Racism surfaces in unexpected ways.
I had a surprising encounter recently while facilitating leadership training for approximately fifty early career principals and assistant principals. During a break, one of the attendees - let’s call him “Jeff” - approached me to engage in a conversation. To be honest, Jeff did all the talking. I listened, a bit uncertain how to respond in the moment.
A tall, relatively young principal who identifies as a white male, Jeff is the leader of an elementary school. Nudging up his glasses, leaning forward with purpose, Jeff underscored his comments with a “this-is-total-B.S.” tone of voice. He spoke with the certainty of conviction and punctuated his monologue with a series of questions that surprised me.
“Why are black and brown people expected to teach white people about race and systemic racism? White people created and perpetuate the problems, so we should lead our own learning and hold each other accountable for solutions. I mean, talk about the epitome of inequity…it must be exhausting for you as person of color to face racism on a daily basis while, at the same time, teach white people about it? Seriously, how does that make any friggin’ sense!?!” - Jeff
After he stuck the landing from off his soap-box, I walked away from Jeff with a pursed smile, eyebrows raised. My equilibrium a bit tilted, I could only exhale wondering, “what if all white leaders thought like Jeff?”
It was unexpected, albeit brave, for Jeff to share his thoughts. We’d just met and transparency about one’s feelings on race and racism can be tricky. The psychological and sociological functions of race are complex and often laden with emotions. As fascinating and ubiquitous as race is, despite being woven into the fabric of our thinking and dynamics of our culture and systems, we typically avoid conversations about it. Clearly, Jeff’s frustration allowed him to push through the social norms that typically keep the topic of race at bay.
As I reflect on my interaction with Jeff, I can’t help but juxtapose it with three recently articles from the Seattle Times. I recommend the articles as quick reads in the order they appear below.
So what can you take away from the three columns and my experience with Jeff? Here are some key questions to keep in mind, for yourself, your staff, and your students:
- How does race and racism impact people of color in ways you might not think about or be aware of?
- How do you remain open to this question, even once you think you know the answer?
- How do you learn more about the impacts of race without asking people of color to teach you?
What if white people are socialized in ways that inhibit their understanding of race and racism?
How does being white – and chances are, if you’re principal in our state, you are – affect your experience as part of a group?
How might you get “meta” about how whiteness shapes your perspectives, thinking and behavior? Group experience affects how I think
Jeff’s statement reflects the humility and understanding shown by columnist Danny Westneat. It also expresses an awareness of the intellect and grit displayed by people of color like columnist Tyrone Beason, who work to dismantle racism despite the “double-toll”. Critical to being able to lead the school-wide culture and systems all students deserve, Jeff has clearly taken some steps to learning what it means to be white and embarking on the life-changing journey towards racial literacy.
“What if all white leaders thought like Jeff?”
Want to start thinking like Jeff? Here are a few resources we like to get started: