A Challenge to Settler Colonial Schooling

Week 4 reading

I mentor for an 11 year old who attends school just off the Temple University campus in North Philly. The environment of his school is so vastly different than my elementary school — yet typical for Philly and Black neighborhoods across this country. The building is almost 100 years old and wildly outdated. There are virtually no areas for kids to run, literally zero grass or gymnasium, a front office so small there are no room for filing cabinets and school lunches that resemble jail food (I’ve tasted both and they aren’t much different). In the halls, teachers and staff constantly yell at students, fights break out every week, and it’s not uncommon to see police parked out front. Yet the first thing I noticed upon entering this school, I was all but the only white person.

I grew up in the white suburbs of Salt Lake City, Utah. Utah ranks 50th in education spending per student, yet my elementary school had three full-size soccer fields, three basketball courts, as well as four square, hopscotch, wall ball, tether ball, and two separate playgrounds with the whole gamit of things to play on. I never had a teacher yell at me. I never saw a fight at this school. And the front office was spacious enough to host a small aerobics workout.

The differences between these schooling expereinces is funding. Funding for the education system comes from local property taxes. Farmington Utah, the city I grew up in, has an annual median household income, and median property value, of more than double of Philadelphia. The poverty rate in my hometown is 23 percentage points lower than Philadelphia. Farmington is 91% white and less than 1% Black. Philly is 36% white and 44% Black. This urban-suburban racial and economic divide exists throughout the country. The funding schools receive is determined by the property taxes on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis. As a result, more affluent schools (typically full of white students) get much more resources than schools with higher poverty rates (typically full of Black and brown students).

Race, education, and economic prosperity have been linked since the founding of this country. White people, by and large, have historically had the most econmic stability of any racial group in the United States. Philadelphia, many other cities with large black populations, has a long history of segregation.

Chicago, as sociologist Eve L. Ewing identified in a New Yorker article, is one of these cities with a history of formal and informal housing practices that negatively impacted Black and brown people. From redlining, agreements between realtors and property owners, Chicago (like Philly and most other cities) has prevented non-white families from living in certain area of the city. Local housing authorities have stepped in to give some of these people housing (Philadelphia Housing Authority has a 40,000 people long wait list) but did nothing but worsen the segregation.

Neighborhoods in my city were not segregated. There are not enough people of color to have more than a few non-white families on the same block. I constantly reflect on how I am impacted by not even having one Black student at my elementary school. Is this why I’ve had to learn to be comfortable in a room where i’m the minority? Is this why I have countless unconscious biases in my interactions with Black and brown people?

I am not sure what aspect of my environment did this to me but it is my reality. What I do know: my education did not help prepare me to live, as a white man, in a racialized world without perpetuating and participating in oppressive systems. I, nor my parents, had a say in what I was learning; nor was my family conscious enough to understand the problematic nature of it, because they, too, were indoctrinated with the same ideologies as myself.

Democracies are only as progressive as the people — at least those who are heard. Education can and should be a tool to create more progressive people and societies. The education system in the United States is a nation building project that teaches us the collective values, ideologies, and interests of our country. However, because the United States is a settler colonial state, the nation building project of the education system is inherently problematic and oppressive — its rooted in justifying genocide and white supremacy and dismissing other’s experiences. You cannot decouple the nation building project from the education system. The nation building project in the United States is based on justifying the elimination of the native, slavery, and the normalization of the destruction of the natural landscape, there is no hope in this project. People need to be educated in ways that allow each of us to freedom dream, and radically imagine a new world. This will not occur in the school but in the community.

I believe education should revert back to a community based practice, rather than a practice of the state to create certain types of citizens with certain ways of being, which are harmful to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged — the poor, the trans, the colonized, but also a population not typically thought of as disadvantaged by the education system — whites.

When speaking of white people in My Dungeon Shook, James Baldwin said, “They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it”. It took me a long time to realize what he was saying because I too was trapped inside of my own history — in many ways I still am. I was trapped inside my white suburban world where poverty, violence, crime, and gentrification did not exist.

I, like other white people, am continually harmed. Each and every day, because we are not able to see ourselves as we are, understand our history, and realize the humanity and, in fact, beauty in so many aspects of Blackness and indigenous cultures. We unknowingly perpetuate systems of harm and ways of being that minimize the chances of the most vulnerable in our society. I know countless white people who have a strong sense of morality but live such insular suburban lives, in homogenous environments, and do not interact with individuals who have are harmed by systems of oppression and violence in this coutnry. I know that many white people, if they could understand their history and themselves, would be appaled by the ways in which they have unknowningly created victims of violence.

Funding is often viewed as the primary source of educational inequality. Although funding should be more equitable, the information people are, and are not, receiving about their own history is creating minds that are colonized to believe harmful myths and ideologies. I believe the most radical act an educator can do is investigate settler colonialism and expose the too-often uncovered truths about the United States of America so that we, white people and all unconscious Americans, can be better and do better.

Funding wont change until the structure changes. Structures wont change until the people change. And people wont change until their education changes.

Investigating settler colonialism and the ways in which the settler mindset has been taught through the education system will not bring about immediate change to the funding structure of the education system. However, if young people can be taught, from the onset of their formal education, that the American experiment is oppressive in and of itself. Coupled with a political education that teaches how colonized people, from Bacon’s Rebellion to the Wisconsin Uprisings and beyond, have resisted the settler colonial project in order to merely survive as a person, population and culture, would allow young people to understand the implications of the project on their own lives and minds. As a result, a whole generation of both settlers, who hold the power in virtually all institutions, would be able to join colonized people in freedom dreaming and could work together to practice decolonization. This is what justice looks — creating change in the long term.

We must engage in this decolonial project. The settler colonial mindset allows us to dismiss Black and brown lives. The settler colonial mindset causes us to normalize a racially stratified society. The settler colonial mindset prevents us from having a society where everyones needs are met. Unless we can depart from this ideology, that was imposed by our [white] ancestors and instilled through the education system, housing inequality, and likely any inequality, will never be fully addressed.

Decolonize our minds is what it takes to truly show that we care about Black, brown, and indigenous people as well as the stolen lands we continue to inhabit and destory.

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