we confront in schools?
The good news is that confronting anti-black racism everyday in schools can happen in multiple ways. One way this can happen is through confronting taken-for-granted conversations and decisions that frame Black children as less than. For example, if your school justifies having low academic expectations for Black youth because the school does not think they can handle it, then this must be confronted and the school should develop alternative forms of instruction. You can also examine the policies at your school that have a disparate impact on Black students. For instance, this may include exclusionary discipline policies, dress policies that normalize white appearance (e.g., certain hairstyles not allowed), and the non-written policies that prevail.
#2) Stop Practicing White Supremacy Culture
One of the questions that I get from people all across the U.S. is: Should my school be focused on racial justice since we do not have any Black students or only a very small number of Black students?
My response is always: “Yes, absolutely.”
Actually, this work probably applies even more to schools with these dynamics, and let me tell you why. First, when there are only a few Black students in your school, their racial experience is actually more pronounced. Second, just because your school does not have a lot of Black students (or any racially minoritized student groups) does not mean that white supremacy culture is not at play. In other words, your school can be fully absent of Black students yet fully present of white supremacy culture. But, to be clear, white supremacy culture is not about the school being filled with members from the KKK, although it could include this.
What is White supremacy culture?
Instead, white supremacy culture, according to Kenneth Jones’ and Tema Okun’s work, describes the cultural norms, standards, and characteristics that show up in organizations, like schools, that promote white supremacy thinking. And, given how deeply embedded racism is on so many levels of society, anyone can promote white supremacy culture. White, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Bi-racial, and Multi-racial people can all perpetuate white supremacy culture.
There are many characteristics of white supremacy culture. However, I’ll only name a few here. One characteristic is the right to comfort for those with institutional power to maintain emotional, psychological, and racial safety. This often plays out in not wanting to engage in bold racial justice work to preserve the racial status quo and people’s feelings of racial equilibrium. Another way that white supremacy culture can show up is through thinking that there is only one right way to do things. For example, this may include thinking that there is only one right way to behave, express intelligence, genius and emotions, learn, and for families and caregivers to engage with the school. These factors are often shaped by white, middle class norms, ways of doing, and being. And if students or families don’t subscribe to them then they are considered deviant and sub-standard. Therefore, if your school wants to celebrate Juneteenth more substantively year-round, then you must let go of white supremacy culture.
#3) Repurpose Budgets
In racial justice work, we must constantly ask: Have Black youth’s lived experiences improved educationally, emotionally, physically, and materially in the school (or district) where I work? Paying particular attention to the material part of the above question is important because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often said: “budgets are moral documents.” In other words, where a school district allocates their budget can tell you a lot about what and who they truly value, regardless of what they say.
Investments and Divestments
To be clear, a way to celebrate Juneteenth more substantively year-round would be for a school to reallocate fiscal resources away from things that are detrimental to Black youth. For example, this might include whitewashed curriculum, programs that reinforce racial inequity, or even blatantly racist personnel. Instead, schools could repurpose those funds to invest in school counselors, social workers, after school programs, and school-based health centers. This might also include time for staff to more deeply root their collective practice in racial justice, to name a few. By investing in such efforts, schools should use their permanent funds, not temporary funding sources which can be here today and gone tomorrow. In the same vein, another way that school districts can redistribute budgets is to invest in educational reparations because as Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said:
A Few Critical Questions
In closing, just acknowledging and talking about Juneteenth once a year is not enough to achieve substantive racial justice for Black youth in schools. Our collective work must move beyond acknowledgements, celebrations, and gestures of symbolism. We must move to work that redistributes power, opportunities, and resources. The above ways offer some initial, not exhaustive, ideas for how to start to do this. Here are a few critical questions for you and people in your school and/or district to discuss:
- How and in what ways does anti-black racism show up in our school? What are some ways that we might collectively anticipate it and confront it before it shows up? How might we restore people after it happens?
- If we were honest, what are some ways that white supremacy culture shows up in our school and work? In those places where white supremacy culture shows up, how might we practice racial justice culture instead? Describe this in detail.
- How might we redistribute our budget to invest in that which contributes to Black youth and adults thriving in our school?
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I’d love to get your comments below. Please react and share widely. Thanks for taking time to read this.