It was homecoming week at Polson High School in Montana, and students were asked to dress up for an event called “Color Wars.” Each grade was assigned a color to wear. The junior class got white. Some students printed “white power” on their shirts. Pictures from the ill-conceived event in September 2016 went viral on over social media. Even the New York Daily News covered it.
“There were kids who said, ‘How could you possibly let kids walk around with white power shirts?’” said Anna Baldwin, an English teacher at Arlee High School, a neighboring school to Polson on the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwest Montana. “And there were other kids who said, ‘… I think being white is fine, and you can’t tell me what to wear.’”
In the last two years, the number of Americans who say racism is a “big problem” in the United States has increased 8 percentage points, and roughly doubled since 2011, according to a survey by Pew Research Center. Public conversations about race and racism – a persistent theme in American discourse since the nation’s founding – are now bursting into flashpoints.
Schools are another battleground, but districts may be failing to address racism head-on.
White supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va., in August. Protests raged in September in St. Louis over the acquittal on murder charges of a white police officer who killed a black drug suspect. Professional athletes are protesting police shootings of black men by kneeling during the Star Spangled Banner.
Schools are another battleground, but districts may be failing to address racism head-on. A recent survey of 10,000 teachers, school counselors, and administrators from the Southern Poverty Law Center, a watchdog organization that tracks hate groups, found that 40 percent of respondents don’t believe their schools have action plans in place to address hate and bias.
Chris Avery said he believes the numbers. The longtime teacher at the Haverford School in suburban Philadelphia now leads the nonprofit Steppingstone Scholars, a program which helps underserved students in Philadelphia achieve academic success. He said the attitude of many schools is that race is a political issue that should be checked at the door.
The stakes are high for many students. One recent study showed that stress from racial discrimination may partly explain the persistent gaps in academic performance between some white and non-white students. Roles of psychological coping responses, such as self-devaluation, have been theorized in previous work. The latest research pointed to biological changes, such as swings in stress hormones and sleep hours and quality.
Without having a plan to address race, he said, schools have nothing to fight the culture of students demeaning and insulting classmates under the cover that they’re “just kidding.”
“They know that racism is bad, they just don’t know how to define it. They don’t realize that when you say things like ‘we need a white club,’ that’s kind of racist. They don’t get it.”
Baldwin, the 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year, said events at Polson sparked a conversation at her school – where the student body is mostly Native American – but not the right one. Some wanted to know, “We have an Indian club in our school. How come we don’t have a white club?”
That’s where schools can come in, she said. “I work on building trust and getting kids to do group discussions where they feel safe about sharing their thoughts about these things.” Kids with racist beliefs may stay silent during those discussions “but my hope is they are listening to others and they are going, ‘Oh, maybe what I’ve been brought up to think isn’t really cool, and I should reexamine that.”
“Kids are respectful,” she said. “They know that racism is bad, they just don’t know how to define it. They don’t realize that when you say things like ‘we need a white club,’ that’s kind of racist. They don’t get it.”
But Joseph Feola, a school counselor at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, PhD candidate at Montclair State University, and adjunct professor in Counseling@NYU’s online masters in school counseling program, said part of the problem is that educators themselves are frequently ill-equipped to handle sensitive questions about race and racism.
He said that when school district leaders recognize that privilege, power, and oppression not only exist in the larger system, but also “function within subsystems, including our school buildings,” so addressing these social disparities becomes critical.
“Preparing our educators with the necessary tools to engage in such complex, personal dialogue is crucial for effective progress,” Feola said.
He said an educator who lacks the sensitivity or the training to deal with a sensitive issue can make it worse.
“I think that educators – whoever is holding the discussion – have to be competent about privilege, power, and oppression and aware of how race impacts the greater society – not just the schools themselves,” Feola said. When it comes to districts providing training for teachers and counselors, he said. “We’re not doing a great job right now.”
“I think the real issue is that adults are not really comfortable talking about race,” said Veronica Pichardo
He said that if a teacher doesn’t fully understand, or believe, the data showing “how young people of color are exponentially more likely to go to prison, have harsher sentences, etc. than the rest of the population – then they can’t effectively engage in those real conversations.”
Avery, from Philadelphia, said that race and racism should be taught as “part of the actual curriculum, and so instead of it being an afterthought, or having it be a spur of the moment reactionary response, making sure it’s really targeted in the curriculum.” He said it doesn’t mean there has to be a separate class necessarily but it should be integrated throughout the overall curriculum.
“I think the real issue is that adults are not really comfortable talking about race,” said Veronica Pichardo, [school] counselor chairperson at City Polytechnic High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., and an adjunct professor in Counseling@NYU’s online masters in school counseling program. She said that often, there is not enough freedom to talk about race and racism in class.
“I don’t think that my job is to change what you think,” she said. “My job is to raise awareness of what’s going on and just create an environment where we can talk. And people and our students can share what they think and not feel that they are going to be judged by creating that space and that environment for them to truly just dive deep and flesh out these feelings that they have or these assumptions that they have.”
“What I’m hoping is that they will, like so many kids, go off into the world and realize they were extremely sheltered and that maybe they might have some different experiences that help them realize what we talked about in class was valuable and actually right.”