The Responsibility to Listen First

I have come to believe that we are not listening to the right people when it comes to improving educational opportunity and equity. 

In saying this, I should confess that I am part of the problem.  I am a white, native English-speaking, heterosexual man working in education who has opinions about what should be done (and not done) to improve educational opportunity and increase equity and who has a platform (albeit a modest one) for making those opinions known.  In general, I think that there are too many people like me in conversations about education policy and reform, and we are too loud and too confident.  Certainly, I am not the first or the only person to say such things.  I am merely writing this as part of my penance. 

I do not want to remove myself from the conversations entirely, merely reflect on my place and my role.  After all, I care deeply about issues of educational justice, and I enjoy deliberating about education reform and equity, and I even think that I sometimes add constructively to a conversation.  However, I am convinced that I – and those who have the same unearned privileges I enjoy – need to rethink how we engage in conversations with people of color in the education space. 

People of color in this country, whether students or teachers or academics or policymakers or otherwise, bear too much responsibility for explaining what it's like to struggle against a deeply ingrained (if not always explicit) white supremacy at all levels of the education sphere. The unique lived experiences of people of color make their perspectives essential to debates about education policy and especially about educational equity.  And white people, like me, need to be more humble and do more listening.  And when we do speak, we should make sure that some of the time we spend talking is spent amplifying the voices of others.  (Encouragingly, this week in New Orleans, approaching the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, academics and practitioners and policymakers from several cities are gathering to do precisely this:  to listen to and amplify the voices and concerns of parents and community members, many of them people of color, about the remaking of the New Orleans school system.) 

I write all of this because I have been thinking lately about my education as a white person.  The last few years have been marked by striking contradictions in our collective understanding of race.  Outward signs of progress – for example, the election of a black president – belie a persistent gap in our shared reckoning with racial injustice.  Despite nominal support for integration, schools remain overwhelmingly segregated by race.  And such segregation extends beyond schools.  The 2013 American Values Survey found that considerable evidence of self-segregation by race, with the social networks of white people 91 percent white.  This may help to explain the gap in how white people and people of color interpret and respond to the many tragic and well-publicized events of the last year, like the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Tanisha Anderson, Sandra Bland, and Samuel DuBose, among many others. We are not talking or listening to people who are different from us.

It is naïve to think that education policy discussions can be divorced completely from the socio-political contexts in which they are taking place – contexts in which mass incarceration swallows up six times as many black people as white and in which the median net worth of a white family is 13 times as much as a black family ($142,000 compared to $11,000).  If we care about closing achievement and opportunity gaps in education – and we should – then we must pay serious attention to the perspectives and experiences of people who have been wounded by structural racism and educational inequality. 

One space that has consistently nurtured frank and constructive conversations about race and education is the #Educolor movement, both on and off social media.  A diverse community of educators and activists whose mission is to “to elevate the voices of public school advocates of color on educational equity and justice,” #Educolor hosts regular and resource-rich online chats about such issues and then curates them for use and outside the classroom.  But more than a resource clearinghouse, Educolor seems to me an example of what feminist scholar bell hooks called a “community of resistance,” a place where otherwise marginalized perspectives are validated and nourished, where counter-hegemonic discourse is elevated, and where people find the strength and encouragement to imagine alternatives.  Because Educolor conversations are open to all, I am able – privileged, even – to listen and learn from them.

I recognize that the voices of people of color are hardly a monolithic bloc (and nor should they be).  I further recognize that I may agree with some of these voices and disagree with others.  But if we are going to make progress toward greater educational equity in any meaningful way, then I need to recognize that my voice is only one of many and that my unearned privilege means that one of the most valuable contributions I can make is to listen first.