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Leadership Insights

Leading Difficult Staff Conversations About Race

By The Room 241 Team September 26, 2018

Talking about race and its effect on academic achievement and teacher practice is one of the most intimidating and difficult conversations today. However, in order to truly disrupt inequity and provide the very best learning environment for out students, it is imperative that we unpack the intrinsic behaviors, deep beliefs, mindsets, and behaviors that harm our ability to be effective in closing the racial achievement gap. We’ll help get you started in leading conversations about race, and share some expert resources to continue and deepen the work.

Breaking the silence

Educators and school leaders can begin this work by having difficult conversations about race to surface implicit biases, prejudices, and the consequences of those beliefs.

“The effort to eliminate racial disparities in student achievement is an essential part of the unfinished business of the modern civil rights movement,” says Dr. Pedro Noguera in his book Unfinished Business: Closing the Racial Achievement Gap in Our Schools. As such, the issues cannot be ignored.

“Stereotypes, omissions, and distortions all contribute to the development of prejudice,” says Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, in her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race. “Prejudice is a preconceived judgment or opinion, usually based on limited information. Though I have often heard students or workshop participants describe someone as not having ‘a prejudiced bone in his body,’ I usually suggest that they look again. Prejudice is one of the inescapable consequences of living in a racist society.”

Getting started with four agreements

Glenn E. Singleton, creator of the Courageous Conversations Protocol and author of Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools — a framework used in school districts across the country — identifies four agreements necessary for beginning conversations about race in schools:

  1. Stay engaged.
  2. Experience discomfort.
  3. Speak your truth.
  4. Expect and accept non-closure.

Staying engaged means “remaining morally, emotionally, intellectually, and socially involved in the dialogue,” according to Singleton. Engagement requires that participants continually come back to these challenging conversations, rather than merely conversing once and retreating back into silence.

Discomfort is a real factor in this kind of discourse. José Luis Vilson, author of This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, discusses the concept of discomfort on his blog. “Discussions about big ideas like race, religion, and politics necessitate some discomfort. By discomfort, I mean that people who participate in the discussion have a degree of soul-searching and reassessment about their own perceptions and biases. For instance, does one person find that their opinions get listened to more readily than those of certain school colleagues? Do they always sit with people of similar interests, or does it go deeper than that? How often do they interact with people that don’t look like them or speak like them? As long as people begin with a clear understanding that the discussion won’t start off with warm, fuzzy feelings, then the next few steps become easier.”

The third agreement of speaking your truth asks participants to move away from just saying what they think they should say and speaking instead with honesty and authentic self-reflection.

Non-closure means that conversations about race are unlikely to be resolved in a neat and expedient manner. Conversations must be ongoing and should leave room for continued thought, growth, and evolution.

Checking your privilege

“When somebody asks you to ‘check your privilege’ they are asking you to pause and consider how the advantages you’ve had in life are contributing to your opinions and actions, and how the lack of disadvantages in certain areas is keeping you from fully understanding the struggles others are facing and may, in fact, be contributing to those struggles,” says Ijeoma Oluo in her book So You Want to Talk About Race. Engaging in the exercise of checking one’s privilege as a school staff can help educators identify and better understand the lens through which they view their students, teach their students, and interact with others in the world.

Becoming actively mindful of one’s privilege develops a new and hopefully continued heightened awareness about the advantages that shape one’s worldview, actions, and assumptions. “It is hard and often painful, but it’s not nearly as painful as living with the pain caused by the unexamined privilege of others,” says Oluo. This starts by accepting that privilege is not an accusation, but a reality.

“Your whiteness is not an impediment to your effectiveness,” says Dr. Chris Emdin, author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education (Race, Education, and Democracy) in his EDxEDNYC Conference keynote address. “Your unwillingness to recognize that you’ve got to build that boat to connect and that the tools for that boat are not the things that you’re equipped with is the problem…. You’ve got to suspend your own experiences.”

A great way to start digging deeper is by reading this downloadable essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh.

Prioritizing continuous work

Because this work is so challenging and uncomfortable, it’s easy to avoid. “Our inability to speak out against the negative impact of racism in a very intentional way, further compounds injustice,” says Dr. Ebony Green, Executive Director of Equity and Access, Newburgh Enlarged City School District. “When the current climate and institutionalized structures go unchecked, silence allows the current injustices to fester and continue to manifest negative outcomes. We must begin to operate from the understanding that conviction and convenience do not live on the same side of the street. As such, we must be vocal and solution-oriented about moving forward in an expeditious manner toward cultural relativism.” And while talking is a start, it’s not enough.

Discussions about race, bias, and prejudice are only the beginning. “Plenty of us have attended consortia on racism and other forms of prejudice, and rarely do the conversations end with some form of resolution or actionable item,” says Vilson, who is also a co-leader of the #EduColor movement on Twitter.

It’s vital that we work toward intercultural competence on all levels, including race. Intercultural competence is the ability to appropriately connect with people from other cultures, successfully engaging with people from other ethnic, geographical, and religious backgrounds. Possessing intercultural competence leads to an increase in compassion, understanding, and creates opportunities to learn new ideas.

Concordia University-Portland’s Associate Professor of Doctoral Studies, Angela Owusu-Ansah, PhD points out that while this work is crucial to our success in today’s interconnected world, it takes time. “Growing interculturally is a process, not an event, and more importantly a way of life that needs to begin with the individual. No one can impose this type of growth on anyone else. And in universities, research has shown that the steady process of first introducing intercultural competence outside of the curriculum before including it in the curriculum, and as part of the degree, introduces the concept differently and may bring growth in intercultural understanding directly, indirectly, and fortuitously.”

There are actions we can take to start moving in the right direction. “In the 21st century, we have to get better at doing the small things that contribute positively to our environments,” says Vilson. “Things like including more people within our circles, recognizing how we sit during faculty conferences, and addressing how we speak to children who may or may not look like us (and how we teach them to approach others) all go a long way towards deconstructing racism.”

Additional resources

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