by Tom Rademacher
“They should burn the building down,” she told me.
“They should take all those kids and spread them out,” she told me. She wasn’t kidding.
She and I were in this district meeting thing, we had introduced ourselves with names and what school we were from, and she had launched into this. She was talking about the building I work in and the kids I work for. The building houses a magnet school for Native kids, the kids are nearly all considered poor, and nearly 30% are considered homeless or highly mobile. She wasn’t kidding. And you know what? You know the worst part? I was nodding along.
When she called schools like mine a “cesspool,” when she said there were too many kids from “shit families,” I don’t think I nodded, but, fuck, I might have. Fuck.
I might have because, no matter how much I talk about how I don’t care about white feelings, I didn’t want to make this moment a thing. It took me a minute, a long quiet lunch, before I had put the words together to reach out to that teacher and respond beyond polite nodding. I let it pass in the moment because I just plain got scared of the conflict, because I’m a hypocrite too often, and kind of a shithead, and because it’s actually pretty hard.
But those words hit me, and really, it took me days to really figure out why the ideas behind the words could feel so absolutely wrong and right at the same time.
Because I kinda get it. What we don’t want to do is group together kids who we have historically and massively failed and then continue to fail them, which is what we are doing, across the country, and over and over again, we are failing those kids. We aren’t giving them the support they need to handle trauma, the services they need to be safe and fed and secure. We are, far too often, not giving them teachers who expect them to succeed and have the tools to help them do it.
But we shouldn’t be burning those buildings down, because the buildings are not the problem. We don’t need to spread the kids out, because the kids sure as hell aren’t the problem.
Plus, is a piece of this maybe that having Native kids all together makes them visible, makes our failure of Native kids visible, which makes us uncomfortable?
Plus, spreading out these kids, or any other groups we want to spread out, like poor kids, black kids, EL kids, kids on IEPs, all the kids that we get nervous when there are too many together, all the kids who scare us, spreading them out isn’t going to make them learn better, it’s just going to make their numbers matter less.
Or, if pushing marginalized kids into the margins of other schools somehow does make them perform better, how much does that have to do with assimilation? With just a few Native kids, or Somali, or African American, or Latino kids, how much easier can we pressure them to act, talk, learn white, how much easier can we ask them to check their identity and culture at the door when there are fewer kids like them to stand with?
But there’s nothing about being Native, or Black, or poor that makes a kid unable to learn. The problem, the failure, is not in their culture, it is in ours.
Whiteness is fucking up schools.
Whiteness is creating failure.
Whiteness is blaming the victims of racism and genocide for being victims of racism and genocide, and suggesting what they really need is to be around a lot more white people.
I don’t want to call this teacher out, because it’s bigger than that. I sent an email, she replied, whatever. The needle didn’t move, to be real. And, to be real, these are the conversations that are happening everywhere. In coded language and wrapped in well-meaning whiteness, we talk about how kids of color can’t learn when there are too many of them together. These are conversations that are happening too often, that pretend-ass anti-racists like me are allowing to happen too often.
Later in the day, a similar group was looking at Systems Theory and how it applies to school and this quote hit me just as hard as the conversation earlier: “What we observe, whatever is happening in the moment, is exactly what is supposed to happen in the system as it is.” *Yes. So, what does that mean about our poor kids, and most especially our poor kids of color and how persistently schools are failing them? Yes. Our system is failing them. Because it is supposed to.
Whiteness is destroying our schools with expectations of quiet obedience, an expectation that people in authority will be respected without being respectful, that they can demand before listening.
Whiteness is destroying our schools by establishing standards of behavior, speech, engagement, and work that are rooted in whiteness, that actively exclude.
So, I don’t think that spreading our “high needs” kids out will help them. But if we can de-colonize their schools from their “needs” that are really just the places where they diverge from whiteness, we can make their schools places that truly love and celebrate and work for them. **
If we can address the needs that are needs, if we treat trauma and poverty, the generational effects of surviving genocide on families and communities, if we treat our students as whole humans and schools as a point of first contact where we can start to undo the persistent inequity of our society, these schools, these cesspools, can be powerful and create power in a way that scares us.
We too often let groups of white people like me decide what is best for people of color, because listening to their leaders scares us, because they might tell us that we’re doing something wrong.
What if the predominantly poor schools, the schools with mostly kids of color, what if they were the best schools in the district or state? What if Equity looked like Equity and the kids who needed great schools most were the kids that got them? Schools with clean water and walls that don’t smell like mold when it rains. Schools with rich arts programs and a much higher percentage of veteran teachers and leaders given room to lead. Schools where the race of the students was reflected in the staff and decision-makers, where the culture of the students was supported in the curriculum and written into every policy and procedure?
Cool. So, where do the middle class white kids go? They get the crumbling schools, the teachers run out of their old buildings, the new teachers still figuring things out.*** They’ll get fewer sports, fewer options for classes, more rigid teaching. Less fun, less creativity, fewer chances to discover their strengths. Watch how quick it changes when the white parents start voicing the same complaints that have been coming for years from communities of color.
White schools should get less. Someone has to, and over and over again we have decided that the someone who will get less are the kids who need the most. We protect whiteness. We protect white kids. We do. We do it every time we blame the kids who are unteachable, the families who are broken, the schools that are hopeless.
What if we blamed schools instead of kids, blamed policies instead of families? What if we started admitting that we could do something about it? If we started admitting that we’re just not willing to make schools work for our kids of color now the way they’ve worked for white kids for generations?
It’s all already burning. All of it. Time to stop playing around.
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*The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation, Elena Aguilar
** I should give 1,000 shoutouts to people of color whose writings, teachings, and speaking have informed these ideas all over. As a white guy, I really rarely have a thought about race or gender that I didn’t pick up somewhere. So, I don’t think anything I’m saying here is unique or brand new, but I hope adding my voice is somehow helpful. I read and I listen constantly. Most specifically, the way Chris Stewart talks about his work and philosophy in education as being less about being a reformer and more about abolitionist has pushed me hard. He was the first person who I saw talking about the integration issue being insulting because it rests “on an anti-black, white supremacist frame too: black achievement is based on their proximity to whiteness. Yet, white achievement is not dependent on proximity to blackness.”
*** Not to go all “Not all teachers” on you, but, you know, not all teachers, obviously, are bad. I’ve seen some incredible work happening in some challenging situations, and some pretty mediocre stuff float by when there was no reason not to do better.
Tom Rademacher is an educator with the Minneapolis Public Schools, and 2015 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He blogs at Mr. Rad’s Neighborhood.