No, You Should Not Be Teaching Black Children if You Reject Anti-Racism

May 5, 2021 12:00:00 AM


There would be no lynching if it did not start in the schoolroom.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson

The news has been full of parents, school boards and elected officials up in arms about the evils of anti-racism and critical race theory infiltrating their schools. Many states are taking governmental action

Last week, a piece circulated from Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, entitled, “I believe ‘anti-racism’ is misguided. Can I still teach Black children?” I debated whether I should respond to it, because it’s exhausting. But I know from my many years leading classrooms and schools that there are a lot of white teachers who are wrestling with these same questions, though they may not say it publicly. 

[pullquote]We need anti-racist white teachers, co-strategists and laborers in this work who are open to being deeply self-reflective about how to be the most effective at teaching Black and brown children[/pullquote] who have been systemically oppressed and marginalized. So in the interest of helping them, here are my answers to Pondiscio’s questions.

I believe anti-racism is misguided. Can I still teach Black children?

The short answer is: yes, you can, and probably will, because today’s society lets significant numbers of teachers who don’t know Black children, who can’t see Black children fully, who can’t see their own inherent racial biases against Black children, teach Black children. Today’s society even lets former teachers who don’t appear to have done the hard work of developing cultural fluency and learner readiness to become senior fellows at an institute whose website states it promotes educational excellence for every child in America—a massive contradiction as perhaps Black children are erased from these lofty goals. But then, that’s white privilege in a nutshell.

But should you teach Black children in a charter or otherwise? An emphatic no. Because a commitment to anti-racism should be non-negotiable in our profession. 

I wouldn’t want anyone who isn’t anti-racist to teach my children, nor the students at any school where I served. (Admittedly, I was never 100% successful in this.)

You and I agree on several things about education. However, having taught in a South Bronx public school and in Harlem charter schools, off and on, doesn’t absolve you of a racially biased mindset. Nor does your original intention to right the wrongs for low-income Black and brown children in America’s education system. 

Your urban teaching experience and lofty motivation actually make your mindset more dangerous because they present a veneer of credibility that belies your ignorance of the Black educational experience and harbors prejudices. 

I can’t help but wonder, among your high-performing former students, how much more could they have learned from a teacher who was committed to an anti-racist classroom? And to those students who didn’t perform as well, how much damage was potentially inflicted? 

Your entire argument is structured on a false dichotomy between an effective teacher and an anti-racist one—when, in fact, being anti-racist is a part of being effective. 

More concerning, your piece presents a dangerous distraction from work that is mission critical. You further confuse our allies, and energize a complacent base seeking arguments against dismantling systemic racism. Your post reminds of Toni Morrison’s warning and wisdom:

The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being… There will always be one more thing.

In providing an anti-racist educator’s answers to the same questions you pose, I hope to clear away what Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, an expert on race relations, calls “the smog of misinformation” surrounding your argument. 

I hope this helps refocus our collective attention back to identifying, training and supporting the revolutionary teachers our children desperately need. Effective anti-racist teachers who increasingly mirror our students’ identities, experience, worldviews, and aspirations. Teachers who can brighten our collective futures.  

Is aspiring to “colorblindness” disqualifying?

Yes, aspiring to “colorblindness” is disqualifying. [pullquote position="right"]Teachers are not fit to teach Black and brown children if they fail to understand that colorblindness is erasure.[/pullquote]

Erasure of students of color: their racial identities, their communities, their experiences, their histories, their worldviews. 

Your desire for a “colorblind” America (like your misappropriation of Dr. King’s words) just shows you don’t believe in (therefore, you don’t know how to support) the positive racial identities of Black and brown children. You don’t see their genius. You don’t know how to truly love them. 

And because of this inability, your solution is just to erase all that and make them more like you: “colorblind,” which is code for white. 

Colorblindness keeps us from holding up high standards and expectations for every student. Colorblindness keeps us from teaching as engagingly as possible. Colorblindness keeps us from offering a rich and rigorous curriculum. Colorblindness keeps us from fostering school cultures based on the nurturing of positive racial identities—that research has proven is so critical to student achievement. Colorblindness forces a default white paradigm and pedagogical framework on millions of diverse students.

Despite your rejection of “White Fragility,” you fit the very profile presented by Robin DiAngelo in her book of the same name. You substantiate how white people continue to uphold racial oppression and benefit from unearned privileges—including unilateral instructional decisions about what’s best for Black kids.

