Reforming While White

As a white person in education reform, I’ve struggled with my place or my right to a place in the conversation about race. I will never experience what it means to be seen—or unseen, as is often the case—by far too many as threatening, lesser than or not immediately deserving of the benefit of the doubt. I can empathize. I can sympathize. I can do my best to understand. But, I will never know. I’m upset about Michael Brown. I’m outraged by the decision on Eric Garner. I care deeply about these issues. I want to be a part of the conversation. Do I have a place in it? I soaked in my discomfort. I reply: Yes. I’ll tell you why.

A Responsibility to Talk

It’s our responsibility to have real conversations about race—maybe even more so for white Americans and white education reformers committed to social justice. The United States is a nation built on many positive legacies, but also an ugly one: slavery. We are only 150 years out from its abolition, a skip in time. The belief that systemic brutality at that level and scope could be wiped away with the wave of a century and a half is delusional at best. Yet, I’ve heard white people say it out loud. Whites espousing that misguided nonsense deserve to hear from other white people. We should be talking about the fact that we’re still reaping the benefits of America’s history, while blacks still endure its ramifications, unable to enjoy the accruement of generational wealth, discriminated against in housing and job markets, and segregated into high-poverty neighborhoods. Let’s burst the post-racial myth bubble. More than that, we should be talking to our children about race—not about being color blind, but about celebrating difference and diversity. We should be educating them about the truth of the past and the present, while instilling in them that they are the hope for the future, because they are.

Talk to Children About Race

We need to stop pretending that race doesn’t exist. Children see color; they aren’t blind. My daughter calls her cousins, who both have the same name, Ava with the “brown face” and Ava with the “white face.” This appalls some of my extended family. Why? Because we’re supposed to talk about race in hushed tones or not at all. But, to a 3-year-old, my niece’s brown face is not a signifier. It comes with no unfair connotations or bigoted, societal baggage. To parents, I say, “Talk about it!” Silence sends the message that race is a shameful topic. It suggests that something about my perfect Ava should be made quiet. Whatever it is that halts these conversations—white guilt, political correctness or believing the post-racial myth, we need to get over it and have a collective conversation with ourselves, our neighbors and our children. As white people, we have the luxury of pretending race isn’t there. Many clearly don’t. All of us need to realize that imagining something doesn’t make it so. Even more important, we should bring our children together to live, learn and play. Children who are exposed to children of other races are less likely to be prejudiced as adults. The National Coalition on School Diversity has extensive research on this point and many other positive correlations. Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter of the Century Foundation have written a book, A Smarter Charter, on the value of diverse schools academically and socially. There's a movement of public charter schools (full disclosure: I work for some of them) that are intentionally diverse with excellent results.

Our Future is Majority Minority

This year, the combined number of Latino, African-American, Asian and Native American students in public K-12 schools surpassed whites. Yet The Atlantic published a distressing piece on the increasing re-segregation of our schools. It cannot be overstated what a step backwards this is for our nation. How can we learn to know, understand and love one another if we have no contact with each other? How can we be friends when we have no opportunities to forge friendships? Our future is one that will become majority minority. That gives me hope for a society that can blend and celebrate difference—particularly as interracial relationships and children flourish. However, if we choose as a nation to grow more divided while our population grows more diverse, I fear for our future. Therefore, I am going to keep talking and writing. I’m going to keep working towards more diverse and equitable schools. I’m going to accept that because I am white, there are limitations to what I can bring to the conversation on race, but that it doesn’t mean my voice has no value. Moreover, it certainly doesn’t mean I have no responsibility.
Katelyn Silva
Katelyn Silva is mom to a third grader and an education writer in Providence, Rhode Island. She operates her own education writing consulting business. She was previously the chief communications officer at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a nonprofit dedicated to opening intentionally diverse public charter schools. Prior to that, she was the communications director at the University of Chicago ...

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