I really appreciated the responses on the Star Tribune’s opinion pages last week from educators and even the commissioner of education to the March 18 commentary on school discipline (“Undisciplined: Chaos may be coming to Minnesota classrooms, by decree”). It’s important that state leaders and educators continue to call out this kind of damaging and blatantly racist rhetoric when they see it.
But as a parent of color, I can tell you that the painful assumptions that Katherine Kersten made about families and children of color are just part of the problem. We can’t stop with calling out her barefaced racism. We also need to talk about the less-blatant racism that Minnesota students and families experience every day. This kind of racism might not be as obvious as Ms. Kersten’s, but it is just as damaging, if not more so. It’s also far more common.
Ask yourself, how many times have you read articles in the last few years about student assaults on teachers? A real problem, and one we hear about whenever it happens. On the flip side, how many times have you read stories about students being suspended for minor things, like chewing gum? Also a real problem, but one that we seldom hear about.
Assaults on teachers are serious offenses that deserve our outrage and action. But student removals for unnecessary or subjective reasons, which disproportionately affect students of color, deserve our attention, too. When we only hear stories of kids gone wild, and never about the systems that might actually be making things worse, this is subtle racism at play.
When journalists rush to break the story about the latest assault against a teacher, yet show little interest in student stories of mistreatment and being pushed out, they’re reinforcing racist stereotypes. They’re confirming fears about chaotic schools where violent students are out of control. When these stories come from districts full of students of color taught by white teachers, I can guess the kind of mental image you have of these out-of-control kids.
But subtle racism doesn’t stop in the local news. It also plays out every day within school walls.
If you’re white, ask yourself, has your child ever confided in you that they don’t feel welcome or wanted at their school, or that their teacher told them they would never graduate from high school? Have you ever been denied a meeting with your child’s teacher or school principal to discuss your concerns? Has your child ever gone a school year without a single teacher who shared the child’s race? Have you ever been told that the teachers in your child’s school are “afraid” of you? Have you ever felt as if educators are holding low expectations for your child because of false assumptions they’re making about you as a parent?
As a black parent of three children, I have experienced all of this and more. It might not be as in-your-face racist as Ms. Kersten’s rhetoric, but it’s there. And it is absolutely taking a toll.
All the time, I hear people talk about the trauma kids of color are experiencing at home. As an engaged, involved and educated parent, I find this talk extremely offensive. Instead, I am worried about the trauma my children experience in school. I know plenty of families of color who share this concern, as well as my frustration that this kind of trauma rarely gets any ink.
Yes, teachers, policymakers and everyday Minnesotans need to be on the lookout for overtly racist dog-whistling, and to be willing to push back on it, quickly, publicly and unequivocally.
But that needs to be the beginning, not the end, of the outcry. For the sake of families like mine, please be on the lookout for the more subtle, more common racist acts that occur every single day in our education system. And call out and push back on that, too.
Laura Gilliam is a Twin Cities-area parent and advocate.