When Principals Get a PASS: How the principals’ association in Seattle Public Schools is fighting to uphold White Supremacy

Racial Equity History

In 2012, Seattle Public Schools created Policy 0030, Ensuring Educational and Racial Equity. Between 2012 and 2016, however, little was done to further this policy and hold educators accountable for meeting its goals. In 2014, the Department of Equity and Race Relations was created in an effort to support racial equity teams in buildings. The district only committed to 10 schools in the first year, and after a push from the Seattle Education Association, committed to another 10 the next year.

Despite the best efforts of the leaders in D.E.R.R., district and building leaders supported systemic barriers at every turn. In fact, educators who pushed for racial equity were targeted and punished, like the educators of color at Middle College High School, all of whom were displaced when the school was shut down, and some of whom were accused of communism by then Chief Academic Officer, Michael Tolley. There’s also the case of Jon Greenberg, Center School educator, who was disciplined for teaching his curriculum on race and gender when one white family complained their student was discriminated against in the class.

In 2016, The Seattle Education Association formed the Center for Race and Equity, now called The Center for Racial Equity. This body in SEA, led by Marquita Prinzing, has been organizing members, most of whom are educators of color, to lobby for, educate about, and demand racial justice in our schools. This led to a successful campaign to bring ethnic studies into Seattle Public Schools. One goal of the ethnic studies initiative is to open access to professional development on racial equity literacy to all educators, including non-classroom teachers. Hundreds of educators have participated in these offerings in the first semester alone.

Superintendent, Denise Juneau, recently released her new, draft Strategic Plan with strong wording that proclaims racial equity to be at the core of our teaching and learning. It reads:

When we focus on ensuring racial equity in our educational system, unapologetically address the needs of students of color who are furthest from educational justice 1, and work to undo the legacies of racism in our educational system…

By:

  • Allocating resources strategically through a racial equity framework
  • Delivering high-quality, standards-aligned instruction
  • Creating healthy, supportive, culturally responsive environments from the classroom to central office
  • Directly and consistently working in partnership with families and communities who represent students of color who are furthest from educational justice; and
  • Making clear commitments and delivering on them

Then we will eliminate the opportunity and achievement gaps and every student will receive a high-quality, world-class education.

“Unapologetically.”

Racial Equity Reality

As of today, every single education association affiliated with Seattle Public Schools but one has passed a resolution of support for both ethnic studies and Black Lives Matter at School, including the Seattle Education Association, Washington Education Association, National Education Association, the The Seattle Council PTSA, and the Seattle Public Schools Board of Directors. The one organization that’s missing from that list? The Principals’ Association of Seattle Schools (PASS).  This is unsurprising considering some of the reports my colleagues and I have heard from educators about the barriers many principals are putting up in their buildings when it comes to racial justice*.

Educators report building principals restricting access to teaching materials for both ethnic studies and Black Lives Matter at School. Principals are also denying educators time to learn about and plan for Black Lives Matter at School even when their educators are asking for it and after every principal and assistant principal in the district participated in a professional development session where they were handed tools and materials to take back to their buildings with the expectation of preparing for the upcoming week of action and learning. And that’s not the worst of it.

Educators reported last year that many principals refused to allow educators to wear Black Lives Matter at School t-shirts, let alone teach about it, citing the racist phrase, “All lives matter.” It’s been reported to me that another principal invited police officers into their school during the week to show students how “nice” police officers are. I can’t even begin to imagine the trauma some students experienced having a uniformed officer on campus after one of the worst years of police brutality in recent memory. Young Black and Brown children watch television like any other person. They see images of people like themselves being brutalized and murdered by police. In many cases, they have seen it first hand. School is supposed to be a safe place, not one that preys on traumatized children because the building leader is ignorant.

Then There’s Roosevelt

The image used for this blog post comes from a former Roosevelt High School student, Satchel Schwartz. I’m not even going to explain how or why this image and corresponding news article are offensive and racist. If you don’t know, you shouldn’t be reading my blog – any of it. This is the latest in a series of racist incidents at Roosevelt.

It cannot be defended.

Defending it is upholding White Supremacy.

Students have reported such racist incidents as being called the “N” word by peers without adult intervention; being bullied and discriminated against by their teachers; scheduling “Kindness Month” during Black History Month, and now this. It’s been reported to me that a video of students using the “N” word was actively covered up by the building administration. You can read more about it in Satchel’s own words here. With all that’s happened at Roosevelt, and the silence from PASS on racial equity, this does not surprise me. What it does is infuriate me into action. It should be having the same impact on you.

What Do We Do?

I think about this question and am asked it a lot by my peers. Policies and Strategic Plans are only as good as the people acting on them. We cannot expect the Superintendent to act alone. We must stand behind the shields created for us to fight this. We have the language from the Superintendent: “Unapologetically ensuring educational and racial equity.” Yes, those are fighting words. A former colleague once proclaimed, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

Educators: this is a call to action. We must hold these administrators responsible for their obstructionism to racial justice. We must protect our students from this harmful practice of preventing us from doing the work we know must be done. It’s not, “What do we do?” It’s “What will we do?”

If these have been your experiences with building administrators, please share them in the comments. We can no longer allow them to act in the shadows. Their efforts to uphold White Supremacy must be exposed.

“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.”

Eli Weisel – in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day

*It’s not just white principals.

The Weaponization of Leaders of Color

image source: https://atlantadailyworld.com/2015/09/29/education-experts-discuss-diversity-leadership-at-clayton-state-university/

District: We are committed to equity! Look! We hired a (fill in a non-white identity here) to be our new Director of Equity/Diversity/some other colorblind term! We also created this handy dandy policy that includes “woke” words like “diversity,” “equity,” and “welcoming environments.”

