It’s time we shatter barriers to success and learning for people of color, stand against the social injustices in our world, and stop hiding behind the mantra, “I’m white, I can’t speak out on race.” One of our greatest callings as leaders is to bring our school together toward one purpose, unity. This requires leaders to be courageous, bold, and take action in the midst of pushback, uncertainty, and the racist ways that have held people of color back for centuries.
When I talk about the phrase “white lies” in the title, I’m not talking about the connotation that these lies are innocent and less harmful, like the ones we told when we were kids. Just the opposite—I’m talking about the lies that white people tell themselves that only serve to perpetuate the systemic racism our country and education system has and continues to endure.
As school leaders, we have a responsibility to use our voices and to take action in order to dismantle the white lies that so many educators tell themselves about race. I hope exposing these white lies will pique your thinking, challenge your leadership, and embolden you to take immediate action to support your students, staff, and community.
- “I’m Colorblind, I Don’t See Color.”
I have heard this statement so many times from educators who think they are showing good intentions when they say this. However, it only perpetuates the privilege that so many white people have experienced through their lives and the generations before them. When white educators say this statement, it’s almost like saying, “I’m not racist.” They think this is a way to protect themselves from anyone perceiving them as a racist.
However, the truth is that “colorblindness denies the lived experiences of other people, and not seeing race denies systemic racism,” says Samantha Vincenty, senior staff writer at OprahMag.Com. In an EdWeek blog, writer Larry Ferlazzo shared, “Saying ‘I don’t see color’ denies the racial identity of students.”
I love how Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and an excellent article for AASA, describes the need to erase color blindness from our thinking to support students. She writes:
“Many teachers aspire to be ‘colorblind’ when interacting with their students. To notice the racial and ethnic differences among their students feels wrong to them, a sign perhaps of bigotry or prejudicial thinking. But from the child’s point of view (and that of his or her parents), not noticing may mean that the educator is overlooking an important dimension of the young person’s experience in the world and, even more specifically, in that classroom. A colorblind approach often means that the educator has not considered the meaning of racial/ethnic identity to the child.”
It’s impossible to look at someone and not see their color. When we say we don’t see color, we are communicating to that person of color that we don’t see their rich culture, traditions, and the foundation of who they are as a person.
We must encourage our teachers to examine their own biases. We all have bias. By definition, bias runs contrary to the conscious mind and the only way to overcome our bias is to face it head-on and make a conscious decision contrary to our bias. Plus, when we don’t see color, it allows us to turn a blind eye to the issues and disparities that affect people of color.
Things you as a leader can do:
- Walk your school and examine the walls to see if what’s on the walls reflects a culture of diversity.
- Examine your school’s curriculum, textbooks, and library books to see if they have strong representation in diversity.
- Investigate how your current hiring practices could be strengthened to solicit a diverse applicant pool.
- Do your school newsletters, communications, and website demonstrate a diverse grouping of students, staff, and community?
- “I’m White, I Can’t Speak Out About Race.”
It’s so easy to fall into the trap that white educators can’t speak out against racism and the injustices in America. This is emphatically and undeniably wrong! We must be part of the solution by using our voices and actions to advocate for racial equality, equity, and social justice. No, I can’t share examples of how I have been discriminated against for the color of my skin, but I can advocate, protest for, and advance the cause of people of color.
I recently saw a picture of a protestor holding a sign that read, “White silence is violence.” We can no longer be silent. We must stand alongside our friends of color to promote real and sustainable change in our laws, practices, and policies. Our friends of color should not have to do this alone. We need to be brave and bold enough to stand up against racial injustices, speak out against issues of racial inequality, and stand in solidarity against all acts of racism, disrespect, and inequitable treatment of persons of color.
NFL star Malcolm Jenkins spoke out on this important topic, saying, “When you allow people to stay silent, they are no longer responsible for what happens. My challenge is for them to get involved not just by statement or tweet but by real action.”
Things you as a leader can do:
- Lead a virtual town hall on race, unity, and talking to your children about events in America today.
- Lead a student group on race and unity.
- Lead a faculty/staff group on race and unity.
- Hold professional learning on race.
- Ask students to share their perspectives on what it’s like being a student of color in your school.
- “I’m Not Racist.”
