The conversation at H. White’s Men’s Room had been going strong for almost an hour last Thursday, when my colleague Ryan Williams-Virden asked Minneapolis School Board candidates how they are unlearning the mentality of whiteness. Suddenly, you could have heard a pin drop. This was no softball about idealistic plans for All Students; it was a direct provocation about the here and now. It was a call for our candidates to get real. As a white woman who teaches Latino and African-American children in Minneapolis, I couldn’t wait to hear their answers.
Awkwardly, candidates began to respond. “I was unaware of my own whiteness until I started teaching”, said District 4 incumbent Josh Reimnitz. He credited his wife – the principal of Hiawatha Leadership Academy-Northrop – for keeping him “aware”. Bob Walser, a new candidate from District 4, mentioned an “enlightening conversation” he had with his high-school-aged son a few months ago, and recognized how much he needs to learn. Doug Mann, who is running for the citywide seat, tried to shift the subject to teacher tenure reform. Their answers laid bare the urgent need for educators who identify as white to understand their own whiteness – before running for school board.
Suddenly, you could have heard a pin drop. This was no softball about idealistic plans for All Students; it was a direct provocation about the here and now. It was a call for our candidates to get real.
Writer Junot Diaz has called the United States “a society where default whiteness goes unremarked”. Where German, Irish, Jewish, Italian, or Greek immigrants were once seen and treated according to their countries of origin, nowadays they are collectively grouped into the social invention known as “white”: a construct that is poorly understood and rarely discussed.
But why is this a problem? If Williams-Virden had asked these candidates to talk about the ways in which they have benefited from white privilege, each one would likely have had a ready answer. Isn’t it enough to recognize that we well-meaning white people have benefited from the color of our skin, without delving deeply into the meaning of our history and culture? Why shouldn’t I, a white teacher who just wants to help, focus more on the experience of the underserved – African-American, Latino, Hmong, and Somali students in our community?
That’s exactly the problem. The instant we white people ignore our own cultural history, we validate it as the default. We tell ourselves we are being conscientious when we focus on “the other”, but the truth is that we are perpetuating a mindset that subjugates the people we claim to serve. Like 19th century missionaries, we see ourselves as the solution to a problem that would never have existed without us. We define the terms of the discussion around race (in ever-shifting terms – it’s not as though the Irish or Italians were always considered white in this country), and then use those terms to frame “the other”. This is about more than the myriad ways that white people have benefited from institutionalized racism in the past. This is about the inherently objectifying lens through which we see our students and their families. My mind boggles at the hubris inherent in claiming we can fix a system we not only broke, but haven’t bothered to understand.
Service on the Minneapolis School Board is not an entry-level job. It requires a great deal of cultural competency and community knowledge – before the campaign. I am confident that Walser, Reimnitz, and Mann could catch the low-hanging fruit of racism in our schools – the “Lazy Lucy” stories in the Reading Horizons curriculum, the 2013 hanging of a black doll by its neck at Washburn High School, perhaps even a suspension policy that disproportionately affects our black boys. But our problems are deeper and more insidious than that. It was dispiriting but not surprising to watch Tracine Asberry, Kerry Jo Felder, and Kimberly Caprini get down in the details of School Resource Officers’ training and responses to misbehavior, while Walser simply claimed that “if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything”. When life is viewed through this lens, there is no need to look closely at details. Those who are not achieving are not working hard enough, that’s all. Could I trust Walser to assume that non-white parents have their children’s best interests at heart, care about education, and are in fact working their hardest? Could I trust Reimnitz to choose curricula that not only represent students of varying backgrounds respectfully, but also disambiguate the experiences of Dominicans, Mexicans, and Chileans instead of calling them all “Latino”? Could I trust Mann to make the extra effort to include all stakeholders in every decision? Based only on what I saw at this campaign event, I’m afraid not.
Right now in Minneapolis Public Schools, non-white children show up. They work hard. They make up nearly 70% of the district’s students, and yet – as a group – they are failing monumentally at reading and math, or rather, we are failing them. In spite of all our well-meaning initiatives, this has been the case for decades. And if our schools are governed by people who are blind to their own cultural lens, we will forever repeat our mistakes. Only when we see that we are part of the very same social constructs as everyone else, will we begin to act with real urgency. Only when our decisions come from a place of concern for us all, rather than for the children of “the other”, will we be able to create effective change.