Why Every School Needs Diversity Training . . . NOW

Racism in America is vile, all-consuming, repugnant, pervasive, intertwined into the very foundation, and so systemic that it permeates every institution, historical document, law, tradition, value, community, geographic location, organization, corporation/business, socioeconomic and political structure and is seamlessly embedded into the very psyche of every, single American, without exception. Insofar as America is synonymous with racism and is the modern progenitor of a capitalist infused, globally exerted brand of institutionalized racism, the two are inextricably tied by historical fact and as unaltered over time. Now that the epistemology of America’s racism has been prefaced, we can begin to examine the intersection between racism and education and interrogate the value of diversity training from a common knowledge base.

Among scholars, historians, and even some scientists the permanence of racism in the fabric of American society is an inarguable fact – and the emboldened degrees of hatred and xenophobia we have experienced under the inane presidency of such a virulent racist like Donald Trump has reached new heights. As such, the sheer frequency of newsworthy, racism-fueled actions across the nation have re-ignited the narrative on anti-bias and diversity training in corporations, small businesses and institutions alike. This awareness-filled instruction is neither proactive nor commendable when adopted merely as a “politically correct” facade to salvage the credibility, public image and financial coffers of an institution after having fallen prey to public shame and scandal (think Starbucks). Yet, the overwhelmingly successful and ongoing “unconscious bias” training at Google has established the Internet search engine giant as one of the most successful organizations in the U.S. for attracting younger and more culturally diverse applicants. With a sizable majority of 40.28% of young people preferring to work at Google, citing people/culture fit (and not compensation), as the primary impetus for their employment decisions; Google has the pick of the litter when it comes to recruiting young and diverse Millennials (Agrawal, 2014, Harvard Business Review). Essentially, diversity and inclusion programs have re-emerged, rightfully so, as a viable counter to the universality of racism in Trump’s America, thus it is now time for ALL schools to follow suit.

The popular trend of soliciting police enforcement to assuage White people’s fears, unfounded hatred and racist ideologies is now so commonplace that it is not limited to: driving while Black, waiting in Starbucks while Black, golfing while Black, grilling in public parks while Black, checking out of Airbnb’s while Black and/or simply breathing while Black in countless public spaces – but has permeated our schools as well. In May, 2018 Shanna Swearingen, a school principal in Houston, Texas made a racist, offhand remark to her staff about a disabled, Black student who had run out of class, that she should “call the police and tell them the student had a gun so they would come quicker”. Although she was unavailable for public comment following the justified public uproar her comment elicited, the unfit administrator later released a statement juxtaposing her wholly thoughtless remark with the “hard year” the community had experienced from the damage of Hurricane Harvey (imagine the Caucasity?!). From the ranks of the teaching staff, racism-fueled transgressions run the gamut from teachers like Dayanna Volitich, 25, who taught social studies at Crystal River Middle School in Florida and secretly hosted a White supremacist podcast espousing anti-Black, and anti-muslim views. Prior to resigning in shame after being outed by the Huffington Post, Volitich publicly admitted to lying to her school principal in response to parents’ complaints that she had injected her toxic political bias in classroom instruction. She feigned alignment with the school’s curriculum during classroom observations and evaluations. She even used social media to promote her belief that her White nationalist peers needed to infiltrate public schools as teachers. Across the country, other teachers have increasingly come under fire for assigning racist, insensitive and subjective class projects on enslavement to uttering racial epithets during the course of instruction or while disciplining students. Adding insult to injury, on June 5, 2018 an elementary teacher was reprimanded by her school’s board for posting a photo of the back of one of her student’s braided heads beside a stereotypical image of a pickaninny on her Instagram account. Such reprehensible examples of racism are not limited to administrators and staff however, but manifest among the students as well. As recently as May, 2018 four Maryland teens faced misdemeanor hate crimes and multiple counts of destruction of property for spray-painting their collective sentiments of hatred on topics ranging from race, color, religious belief, and sexual orientation all across their high school exterior. Their offensive display of swastikas and slurs were documented by school cameras and reported to have been targeted to the Howard County high school’s Black principal, in particular. Alas, this is America(n) education.

Needless to say, racism is no less apparent beyond the scope of K-12 education. Following a highly publicized incident of racism-fueled police intervention on the campus of Yale University at the behest of a known racist, undergraduate student, (when a Black student fell asleep in the dorm room lounge, where she is an authorized resident no less), Yale’s president Peter Salovey released a statement positing “personally, recent events have led me to reflect in new ways on the ordinary daily actions each of us can take to show empathy, to see and understand what others are experiencing, and to combat hate and exclusion”. His woefully insufficient personal sentiment for morality and goodwill paled in comparison to the candor and brevity in the response of Kimberly Goff-Crews, the university’s vice president for student life, who sent an email to students, unapologetically documenting that the predominantly White Ivy League school still has “so much more to do” to address discrimination (Gontcharova, 2018). The administrative response of the latter is resoundingly more appropriate and instructive to us all, in that racism and its insidious by-products cannot be wished or empathized into submission but must be combatted through targeted, conscious action on the part of pedagogical leaders who are empowered to either counter or proliferate the existence of America’s immense structure of institutionalized racism. We must also permanently retire the common misperception among White teachers that because they chose the teaching profession (and work in urban or high-needs schools), they can’t be racist. Historically, the teaching profession is not unlike others in that it was tasked with the expressed purpose of perpetuating Whiteness/White supremacy via curriculum and policies.

