A black father is in my office to talk about his son—a thoughtful, quiet boy who is, again this year, scheduled for reading and math support classes. Even before I bring it up, the father, who’s worked in schools, tells me that he won’t agree to a special education evaluation. I take a deep breath. “I know that black boys are overrepresented in special education,” I say. “I understand if you’re worried that we’re categorizing your son negatively, instead of caring for him as an individual. I know schools do that to too many black boys.” His father takes a deep breath, too. It’s the starting point for honest conversation. It’s the starting point for trust.

Another day, another meeting in my office. This one is with an angry teacher. His name is Sergio, and he is exasperated with people—other teachers, even school leaders—getting it wrong. He’s Sergio, with the “g” pronounced as English would pronounce “h”; and it’s Sergio—not Santiago—the name of another Latino man at the school. “We don’t even look alike!” he says. “You have no idea the number of microaggressions I am subject to on a daily basis at this school.” He’s right, I don’t. But at least he’s telling me.

Race skews thinking. It creates biases, stereotypes, and blindness. But in America today, for people of goodwill, not thinking about race skews thinking more. Race matters to our students, our families, our teachers. We can’t teach our students of color without accounting for racism, and we can’t prepare white students for a better world without an antiracist approach to the work we do.

The Realities of Race

Studies of implicit bias at Harvard University show that the majority of white people have an implicit preference for white people, and that many black people do as well. We must be conscious enough to combat our own unconscious. Even if we are among the minority of people who do not have common implicit racial bias, we must constantly struggle against the bias faced by our students of color. Already in preschool, teachers are more likely to see black children as misbehaving even when behaving exactly the same as white children, according to research at the Yale Child Study Center. While research is less advanced for the effect of implicit bias on other racial groups, our view of other children is influenced by stereotypes, too—criminal Latino boys, studious Asians, innocent white girls.

Individual psychology and effects of bias on educators aren’t the only reasons we need to be conscious of race. Race matters in society. From segregated cities, to the black-versus-white wealth gap, to racial profiling by police, our inheritance of racism continues to structure the different lives we lead. The history of race means that we are not starting from scratch. Our youngest students arrive with their lives already shaped—not determined, but shaped—by that history. As school leaders, we need to know this history and these structural realities.

This is a tricky line to walk—to see our students as impacted by race without making race determinative—but it must be walked explicitly. Principals give permission to talk about race by how they talk about race.

White principals are particularly susceptible to not recognizing racist biases and to not counteracting them. We need humility to accept the fact that we may not see manifestations of racism that really are there. We need to listen to the points of view that tell us we are wrong, including those that tell us we are racist—as painful as it is. If you are white, accept and expect that people of color think about and see race more than you do—and they’re probably right in doing so. Their sense for it is better, and in general, they want you to acknowledge its presence. As a black colleague told me, “I don’t want you to be colorblind. Don’t say you don’t see race. I’m black, and my blackness is a huge part of who I am. If you don’t see race, you don’t see me.”

In a way, acknowledging blackness is the easy part. Acknowledging our own whiteness is even harder. For those of us who don’t want to be racist, it can seem to suggest that we have an unhealthy identification with whiteness—that we claim it proudly, like a supremacist or neo-Nazi. The truth is, people of color already know that white people are white. When white people say it, we show that we know it, too, and that we are on a path toward dealing with it. Whiteness matters. And when principals use the power of their whiteness to identify racism, to advocate antiracist strategies, to lift up students and staff of color, whiteness becomes, rather than destructive, a tool to construct a better school and society.

Alternative Tools to Foster Growth

  • Survey your staff and students. Find out what experiences different racial groups are having. Design your own form or use one of the commercially available surveys from groups such as TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project), Panorama Education, or Making Caring Common. These surveys cost money but offer comparisons to other schools and provide easy tools for analysis.
  • Shadow students. Follow students of different races through the day, or if your time is limited, pay attention when observing a class to note the difference in experiences.
  • Disaggregate all your data. Examine test scores, yes, but also grades, attendance, and anything else that can help you see where your school is building racial equity and where it’s not.
  • Know the community. If you don’t live where your students do, make sure to follow local media, look into recent news events, and ask parents what’s going on that you should know about. If there are struggles over gentrification or police violence, students may well carry those tensions to school.
  • Read. Learn how others have analyzed whiteness. For staff, I recommend White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, which analyzes how our “racial discomfort” prevents us from necessary confrontations with racial reality. If you’re a parent, try Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey. Thinking about how you talk to and socialize your own children will help you lead for others.
  • Watch and listen to people of color. Whiteness has dominated public discourse, and if we are white, we can be shocked to see from other perspectives. These come from conversations, literature, music, TV shows, and movies through which we deliberately expose ourselves to the unfamiliar.
  • Hire a racially diverse staff. Numerous studies show that having same-race teachers helps children of color, and a New York University study found that even white children perceive black and Latinx teachers more positively.
  • Ask for examples. There are white educators who can model how they reach across the lines of difference races. Ask them to explain their methods. This takes pressure off black and Latinx educators who often carry the burden not just of teaching, but of telling others how to teach black and Latinx kids.

Critical thinking about race—its presence, its effects, and how to challenge its evils—is necessary for school leaders. It’s necessary for the vision principals have of the world as we want it to be, and necessary for us to see the world clearly as it is. We can’t do without either that vision or that clarity. Race matters, and we can combat its pernicious effects on our students only by fighting with our eyes open.

Simon Rodberg is a writer and consultant on public education in Washington, D.C. He was the founding principal of DC International, a public charter school, and an assistant principal in the District of Columbia Public Schools.

Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Equity

You can actively scrutinize your school practices for any instances in which those practices have a negative influence on certain groups of students. The diagnostic process could include using data and conversations to examine formal school policies, deliberate levels (or tracks) for student learning, access to resources, and staff biases.

Equity is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.