Your aspiration to colorblindness is worse than passivism or a refusal to confront biases. A deeply held “moral commitment” to colorblindness is a greased path to the dark side and is biased at the very core. 

Is the achievement gap real or is it racist even to refer to such a gap?

The achievement gap is real. And it is racist, as Ibram X. Kendi argues, in reference to measuring and thereby “degrading” the “aptitude” and “intelligence” of Black minds and “legally excluding Black bodies.” At the same time, you and I agree that it is a non-solution to abolish all testing. 

Standardized tests are far from perfect, but we need them and I want my children to perform well on them. Otherwise, how do we hold educators accountable? Especially for families from marginalized communities, where their children are coerced into schools solely based on their ZIP code—not choice, merit or anything else. I shudder at some of the rhetoric of teachers who say they don’t want to be observed and don’t want assessments or standards. They will state, accurately, that they aren’t prepared to teach Black children, but at the same time demand that we simply trust them when they say they are doing well by our children.

For Black parents like me, our children’s standardized testing clearly doesn’t paint the entire picture (yes, of course, they are more than a score), but it does give us some insight about, not just how well they’re doing, but teachers’ content expertise, and how well our schools are doing in educating students. We need to know how well our children can read and problem solve, how well teachers are teaching them to do it, and who we can learn from. 

[pullquote]Our history tells us we can’t afford to merely trust school systems and the educators who work for them to do right by our children.[/pullquote] Not when most don’t reflect their Black and brown identities and lives. Not when recent research shows the rampant racism of lower expectations and greater disciplinary actions against our Black and brown children by majority white teachers in our schools. Not when our 3- and 4- year-olds keep getting hurt by their teachers’ racial biases.

For now, standardized tests can show the failures of adults, schools and systems that result in the achievement and opportunity gaps and the mounting educational debt, and give us an opportunity to address it. But in setting up a false dialectic between testing and no testing, you are rehashing a stale discussion. 

The more vital, mission-critical discussion focuses on the yawning gap between educator mindsets fixated on low expectations and actual Black and brown student potential. [pullquote position="right"]We need to stop allowing educators to blame their own incompetence on children.[/pullquote] 

In adopting an anti-racist mindset, we would add complexity to the grading of our Black and brown children next to their racial/ethnic counterparts by insisting on a comparison of them against their future selves—their own God-given, limitless potential. Who they are and what skills they have now versus their aspirations and the problems they want to solve later. 

If we did this, we would know with greater clarity how to help them reach their self-directed goals. We would add to our nationwide dashboard much more compelling metrics, such as data from student surveys on how they experience school and classrooms, and measures of healthy student identity development and teacher-to-student parity rates for racial identity. Research has proven both are linked to significant jumps in Black students’ achievement. 

In the future, the better gaps to focus on to promote collective accountability are the mindset gaps and the educational debt owed to Black children.

Does anti-racism pedagogy demand—or even condone—inflicting emotional distress on children?

No, and it’s irresponsible of you to accuse anti-racists of inflicting emotional distress on white children (and I do assume that when you write “children” with no qualifier, you mean white children). Shame on you for accusing anti-racists of racism—for trying to incapacitate our important, life-saving work with this tedious, racist retort. 

Your presumption that we anti-racist educators don’t know the difference between whiteness and white children is offensive and inaccurate. It’s imperative that educators not lack the heart, and the sophistication, to understand the difference. 

You might be surprised that there are countless white parents who are raising emotionally healthy, anti-racist white children and countless white teachers who are educating emotionally healthy, anti-racist white students.

In teaching history, anti-racists teach children to think critically and to ask questions, such as whose voice is missing, whose perspective isn't here, what’s the point of view, is it biased? The result of this kind of teaching is empathy and critical thinking. The goal of anti-racist teachers is not emotional distress, but empathy, critical thinking, and a view wider than the history written by invaders and lionized in traditional curricula. Don’t get it confused.

Empathy is productive and powerful, the seedling to the truth and reconciliation our country has never been able to handle. But perhaps it will be our next generation of empathetic white children who will join forces as adult allies with Black and brown people to make this a reality. [pullquote]The revolution of liberating education begins in our classrooms with empathy, along with the truth about how this country was founded and how inequity has been maintained and protected for generations.[/pullquote]

But colorblind teachers will continue to produce white supremacists. For 13 years, they teach white students that Black and brown people have contributed little, while white people wrote the classics and lead everything, that their Black and brown peers can’t be expected to do well in school because they’re always in trouble. 