It’s easy to stand on the platform that you aren’t a racist. This is a safe way for educators to convince themselves that they accept everyone. However, if you aren’t actively being anti-racist, I question your sincerity regarding race.
We must be intentionally anti-racist in our thoughts, actions, and words. Someone who says they aren’t racist may not laugh at the racist joke or remain quiet when they hear a racist comment, but that falls tragically short in being anti-racist. As first-grade teacher Naomi O’Brien writes, “Stop being shocked about the racist things someone said in front of you, and start wondering what it is about you that made them think you’d be okay hearing it.”
An anti-racist educator does not tolerate racist jokes, insults, and is not quiet when racist comments are shared. Just the opposite, they speak out, take action, and fiercely confront any racist thoughts, comments, and actions. It’s not enough to be “not racist”, we must be anti-racist as educators.
Anti-racist educators lead the reform of educational policies, procedures, and practices to create and nurture a culture for every student in their school. We must examine the systems, whether our own or the ones we inherited. It is crucial that we change systems that directly or indirectly contribute to noninclusion. As leaders, we have an awesome responsibility to ensure the systems in our schools empower our students and staff of color to thrive and flourish.
Things you as a leader can do:
- Examine your student and staff handbooks to make sure there are protocols and procedures in place to create a culture of acceptance and unity for all.
- Review and edit your dress code to include a ban on symbols of hate.
- Open the school year by sharing that your school is anti-racist and will not tolerate any symbols, actions, or words of hatred.
- “All Lives Matter Is An Appropriate Response.”
Of course all lives matter, but it’s time that we stand with our friends of color and support Black Lives Matter. I love how Duke’s famous basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, stated, “Black Lives Matter. Say it. Can you say it? Black Lives Matter?” He went on to say, “We should be saying it every day. It’s not political. This is not a political statement. It’s a human rights statement.”
When I watched a man plead for his own life by crying out to police, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” my heart broke, and I welled up with emotions ranging from anger to heartbroken sadness. Why are we so defensive and quick to say that all lives matter? It’s like we are not allowed to single out a group of people who have been oppressed and treated unfairly for centuries. It’s time we join hand in hand and support our Black community. By doing this, we demonstrate to our students that we are advocates for racial equality, create a safe school culture for them, and encourage them to advance their beliefs through the power of their voice and actions. All lives don’t matter unless Black Lives Matter. Say it with me—Black Lives Matter!
Things you as a leader can do:
- Participate in a peaceful demonstration in your community seeking equality and social justice for the Black community.
- Leverage your social media accounts and the accounts of the school to promote racial equality.
- Send a message of unity to your students.
- Say it every day—“Black Lives Matter!”
Questions for Reflection
I hope that this article has challenged your thinking and caused you to self-reflect. As you do so, I challenge you to consider the two questions below:
- What education leaders of color do you follow and learn from regularly?
I’m constantly learning from these amazing leaders, whose Twitter accounts are listed below:
- Marcus Belin (@marcusjbelin)
- Saneé Bell (@saneebell)
- Dwight Carter (@dwight_carter)
- Quentin Lee (@DrQuentinJLee)
- Derek McCoy (@mccoyderek)
- JoVon Rogers (@jvrog18)
- When was the last time you read a book that challenged your thinking on race?
Right now I’m reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. It’s an excellent book that has strengthened and challenged my thinking and practices.
Here are two additional books to challenge your thinking:
- Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum
- Stamped by Jason Reynolds
I also encourage you to check out this webinar that I led with Dwight Carter, Derek McCoy, Quentin Lee, and Marcus Belin on Strategies for Leading a Culture of Unity—An Authentic Panel Discussion About Race, Unity, and Leadership.
Bill Ziegler, EdD, is the principal of Pottsgrove High School in Pottstown, PA. He was a 2015 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year and the 2016 Pennsylvania Principal of the Year. Bill is the host of “Lead the Way, A Podcast for School Leaders” that works to encourage, equip, and empower school leaders. He is also the co-author of Future Focused Leaders: Relate, Innovate, and Invigorate for Real Educational Change and his latest book, You Don’t Need Superpowers to Be a Kid’s Hero: Leading A Hero-Building School Culture. Follow him on Twitter (@drbillziegler), visit his website at www.chaselearning.org, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.