Educators Who Consider Themselves 'White Allies' Are Dangerous When It Comes To Developing Anti-Racist Classrooms

Feb 22, 2021 12:00:00 AM


“I am a white ally,” the 30 something-year-old white teacher declared emphatically in the diversity and inclusion professional development session. She snapped her fingers to co-sign a colleague’s comments about Black Lives Matter, changed her Facebook profile picture to commemorate Breonna Taylor, and talked at length about brown and Black lives.

She knew the importance of using “She/her/hers” adjectives at the beginning of each virtual work session. She joined the book club where Dr. Kendi’s work was being discussed. By every metric, large or small, she showed that she was, inevitably and truly, an ally. But therein, laid the problem. [pullquote]She had characterized herself as an anti-racist ally. Black and brown educators and children around her would not label her in the same way.[/pullquote] 

In the background, students of color—largely Black and Latinx—would complain to other teachers of color that their voices were not being heard. They would pushback against the teacher-centric approach in the classroom and the unilateral way that power and privilege played out in the school. 

When those suggestions and feedback were brought up to the white leaders, there was pushback: This teacher did not intend to have a harmful impact. She was leading with good intentions. She simply forgot to implement the feedback. All and all, this teacher was protected by the systems of white supremacy and power. Instead of her being held accountable, the messenger was classified as simply being uninformed. The messenger had a Ph.D. in culturally responsive pedagogy.

Anti-Racist Education

Since the advent of Black Lives Matter, there has been a reignited interest in what it means to be anti-racist in education spaces

However, there is limited acknowledgment that all of these innovations are functioning in a society where white supremacy is interlaced in social, political and educational institutions. 

Ironically, [pullquote]white educators and white leaders are now the ones that decide whether their classrooms or schools are culturally responsive.[/pullquote] They determine how the term is operationalized with their teams and whether the aligned fidelity measures to examine that progress is fulfilled. 

Education is disproportionately a white woman’s professional space. The underlying politics and added pressure of what it means to navigate that space is difficult for Black and brown leaders who come to schools without the networks that their white colleagues lean into.

While there are efforts at recruiting and retaining talented people of color as educators and educational leaders, there is extensive research that those efforts are falling short. Part of the paradox lies in the naming of white allyship. To be a true ally, white teachers and white school leaders need to acknowledge that their actions and behavior perpetuate systems of oppression and inequity for their staff and students of color. Reflexivity is at the heart of anti-racist practice and that reflexivity needs to be the groundwork for purposeful, actionable change. 

If these actions do not take place, then the status quo will prevail. [pullquote]While this reignited interest in cultural responsiveness, anti-racism, diversity, and inclusion is heartening, there just simply is not time for the same conversation.[/pullquote] There needs to be a shift within each school’s leadership that acknowledges the insidious nature of white supremacy, has an authentic desire to push systems-level change, and demonstrates an alignment of actions—both short and long-term—that steward that change.

Culturally responsive spaces, like any type of change management, require clear definitions and metrics for success. If that does not happen, we will continue the same cycle: There will be many white allies, but no substantial change. 

Sana Shaikh

Dr. Sana Shaikh is an expert in organizational theory and behavior and cultural responsiveness with over ten years of experience working in education policy, research, and program management and operations. She is currently the Director of School Operations in Springfield Public Schools. She is also the founder of her diversity, equity, and inclusion company called TimeED—Taking Initiative, Making Equity in Education. She was Teach for America corps member and staff member. Previously, she was a fellow at the Aspen Institute, the Harvard Kennedy School Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, Achievement First, Leadership for Educational Equity, Senator Mike Johnson, and more recently, serves as an InSPIRE fellow through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and 50 Can Fellow. She holds two bachelor's from the University of California, Berkeley in political science and Near Eastern Studies—Islamic Civilizations, with a minor in global poverty and practice. She has two master's, one in urban studies from Johns Hopkins and one in social policy and management from Brandeis University. Her Ph.D. is in social policy and management from the Heller School of Social Policy and Management.    

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