You might learn something from Dr. Ali Michael, whose goal is “to create healthy multiracial schools in which every child can show up and be their whole selves,” by mobilizing “education as a tool for addressing historical and systemic racism” and encouraging “authentic relationships” based on truly seeing one another and not force-fed stereotypes.

Maybe after intensive, paid consultation with her, you could wax rationally, if not eloquently, about the emotional distress fellow white (“colorblind”) pedagogues have inflicted on Black and brown children for generations? 

Perhaps, after a lot of courageous self-reflection, you could talk about how Black people have been demonized for being born, condemned with not only language but laws, in an attempt to make them feel less than human. You might then finally be able to understand how [pullquote]Black children have been made to feel uncomfortable about their identities in school—not just recently, but ever since public schooling has existed in this country.[/pullquote]

Are you uncomfortable yet?

If yes, then according to your educational theory of change, you could be learning something significant. But we sincerely hope we didn’t upset you based on who you are and what you look like. 

When anti-racism conflicts with effective literacy practices, what should schools do?

This is a trick question. 

When does anti-racism ever conflict with effective literacy practices? It doesn’t. 

The better question to answer is: Why put forth the falsehood that anti-racism conflicts with effective literacy practices? 

Because of colorblindness and pedagogical inadequacies. Those who ask this question don’t possess the mindsets, nor the skills, to appreciate the power of anti-racist teaching in propelling effective literacy practices.  

At the organization I recently founded and now lead, the Center for Black Educator Development, we proudly model the power of an anti-racist Black pedagogical approach to effective literacy practices in our Freedom Schools Literacy Academy. We focus on three main areas:

  • Positive racial identity development.
  • Phonics.
  • Reading comprehension.

Our work is grounded in the research and practices of the likes of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Dr. Nell Duke, Dr. Alfred Tatum, Dr. Miriam Ortiz, and others. By summer’s end, our Pre-K to third-graders make significant leaps in learning. 

Last summer, during a pandemic that forced our academy to go virtual, our young scholars still experienced an average rate gain of 70% in reading, while their peers in advanced classes experienced a 240% jump, while using evidence-based reading curricula and supplemental culturally responsive texts. 

There are more gains. 

Almost all our young scholars report increased positive views of themselves, their communities and racial identity. Parent emails detail how their children are not just academically more confident, but psychologically healthier and emotionally nourished. 

Data from Center for Black Educator Development 2020 cohort of the Freedom Schools Literacy Academy.

Why is an anti-racist approach paramount to teaching literacy, from reading skills to college literature? One that celebrates Blackness and Black pedagogy and tells a fuller story than the one purported by whiteness? 

Studies have shown higher racial-ethnic pride is related to higher academic achievement measured by grades and test scores.

Cultural positivity counters the devastating impact of a pervasive racist, colorblind education that effectively erases Black and brown children to make them white. 

When a “colorblind” educator says “every child in an American K-12 school should have the opportunity” to a clear-eyed view of American history, he’s talking about the white version: “the culture that dominates” that American history. 

You underestimate the power of the narratives that are fast eclipsing the incomplete, inaccurate and racist version of history. Because [pullquote]our students, more than half of whom are students of color in public schools, are increasingly demanding a history and language that is true, reflective and compelling.[/pullquote] This is not new, and nothing, and no one, can hold them back for too long. They are rewriting the worldØand the curricula.

This is not parochialism, but how education equity is being achieved in our diverse and plural society. 

Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

Chinua Achebe

Are white teachers still welcome in non-white charter schools?

Yes, anti-racist ones. And those striving to be anti-racist. 

The only prerequisites: They must understand, contrary to what some insist, that we do not live in a post-racial society. They must be able to handle candid feedback, even about their color blindness and racism. 

They should realize they’re not being asked “to treat students differently on the basis of race,” but rather to treat Black and brown students differently than they’ve been treating them: under-expecting them to achieve and over-expending disciplinary actions. 