Racism, elitism and White privilege are so firmly rooted in education as to render diversity training one of many mandated curriculum strands required for the well-rounded, rigorous and relevant professional development offerings of all educators and pedagogical leaders. In America, schools suffer the unchecked, rampant presence of institutionalized racism in the various forms of: the re-emerging presence of segregated schools, the DeVos inspired growth of for-profit charter schools, the inherently biased per-pupil-funding allotment formula (tied to generational wealth, housing discrimination, zip codes, and property values), an outdated Eurocentric curriculum, the marked absence of diversity in teacher education, school disciplinary practices tied to the intentional expansion of the prison industrial complex (I.E. the school-to-prison pipeline), and the widening of the achievement gap – largely fueled by the legendary and still pervasive mis-eduction of Black students. Educational institutions that continue to operate in a vacuum, business as usual, despite the presence of these significant injustices will only serve to exacerbate the problem of racism in education, given that from a societal standpoint – our differences are widening and the presence of racism is more, not less pronounced. A seismic shift in America’s demographics is presently underway and by 2050 the Census Bureau has long predicted that Blacks, Latinos and all other cultural ethnicities will comprise the majority population in the U.S. According to a study on the impact of America’s imminent minority-majority shift based upon Census data, scientists Richeson and Craig found that exposure to the census report nudged study participants to be more conservative on a variety of policies. The findings published in Psychological Science, further surmise that the reality of America’s increasing cultural plurality provokes White people of all political backgrounds to become more conservative and is deemed as a status threat to the existing social order of White supremacy. Ultimately, Richeson and Craig conclude that the lightning speed of increasing diversity might indeed render America an even more hostile, and less compassionate place (as if!). These findings, coupled with the alarming absence of diversity in teacher education, which according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education reflects a diversity growth rate of only 0.2% since 1988, means that as soon as 2024, while students of diverse ethnicities will make up more than half of U.S. classrooms, minority teachers (if hiring continues at its current pace), will only comprise 20.5 percent of the educator workforce. This statistic alone signals that education is ground zero as the nucleus of disproportionate rates of institutionalized racism and gross inequalities.

The evils of racism are ever-present and observable in each of the aforementioned contexts, despite well-meaning arguments to the contrary. Although there are certainly periods of dormancy, some which have even sparked the incredulous theory (myth), of a post-racial society – all signs point to the impact of racism getting much worse, long before things get better. Targeted education c/o the universal inclusion of diversity training in all schools, is warranted. “It’s a myth that our country will somehow become more progressive. And it’s equally a myth to think that our children will save us”, according to Yale University social psychologist Jennifer Richeson. “Yes, there have been gains in policy like allowing interracial marriage and discrimination laws, but when it comes to our interpersonal biases, it’s simply not true that we just need to wait for the few old racist men left in the South to die off and then we’ll be fine. The rhetoric for racism is still in place. The environment for racism is still there. Unless we change that, we can’t lessen racism” (Kaplan & Wan, 2017). The deeply embedded, structural nature of the institution of racism in America and in particular within education, is fixed and manifests through traditional policies and practices. Therefore, as long as we do the same things, we will engender the same results. Diversity and anti-bias training initiatives are but one salient remedy to treat the scourge of the terminal cancer of racism that has permeated this diseased American society. Every school needs rigorous, relevant and competent diversity training now, in order to attempt to rid itself of its own unique form of the universal illness of racism. Even then, this remedy should not be administered in isolation, but rather must be strategically coupled with other liberating efforts like: the ongoing mass opposition to DeVos’ targeted commercialization and privatization of schools; teachers nationwide protesting and fighting for better pay and legislative change; all Americans opposing future cuts to education and advocating for increased federal and state investment in our schools; decolonizing the curriculum, instruction and disciplinary protocols; leveling the playing field in recruitment, hiring and teacher retention strategies while tackling the increasing incidents of racism and xenophobia in all of our K-12 schools and college campuses. This is a powerful call to action to #EducateToLiberate and impact the real crises in education . . . of which institutionalized racism is at the very, rotten core.

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Published by Nefertari Nkenge

Nefertari Nkenge, Ed.D. is a well respected transformative leader in pedagogy. The unique combination of over two decades of classroom instruction, curriculum/professional development innovation, urban school administrative leadership and a lifelong commitment to grassroots activism and social justice - informs the empowering Educate to Liberate model.

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