National Geographic: "For decades, our coverage was racist. To rise above our past, we must acknowledge it."

Kurt Hatch, Associate Director, AWSP | James Layman, Program Specialist, AWSL
Aug 13, 2019

This blog’s title comes from a recent National Geographic article describing the magazine’s investigation into its historical arc-of-reporting on people of color in the U.S. and abroad. The patience and time dedicated by the editor-in-chief to curate and dissect how the magazine treated issues of race is a helpful model for school systems. In order to serve our students and facilitate honest and open dialogue, we too must examine and reconcile with our own long-standing cultural narratives and how certain students are adversely impacted by the educational systems we lead.

By examining our collective past and personal stories, we create space for individuals and communities to grow and begin to say, “I understand things differently now.” Listening with humility to the narratives of those negatively impacted by long-standing racist cultural norms and systems allows us to engage the wisdom of Dr. Jeffery Duncan-Andrade and “get proximal to the pain.” Proximity helps us come to terms with the fact that our current educational system bears a significant level responsibility for producing the inequitable outcomes found in every disaggregated data point.

Silencing or denying our history does not serve the greater good. As Brené Brown poignantly notes, the irony is we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness – even our whole heartedness - actually depends on the integration of all of our experiences, including the faults.

Note-to-self: Include the past in order to transcend it.

Similar to National Geographic, on the landing page of the June edition of In the Loop, an online magazine published by AWSP’s affiliate, the Association of Washington Student Leaders (AWSL), Joe Fenbert, Program Director for AWSL at the Cispus Learning Center, thoughtfully critiques previous systems and collective ways of thinking about developing student leaders, “…we now encourage schools to analyze their systems to lessen barriers so more kids come our way. We also now tie our goals and objectives to…Closing the Gap.”

With a nationwide reputation of excellence for cultivating student-leaders, AWSL’s action-steps are the product of their collective conviction to serve as a model for disrupting systems that show bias towards particular groups of students. Like National Geographic, AWSL is publicizing how they are including their past in order to transcend it, with the explicit goal of dismantling structural racism.

Structural racism happens in schools. For example, we’ve fielded several calls from principals seeking advice on how to handle the use of the “N-word.” Students are frequently using the word in nuanced ways that cause uncertainty regarding how to respond. If you’re wondering how deal with students’ use of the “N-word” feel free to contact us and, most importantly, start by getting proximal to the pain. Learn the history of the word, the trauma it surfaces, and the detrimental power it has on the learning environment for all students and staff. Proactively develop an appropriate and rapid disciplinary (teaching and learning) response designed to foster growth and a culture of learning. Lastly, similar to what AWSL is doing, begin to intentionally examine for bias and structural racism within your school by taking two specific steps.

First, acknowledge; come to terms with and talk about the fact that bias and structural racism exist in every school system. Regardless of how well-intentioned the adults are, no system is immune. As Dr. Caprice Hollins teaches, “Many believe having conversations about race divides us. In actuality, it’s usually our defensiveness and unwillingness to be open to exploring racism that shuts the conversation down and causes a rift between us.”

Next, find appropriate and thoughtful ways to engage your students of color and their families. Curriculum nights are fine, but authentically structured interactions, such as home-visits, in which you and your staff take a learning stance, are critical for building relationships and gaining important perspectives about the people you serve.

When we create space and a system for conducting home visits, students of color and their families might feel safe explaining how bias and structural racism manifest in your school. However, it can be risky, traumatic and tiresome for students of color and their families to educate school staff about bias and structural racism and, frankly, it’s not their job. As lead learners in an education system, it is our responsibility to seek out the numerous resources that provide guidance on reducing bias and dismantling structural racism.

In conjunction with AWSL, AWSP has worked hard to dismantle structural racism. Committed to a strategic plan that compels us to lead for equity, we continue to prioritize time, effort and resources toward our mission, which includes providing professional learning on topics related to equity, the effects of red-lining, equitable school-wide discipline practices, and the psycho-social impacts of structural racism. Additionally, after three years of shedding light on the issue, we are encouraged by the national trend elevating the science of implicit bias as a “thing” to pay attention to. So, for the sake of all students and staff, let’s keep the topic relevant while ensuring we don’t talk about implicit bias without talking about structural racism.

Grace, understanding, and interactions with people from different backgrounds are pillars for engaging in healthy discourse on emotionally charged topics such as bias and race. We’re all in this together, but time is not ours to waste. It’s important to move forward and rapidly make a visible effort to learn about the experiences of people of color and to understand what it means to be white. Doing so will help us create authentic, life-changing, educational environments for each and every student.

“It’s hard for an individual – or a country – to evolve past discomfort if the source of anxiety is only discussed in hush tones.” -Susan Goldberg, Editor-in-Chief, National Geographic Magazine

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