Whew. This NPR article made the rounds again last week. It argues in no uncertain terms that systems of oppression and inequity are perpetuated by individual choices. In this instance, the author discusses “school choice” and the segregation and separation based on race and class that happens when parents opt out of their neighborhood public schools.
I am one of those people. I’m white, my husband and kids are white, and we have many societal privileges, including class privilege. My kids go to private school.
Prior to starting my blog, A Striving Parent, which marked my formal entry into racial and social justice activism two years ago, my eldest child was accepted into the same private school I attended growing up. We chose this school primarily because of its progressive values. I was introduced to the concept of white privilege during my studies there and social justice themes are woven throughout the K-12 curriculum.
But to be honest, we also chose this school because it was familiar and comfortable to my family. I felt safe knowing my children would be stewarded through their education in an environment I understood and trusted. While our local public schools are really strong (and predominately white) by any standards due to the affluent community we live in, we could afford the private education. The combination of these factors meant that we didn’t even hesitate during the admissions process.
I know now, however, that while our choice had some roots in well-intentioned and even progressive ideals, our decision, our individual choice, has lasting implications both for our family and for a greater system of inequity.
It’s a hard truth to admit and own. And this is certainly not the only time I’ve realized my access and my decisions make me complicit in perpetuating racist systems. We live in an affluent, predominately white community. I benefit from generational wealth. My life in many ways is an amalgamation and product of privilege.
When these moments of self-realization bubble to the surface, my initial reaction is often to feel overwhelmed and experience shame. Both of these emotions shut me down. When I reflect back on the first year at our private school, I was crippled with self-doubt and regret. I didn’t know the best or most appropriate way to respond to this insight, which was new to me.
Had we made the wrong choice? Should we transfer schools? Could I really pursue a path of anti-racist parenting and advocacy while divesting from our public education system? Could I be a supporter of public education if I was an outsider to the system? In what ways could I support equity and inclusion at our private school? Would those efforts be good enough when weighed against the fact that we had opted out of public schools? I spent the better part of the year vacillating between self-education and self-loathing.
At the end of that year, I grew tired of my hand wringing and self-doubt and pushed beyond my feelings to “meet myself where I was” and begin to engage the school we chose around issues of race, class and equity. I stumbled upon an action kit for talking about race at your school by Creating Democracy. Within that toolkit was a sample email that I tailored and sent to my child’s teachers. From there, the wheels were set in motion.
I was really nervous. I was at the beginning stages of examining and dismantling my own internalized white supremacy and learning anti-racist parenting strategies. This was the first time I raised my voice outside of my family-and-friend group. But it was an important and fruitful step that led me to connect with teachers, administrators and eventually other parents who also were interested in promoting equity at our school.
Last year, my family’s second year at the school, and following the 2016 election, a multi-racial group of parents organized ourselves into a de facto committee, led by the chair of our Black Parent Organization. We facilitated a school-wide parents night to discuss our community’s strengths and areas for growth around equity and inclusion. The event was a success and the data we collected served as the catalyst for the work we will continue this upcoming school year.
I share all this not to excuse myself from my individual choices and the ways in which they make my family a contributor to the race and class segregation that plagues many aspects of our education system in the US. My process of self-reflection and reckoning is ongoing and I am painfully aware that sending my kids to private school makes me complicit in systems of inequity. But I also know moving beyond self-flagellation towards action within my school community already has led to meaningful changes, hopefully with more to come. At the very least, it’s a start.
With the beginning of the school year on the horizon, I hope everyone reading this, regardless of whether you homeschool or send your kids to private, public or charter school, will reflect on the ways your individual choices perpetuate systems of oppression. Read the NPR article. Read this conversation by parent advocates about how school integration movements center whiteness. Tune into the webinar series being offered by EmbraceRace.
I hope you will also reflect on the ways you might engage your child’s teachers and administration this year, right now. Many teachers have shared with me how impactful it is for parents to explicitly name their interest in having race and equity incorporated in their child’s curriculum. I hope you’ll research what work is already happening on issues around race and justice in your school community and determine how you can get involved.
Some questions I’ve found useful: Does your school have a Black Parent Organization and/or other parent associations based on affinity groups? Who is represented on your school’s PTA board or Board of Trustees? Does your school have a statement about diversity included in its mission or on its website? What are the demographics of the student body at your school? Do they match your greater community? Are your kids’ administrators and teachers racially diverse? What books are in your school’s library and classrooms? And so on and so forth.
The only firm truth I’ve found on my anti-racist journey thus far is that no matter where you live, no matter where you work, no matter where your kids go to school, you can trust there is work to be done around race and equity. Another truth is that efforts are often already underway and connecting with and supporting that work only requires a bit of resource mapping.
I will continue to make space for the self-education and self-reflection that helps me stay accountable to do better. But I also commit to push through the hand-wringing wrought by this reflection and take action in the spheres I operate. Effective immediately.
In what ways do you engage or do you plan to engage your child’s school around equity and inclusion? I’d love to hear your ideas below.