I have been doing a lot of writing recently about why integrated schools are essential for equity – and specifically, why sending my children to integrated schools would be good for them, their peers, and their schools. But recently, I’ve been asking whether my motives are as pure as they seem and just how much it matters.
In a blog post reflecting on her experience at “Twitter Math Camp,” elementary teacher Marian Dingle asks an essential (and often overlooked) question, “Why should we be more diverse?” She adds that without defining terms and “clarifying the why” any efforts to increase diversity – whether at Twitter Math Camp or in public schools – are liable to be inauthentic and unsustainable.
Building on this point, another math teacher and blogger Grace Chen noted that the question Dingle posed was “both… important to answer and so much harder to answer than it may initially appear.” Exploring the question’s complexity and nuance, Chen analyzed and critiqued some common and, for her, “deeply dissatisfying” answers. Too often, she wrote,
institutions (and people) turn to the argument that diversity is good for the community… These claims may be true, but my concern is that they’re instrumental. They position “the diverse people” as being valuable and welcome because of what they can teach those who were already in the community. (emphasis in original)
My wife, herself a math teacher, shared these posts with me. When she read them in the quiet dark of our house after the kids were asleep, we stood together in silence for what felt a long time. We puzzled over Dingle’s question. We second-guessed our motives. Our determination to send our kids to diverse city schools – and our determination not to exercise our white privilege and move to a suburb – seemed right, but was our rationale wrong? Just what was our rationale, anyway?
How we reconciled our uncertainty mattered. Both Dingle and Chen challenged us to “clarify the why.” If we had instrumental reasons for wanting diversity – that is, if we wanted them to go to city schools primarily for their own benefit or for how they’d benefit students color – then we would be patting ourselves on the back for the wrong reason. As Dingle implied and Chen confirmed, instrumental motivation for diversity is problematic because it does nothing to interrupt a profoundly unjust status quo. There needed to be a deeper reason.
In the days of self-reflection that followed, I turned to Critical Race Theory, a movement that first emerged among legal scholars more than four decades ago but which has since found a home in other disciplines. Gloria Ladson-Billings, applying CRT to education, identified some of its key features: (1) an acknowledgment that racism is a pervasive and permanent feature of American society, (2) a challenge to social science and legal claims of neutrality, objectivity, and colorblindness, which are often used to mask the self-interest of dominant groups, and (3) an insistence on elevating stories and first-person accounts of people victimized by racism (1998, pp. 11-12).
Regarding the first point, we can only seriously address problems that we can see and about which we have some common understanding. And despite the historic role racism played in the founding of our country and its continued pervasiveness in American life, black and white Americans perceive racism very differently. According to one recent poll, 85 percent of black respondents said black people face a lot of discrimination, but only 50 percent of white respondents said the same thing.
The impulse on the part of many white people not to see race and racism – or not to see it at work in all things everyday – may be explained, at least in part, by self-interest. Racism and white privilege are inextricably tethered to each other: to see the former is to be implicated by the latter. And so numerous rationales have been developed and refined to preserve and protect the elevated status of whiteness, including myths of meritocracy and colorblindness. Given this, as Ladson-Billings (1998) noted, “the strategy becomes one of unmasking and exposing racism in its various permutations” (p. 11).
To push against race blindness, white people must not only see race and acknowledge race as a dominant and destructive force; we must also commit ourselves and each other to making it visible and disrupting the mechanisms by which it operates. Among these are systems of school funding, school quality measurement, and school assignment.
Given the vast scope of racism’s influence, the idea that enrolling two white children in a largely black and brown school could lead to any meaningful change in the status quo is quaint but naïve. It’s a drop in the bucket. Without a deeper reason, what could it possibly do except make me feel good about myself?
And so it’s clear that my motives matter a lot. If I adopt a CRT perspective and acknowledge the persistence and permanence of racism and if I see myself having a personal responsibility to disrupt it where I can, then rejecting my white privilege – in this case, the resources to be able to move to a more resourced and less diverse school district – is a concrete and meaningful act of disruption. Derrick Bell, renowned legal scholar and one of the originators of CRT, noted that “by refusing to accept without question the privileges of whiteness, [white people] begin the process of destabilizing that construction which society relies on to preserve the current system of racial subordination” (2000, pp. 541-542).
What’s more, if by their presence in black and brown spaces my children can become attentive listeners to and guardians of the life histories and counternarratives told to them by their African American peers and teachers, then they may – with time – be better positioned as allies, resisters, and counter-storytellers themselves. That’s not insignificant. Indeed, Bell further added that deep knowledge of the experience of racism – as communicated through stories and allegories – may lead to an “enlightened, humility-based commitment” to disrupting it (p. 543).
It has taken me more than 40 years and several hundred pages of reading the stories and counternarratives of African Americans fighting for recognition and justice to be able to write this. And my work will never be done. My hope in enrolling my children in integrated schools is that they will not need to do nearly as much homework as I’ve needed to do in order to become accomplished and lifelong students of history, engaged in and committed to the ongoing struggle for racial justice.