Hey white people, it’s not about us. And that’s okay.

A few years ago, my husband and I took a Lyft from downtown Portland to our nearby Airbnb. It was February. We took this trip right after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. The previous week, the U.S. saw millions of women participate in marches in major cities across the county. In the previous years, we saw the development of the  Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement after black men and women were killed by the police. More and more people were able to witness these events, either in person or through new outlets and social media. It was amazing, but even some progessive white people felt uncomfortable by the shift in the dominant narrative. 

That night in Portland, our Lyft driver started a conversation.  He was friendly and asked us what brought us to the city. Somehow we came to the topic of the Women’s March and BLM. He was, I should point out, a white man. He casually told us that he supports these movements, but he doesn’t know where he fit in. He didn’t feel like he could have a voice in those spaces. I tried to gently inform him that he doesn’t need to have a voice in all those spaces. That it wasn’t about him. That he could be an ally. But I got the impression that what he really wanted was to be the center of a movement (maybe one for down-and-out 30-something year old white dudes who have to drive for rideshares to make ends meet? Shall I suggest reddit?).

Recently, our country has seen a surge in the BLM movement. There have been many people of color (POC) angry at even more killings of black people by the police. Many have taken to the streets to demonstrate against systems of power that have oppressed them, and their parents, and their grandparents. White people have joined in these demonstrations or have shared messages of allyship on social media. They, too, are angry at these very visible examples of how our society hurts and oppressive POC. But these injustices don’t just happen in the streets or in their homes. There is a long history of institutional inequalities that white people need to grapple with as well. We need to also examine the less visible spaces where POC are unequal, such as education. 

UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access published a report in 2004 detailing the ways that the California educational system has not done enough to desegregate our schools after the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. Here are some of their findings:

  • California students are racially isolated, with Latinx and black students more segregated than any other state
  • Schools serving predominantly low-income students of color often lack the fundamental things they need to learn, such as qualified teachers, stable faculty, adequate instructional materials, and adequate and safe facilities 
  • These unequal conditions lead to disparities between Academic Performance Index (API) between white students and students of color (Oaks, et al, 2004). 

These “opportunity gaps” underestimate the ability for black and brown students to achieve success in school. Not only that, they limit their ability to graduate from high school and move on to higher education or a successful career.

While we have seen some trends toward racial integration in our schools, there is more racial segregation than before. A newer report found that California is the most segregated for Latinx students with 58% who attend “intensely segregated schools,” with only 15% white classmates (Frankenberg et al.). Additionally, we have a president and Republican platform that wishes to deny educational access to undocumented students, with statements such as “In a time of terrorism, drug cartels, human trafficking, and criminal gangs, the presence of millions of unidentified individuals in this country poses grave risks to the safety and sovereignty of the United States” (Spring). 

Not only are our students segregated in our school, learning a “Eurocentric curriculum that is unresponsive to the needs of students of Color,” but their teaching staff is also overwhelmingly white, even when the students themselves are not (Kohli, R; Nevárez, A; & Arteaga, N, 2018). How can we expect our students of color to succeed when they are in segregated schools and lack the necessary equipment to learn? How can our students succeed in life when they aren’t receiving a quality education? As a future educator, I need to be critical of my own teaching practices and find ways to engage and support my students with a curriculum that is culturally responsive and equitable. Just as POC are finding their voice within marches and demonstrations, I need to support my students of color as they find their voices in my classroom and within the educational system. White people do not need to center themselves in this political movement. It’s our time to be true allies. 

References:

Frankenberg, Erica, et al. (2019) “Harming Our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown.” Harming Our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years after Brown – The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. http://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/harming-our-common-future-americas-segregated-schools-65-years-after-brown.

Kohli, Rita; Nevárez, Arturo; and Arteaga, Nallely (2018) “Public Pedagogy for Racial Justice Teaching: Supporting the Racial Literacy Development of Teachers of Color,” The Assembly: A Journal for Public Scholarship on Education: Vol. 1 : Iss. 1 , Article 3. Available at: https://scholar.colorado.edu/assembly/vol1/iss1/3

Oaks, Jeannie, et al. (2004) Separate and Unequal 50 Years Aftef Brown: California’s Racial “Opportunity Gap” UCLA/IDEA Instituyte for Deocracy, Education and Access. 

Spring, Joel H. American Education. Routledge, 2018.

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