Your criticism of anti-racist pedagogies and practices—insidiously in the guise of grappling forthrightly with a “shared mission to advance the interests of Black and brown children”—is unconvincing. Not because you may be afraid of de-centered or displaced whiteness, nor because of the seemingly lazy path you have taken in wrestling with issues of race, class, power and privilege. It’s because you’re not credible in this particular space.

Not once in your argument do you show yourself as someone who can see Black and brown students fully, including in terms of their racial identities. If you can’t see them, how can you love and care for them to reach their fullest potential?

When you spoke of schools as safe spaces, you don’t mention the police state Black and brown children have to suffer. How Black girls are denigrated for their hair. How Muslim boys are forced to go by nicknames because their teachers find Mo not as offensive as Muhammad and Muslim girls are denigrated for clothing they choose to wear. How our children have to shrink themselves to fit into a colorblind mold. 

Peggy Brookins, from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, asked the question: Why do we have to teach white teachers to love Black children, when you never had to teach us how to love white children? 

In the view of many teachers, effective education for all children means high standards and expectations, both academically and behaviorally—for students and educators. That meets my test for anti-racist education. But does it meet yours? 

Only someone in denial about the ingrained nature of white supremacy in the United States says something like, “I do not believe that white supremacy is the primary stumbling block to educational progress.”

Only a person who misses the connection between the personal and the political creates a false dichotomy between “fixing institutions” and “changing racial attitudes.”

Only someone who has avoided the powerfully transformative work of wrestling humbly with their own assumptions and biases fails to see the necessity for teachers to do that work to stop failing Black and brown children.

Only someone shortsighted enough to miss the power of role models and an environment that affirms all cultural identities and authentic relationships with students would fail to embrace teacher diversity and the power of Black liberation pedagogy to drive education equity and save lives.

As scholar Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings informs us

Typically, white middle-class prospective teachers have little or no understanding of their own culture. Notions of whiteness are taken for granted. They rarely are interrogated. But being white is not merely about biology. It is about choosing a system of privilege and power. 

To paraphrase Nelly Fuller Jr., if you don’t understand white supremacy, it will only serve to confuse you. It’s OK to be uncomfortable, but please don’t stay confused. 

[pullquote]You are unfit to teach Black and brown children if you do not see your dual role as an educator also responsible for dismantling systemic racism.[/pullquote] As Marilyn Cochran Smith says, if you don’t see yourself in this way, get out of the way. As a white man, you will always have a school to teach in, but our Black children are better off without you.

As I said, I hesitated to offer this response, but I decided to share my answers in offering a way out of the “smog of misinformation.” To leave no doubt. 

It’s true that there may be many things we agree on. But as the venerated scholar Derrick Bell wrote, interest convergence may occur at times with the most unlikely groups, but anti-racist educators can’t forget our primary interest: educational justice that leads to Black liberation. Anything else is likely a compromise not worth pursuing. I recall you writing in 2016 that social justice warriors were endangering our allyship in education reform. But we never had a true allyship if you can’t see our children.

No permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interest. Our community’s permanent interest is the liberation of Black children.

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the Founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. The Center exists to ensure there will be equity in the recruiting, training, hiring, and retention of quality educators that reflect the cultural backgrounds and share common socio-political interests of the students they serve. The Center is developing a nationally relevant model to measurably increase teacher diversity and support Black educators through four pillars: Professional learning, Pipeline, Policies and Pedagogy. So far, the Center has developed ongoing and direct professional learning and coaching opportunities for Black teachers and other educators serving students of color. The Center also carries forth the freedom or liberation school legacy by hosting a Freedom School that incorporates research-based curricula and exposes high school and college students to the teaching profession to help fuel a pipeline of Black educators. Prior to founding the Center, El-Mekki served as a nationally recognized principal and U.S. Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow. El-Mekki’s school, Mastery Charter Shoemaker, was recognized by President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, and was awarded the prestigious EPIC award for three consecutive years as being amongst the top three schools in the country for accelerating students’ achievement levels. The Shoemaker Campus was also recognized as one of the top ten middle school and top ten high schools in the state of Pennsylvania for accelerating the achievement levels of African-American students. Over the years, El-Mekki has served as a part of the U.S. delegation to multiple international conferences on education. He is also the founder of the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice, an organization dedicated to recruiting, retaining, and developing Black male teachers. El-Mekki blogs on Philly's 7th Ward, is a member of the 8 Black Hands podcast, and serves on several boards and committees focused on educational and racial justice.

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