A few years ago, my alma mater — an all-girls Catholic high school in Kentucky — invited me to speak at a school assembly about race and Islamophobia in the United States. It was a bold move by the school, which is predominantly white, to create space for such bold yet uncomfortable discussions. In light of the Covington Catholic incident and the ongoing fallout, I’ve been thinking back to those conversations and realizing that we must have more of them in America’s schools.
Like many people of color, I watched the viral video of an encounter between a group of white boys wearing MAGA hats and Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder and veteran, with deep concern and alarm. Political and religious leaders, media commentators, and Covington Catholic school administrators condemned the boys’ behavior immediately. But within 48 hours, confusion and doubt spread as denials by the students and their families (aided by a public relations firm, it seems), finger-pointing about who provoked whom, videos showing the incident from different angles, and a narrative of bothsiderism all emerged to exonerate and explain the actions of the boys. Now, the public debate over “who’s right” is clouding the possibility of understanding Covington Catholic’s teachable moments.
Typically, when incidents of racial tension occur in schools around the country (such as the Middleton Heights, Idaho teachers who dressed up as a MAGA border wall last Halloween or the students who made an apparent Nazi salute at a Wisconsin school last November), a similar pattern ensues: condemnations, investigations, suspensions, administrative leave, and sensitivity trainings. The fallout over Covington Catholic has added more chaotic components to this already ineffective cycle. The credibility contests, the obsession with parsing out imperfect fact patterns, Trump’s tweets, and mainstream media’s lack of inclusion of Native and people of color perspectives all set the perfect stage to avoid confronting the real issues: white entitlement, racism, and the experiences of vulnerable communities in today’s America.
As the back and forth over Covington Catholic continues, those of us who care deeply about racial justice and equity must shut off the chaos and translate this moment into courageous actions and conversations in our classrooms, schools, and homes.
So what can we do?
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education announced that students of color were the majority population in public schools for the first time in American history. Yet, students have little knowledge about each other’s communities and histories. We must equip students — both inside and outside classrooms — with the language, analyses, histories, and tools that they need to navigate America’s racial landscape with both empathy and a readiness to dismantle racial oppression. This is critical for both white students and students of color, especially as their schools begin to reflect the transformative demographic changes happening in the country.
Predominantly white institutions like Covington Catholic must take on this responsibility in earnest. A 2018 survey revealed that students of color experienced greater incidents of bullying at majority white schools. For white students, it is no longer acceptable to remain unaware of and disinterested in the experiences of the people of color living in their communities and studying in their classrooms. White male students in particular, supported by their teachers, mentors, and families, must confront the narratives, privileges and structures that lead them to believe that they are superior to others, that this country belongs to them, that they are all of a sudden victims of the changing racial demographics, and that they can behave however they please towards people of color without understanding and taking into consideration any historical or current context.
Imagine if the Covington Catholic students had received an education that centered the historic experiences of Native Americans in this country? They would understand then why Native Americans would naturally step into an escalating situation to provide healing and comfort. Imagine if the students had been conscious of the experiences of people of color under an Administration that beats the daily drumbeat of bans, raids, walls, and deportations? They would understand then why people of color would feel alarmed and scared when a group of white boys wearing MAGA hats approached them, jumping up and down and shouting — even if they were innocently singing school songs and smiling to defuse the tensions, as they claim.
Imagine if schools around the country fostered courageous conversations about whiteness and privilege. Then, we could critically inquire whether as much effort and understanding would have been afforded in a similar situation involving youth of color. We would probe more deeply into why society is quick to protect white boys when it comes to racial bias and sexual misconduct, rather than requiring them to engage in deep self-examination about their own behavior.
Organizations such as The Zinn Education Project, Teachers 4 Social Justice, Building Anti-Racist White Educators, and Teaching for Change have developed anti-racism curricula and resources for educators to use and adapt. Their tools help white educators engage in critical inquiry around their own biases, expand the white male canon of literature and history in classrooms, understand the psychological effects of intersectional oppression, and encourage students to view events happening around them through a social justice lens.
Schools must also create a culture of safety, acceptance, and honesty for all students. This goes beyond anti-bullying policies and statements of equity and inclusion. It means ending the harsh disciplinary practices that send young people of color into the school-to-prison pipeline. It means providing mental health resources and hiring counselors who can work with undocumented students, queer and trans students, and Muslim students who are acutely under attack in today’s America. It means that crafting policies and plans that address the effects of poverty and resegregation. It means that teachers mentor young people of color’s leadership. It means organizing anti-racism workshops and advocating for mandatory classes about the history of racial exclusion. It means implementing mandatory and consistent trainings that go beyond recognizing implicit biases and microaggressions to understanding the intersectional effects of systemic racism, and building mutual respect and solidarity. All of us — from principals, superintendents, school board members, teachers and parent-teacher associations to families, legislators, and anyone who cares about young people — have a role to play.
These are necessary interventions and our young people deserve them. I learned this firsthand when I returned to my predominantly white and Catholic high school alma mater to speak with students of diverse racial backgrounds. They reminded me of myself at their age, earnest, curious and self-conscious, dressed in the same blue uniforms I used to wear. But they were also very different. Students of color talked with ease about their racial identities. White students asked how they could be better allies to their undocumented friends. These students were clear-eyed about racial, gender, and class conflicts at school and in their communities, and at the same time, they were hopeful and prepared to address them.
Young people are more than ready for courageous conversations and bold actions around race. Are we going to stand in their way or will we give them the space, resources, and tools to shape a different future?
Please share your feelings, ideas, resources, and action steps below.