Parents, I can say with confidence the classrooms your children left in the spring will not be the same one they will return to this fall—and not only because of COVID-19 social distancing restrictions.
We are now witnessing one of the most widespread racial justice fights our nation has ever seen. This fight is present at the protests, at the dinner table, on television and all over social media. Students are watching this country’s every move closely. They are seeing in real-time the deep-rooted systemic issues that constrain the freedom of members of the Black community.
Right now, schools try to be apolitical. K-12 teachers are often punished if they discuss politics, particularly their own beliefs, with their students. This has been stunting the emotional and social growth of students more than we might realize. Issues that have previously been viewed as political are now a matter of character, one of the values many schools try to build in their students.
As a nation, we tend to believe talking about race is inherently political because we correlate antiracism to political issues such as the prison system, income inequality, and other policy issues that our political representatives vote and make decisions on. These issues should not only concern the Black community, but white leaders have historically created a system to disadvantage the Black community in order to retain power and maintain their social position, so these issues disproportionately affect them.
In schools, teachers are told to keep politics and race out of the classroom in order to protect themselves, but also to protect the white fragility and privilege of many parents. Yet, racism can also be more about character than it is about politics. Being a good person means that you are trying to be actively anti-racist, and that is something that should be taught in schools. If schools are trying to build good character, along with academic progress, teachers should be supported in talking about racism in our country at the national and local levels and helping their students learn how to be actively anti-racist.
Since understanding racism is going to be at the front of many students’ minds in the fall, those students who will get the opportunity to learn about the history of racism in our country and how it is still present systemically and being perpetuated by white privilege will begin to understand their place in relation to race and quite possibly commit to becoming anti-racist, thus taking a step in the direction of building good character.
And since our community norms have changed due to the Black Lives Matter Movement, our support for teachers to have difficult discussions also must change. Once “radical classrooms” should be recognized for what they are doing: building student character. Unfortunately, administrations and school boards are going to try to censor and silence these conversations as they have in the past.
This raises the question, who are they trying to protect themselves from? And the answer is, administrators are trying to protect themselves from you, parents. They particularly fear powerful parents who benefit from white privilege. They are so afraid of backlash from you that for years administrators have told their teachers to “play it safe,” limiting conversations about race and many other topics considered “uncomfortable.”
White Parents, Please Join Me in Having Uncomfortable Conversations
White parents with a conscience and a desire to build racial justice and equity: You are watching the news and probably want to make a difference, a difference that can be passed down for generations. Your voice is not only needed when voting at the national level, but it is also needed at the local level, as local as your own school district. Nothing is more important than using your voice to improve your children’s schools. When white people of privilege shy away from these conversations at home and in school, we are perpetuating racism.
School boards, administrations, and teachers will be more comfortable including progressive discussion about racism and anti-racism into classroom curriculums if they know they have your’ support. You could even encourage school leaders to dive into the systemic racism within the school itself, and to consider how they should fix these disparities.
School boards and administrations will listen to you, so take the opportunity to support a school that could truly build good character by writing to the principal or going to school board meetings with other BIPOC allies. A school that promotes anti-racist discussion will create a more diverse, engaged and anti-racist group of future leaders.
Now is the time that we must use our white privilege, and our white voices—the only voices that many people will listen to—to fight for racial justice in our schools in order to make it a more comfortable place for the Black community and other minority groups.
Grace Harkins studies education and government at St. Lawrence University, where she participates in a summer fellowship on social justice and education. In the future, Grace hopes to pursue graduate studies in education.