If We Truly Want Equitable Schools, We're Going to Have to Work Together

“It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”        -Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (1852)

Over my years as an advocate for Black children and their families, I took intentional actions to learn the hidden realities of Black history and resurrect cultural practices stripped from us somewhere across the Atlantic. I declared these truths in my life as a parent, community leader and teacher—then surrounded myself with people who reflected all that I sought to reclaim of my identity.

The mistrust and anger I held for community and school leaders emerged in my assertion that “I’m not tryin’ to teach grown white folks anything.” Ironically, I evolved into an instructional coach, a facilitator of professional learning, and a designer of equitable resources for educators, including “grown white folks.” This comes as no surprise since white teachers make up nearly 80% of the U.S. teaching force. Compare this to the enrollment of over 50% of nonwhite students in our public schools and the need for racial and cultural competence becomes clear.  

At times I feel an internal conflict about the depth of my involvement with white teachers who are learning how to be allies and even co-conspirators for racial equity. In those moments, I call upon the wisdom of Frederick Douglass to remind me of how and why I must be in the storm to continue working alongside white teachers.

Know the Impact

Frederick Douglass escaped the bondage of slavery on September 3, 1838, by disguising himself as a freed Black sailor. He also smuggled his power of literacy. Upon adjusting to his newfound liberation, Douglass took to elevating his voice through lectures and powerful writings about his lived truths.

“My friends,  I  have come to tell you something about slavery—what I know of it,  as  I  have felt it. When  I  came  North,  I  was astonished to find that abolitionists knew so much about it, that they were acquainted with its deadly effects as well as if they had lived in its midst. But though they can give you its history—though they can depict its horrors, they cannot speak as I can from experience; they cannot refer you to a back covered with scars, as I can; for I have felt these wounds; I have suffered under the lash without the power of resisting.”  -Frederick Douglass, “I Have Come to Tell You Something About Slavery”(1841)

In my work, I am inspired by Douglass’s use of his trauma to inform those who will never know the impact of slavery and racial oppression. Through his truth-telling, Douglass humanized the oppressed and refuted white America’s contempt for Blackness. My own truth-telling of my lived experiences in and of the American school system as a biracial, bilingual, and bicultural Black and Japanese woman, also humanizes the realities of many students who are denied equitable access to opportunities for relevant and joyful learning. 

Douglass’s narrative provides an example of why Black people cannot be silent about how white supremacy culture harms all of us. 

Due to a lack of context and representation, our schools unwittingly cause harm in unknowable ways by hiding the full impact of historical figures and events on humanity. Without highlighting the truth and humanizing the impact, white educators are denied the opportunity to interrogate their biases and tap into their own humanity. 

Transmute Pain Into Purpose

Often in my pursuit to eradicate racism in our schools, I endure microaggressions, face hurtful assumptions, and retell difficult accounts of racial oppression. Douglass’s example bolsters my perseverance to carry on. If he was able to mentally and emotionally relive the horrors of slavery for the betterment of humanity, I can channel the hurt, frustration, and anger to transformative work toward antiracist learning experiences for students. 

I admit that we have irritated them. They deserve to be irritated. I am anxious to irritate the American people on this question. As it is in physics, so in morals, there are cases which demand irritation and counter-irritation. The conscience of the American public needs this irritation, and I would blister it all over from center to circumference until it gives signs of a purer and a better life than it is now manifesting to the world.                                     -Frederick Douglass, “Country, Conscious, and the Anti-Slavery Cause” (1847)

Painful and difficult truths serve as a vehicle for healing and empathy in the quest for antiracism. However, this sentiment also applies to the painful and difficult truths that surface for white people who are, knowingly or not, silent, ignorant, or contributing to the racial harm of others. These feelings reveal more than mere discomfort. It reflects the pain of realization that one’s privilege exists at a devastating cost paid by humans who are equally deserving of the opportunity to be whole.

Name the Problem 

“The true problem is not the negro, but the nation …The United States Government made the negro a citizen, will it protect him as a citizen? This is the problem. It made him a soldier, will it honor him as a patriot? This is the problem. It made him a voter, will it defend his right to vote? This is the problem.”                 -Frederick Douglass, “The Race Problem” (1890)

In a similar spirit to Douglass’s questions from over 100 years ago, I ask what is the true problem in our educational system. The U.S. government integrated schools, will it ensure truth and belonging for students of diverse identities and lived experiences? Will it provide unbiased access to high-quality and culturally relevant instruction? Will it offer equitable pathways to achievement? Will it regard Black children as deserving?

Frederick Douglass left behind a legacy that appeals to our humanity to respond in solidarity a resounding, “WE MUST.”

Tina Starks
Tina Starks is an educational designer for Student Achievement Partners and an education consultant. She is also a 2021-22 Teach Plus California Policy Senior Fellow.

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