Community members: Great! We want to participate in the national Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action! Our kids need to know we’re supporting and seeing them.

POC Director of Equity/Diversity/some other colorblind term: Um, yeah… about that. We can definitely teach about Black people, but we can’t call it that. We should just focus on closing the achievement gap. If we teach kids skills, they’ll do better!

Community members: Can we call it Ethnic Studies?

POC Director of Equity/Diversity/some other colorblind term: Yes! Great! We can teach about ethnicities! We’re all about diversity, equity, and other colorblind terms! Can we do Ethnic Studies at the next Multicultural Potluck Night?

Educators: No… that’s not what Ethnic Studies is. Ethnic Studies challenges the Master Narrative.

POC Director of Equity/Diversity/some other colorblind term: Yeah, we’re totally doing that in classrooms right now! Look at XYZ Elementary School! They have a ton of teachers that are different ethnicities and they’re all teaching about narratives.

Educators: Yeah.. that’s not how it works, either. Ethnic Studies teaches about systems of power and oppression and encourages civic activism for racial justice.

POC Director of Equity/Diversity/some other colorblind term: Oh, then no. That’s too confrontational. Students aren’t ready to learn about those types of things. Let’s bring police officers into classrooms to show students how nice they are, instead.

 

Sound familiar? The above arguments are all arguments I’ve heard from Black and Brown administrators about doing racial justice work. These arguments come from several districts, not just mine, but many of them are from my urban, “progressive” district. One might expect these kinds of arguments from white administrators, but when they come from POC administrators my blood boils! I feel like I’ve been betrayed, but it’s something more than that. I call it the weaponization of leaders of color.

We know that racism has never gone away. It’s shifted to meet the new culture and paradigms. We are talking more openly about race and challenging old colorblind ideologies, so white supremacy needs to adapt to survive. One way I see it happening is through this weaponization of POC (people of color for those just joining us). Organizations manipulate POC in leadership positions to shield the organization from actual change. There are many ways they do this, let’s examine three and talk about how to respond.

 

THE ILLUSION OF “DIVERSITY”

 

All organizations, but especially school districts who want to appear to be progressive and woke, have learned the art of diversity illusion. In my district, they can go to a school and say, “Look at how diverse our staff here is,” without telling you that most of the POC in the building are janitors, food service workers, clerical staff, and instructional assistants. I am not disparaging any of those positions. As a former classroom teacher, I have a deep understanding of the important role each of them plays in a properly functioning school. When this is used as proof of “diversity,” though, it reinforce stereotypes about the types of jobs POC are valued for. It also ignores all of the data about how important it is to have POC, especially Black, classroom teachers.

The illusion comes in several other forms, but is most harmful when it’s in the form of school and district administrative positions. You know that Black principal that’s put in a white school so everyone can see them? That Black principal is also under so much scrutiny by the white parents they can’t act on any kind of racial justice, or even look like they might.

You know the Latinx administrator who leads a dual language immersion school? They’re the same one that blocks access to Ethnic Studies because they’re afraid it will take time away from the Spanish speaking kids working on literacy skills to pass the standardized test that’s only given in English. This administrator may or may not believe that it’s also in the students’ best interest to assimilate and be as white as possible. They will never share their belief, though, because if they do think that they will get chewed up by the community they serve, and if they don’t, they may face consequences from their supervisor. It’s much easier to go with the colorblind “just teach skills” argument.

 

WE VALUE ALL WHO VALUE WHITE SUPREMACY

 

I get it. Being a POC in a leadership position inside of a racist organization is no cake walk. In fact, it’s not easy regardless of your position, but being in a leadership position pulls you in more directions. You can’t make everyone happy, and you are constantly in fear of losing your job and/or status. Guess why? Because it happens all of the time for POC! It’s a legitimate fear.

I understand that on many levels, maintaining the status quo is a survival technique. One, if you’re a POC you’re already being watched more carefully than others. Two, you have to work twice as hard and keep your nose twice as clean as your white colleagues to survive. And three, you’re probably given a job or problem that nobody else wants to do. Status quo is easy and safe.

But! Even if you want to challenge the status quo there’s another layer. You earn rewards and accolades for maintaining it. Challenging it gets you targeted and isolated. You know that great POC administrator everybody loved because they were actually doing great work, but disappeared one year never to be heard from again? There’s also the POC Director of Equity/Diversity/some other colorblind term who was probably promoted because they demonstrated in a previous role that they’re really good at status quoing and diffusing attempts to create real change. Oh – then there are the awards for administrators who “close gaps,” even though all of the research tells us the tests are racist. See my previous post on how “closing gaps” is code for denying students of color a real education.

They’ve all been weaponized.

 

YOU DON’T GET A PASS

 

I have been in rooms and seen how this issue plays out. There’s a suggestion on how to tackle racism in schools or how to achieve racial justice. Now remember, most educators are white, so there are mostly white people in the room. There’s some debate, but the majority of people agree it’s a good idea. One POC stands up and says they’re against it. They don’t even have to give a reason why. Next thing you know, the debate is shifting. Other POC stand up and say, “No. We still think it’s a good idea.” But the white folx in the room don’t know what to do. They know they’re supposed to listen to POC, but now their brains are on tilt. Who do they listen to?

They listen to the POC whose opinion makes them the most comfortable!! Duh. If you didn’t see that coming, maybe you shouldn’t be reading this post! Now, if there are legitimate reasons for the one person who is opposed, generally, the other POC in the room will back them on it, but all it takes to shift the power dynamics in a room of mostly white people is the opinion of one POC. I see it happen ALL THE DAMN TIME! I can deal with this when white people do it, but when POC do it, it causes twice as much harm because the white people will be harder to convince after hearing the safer option from a POC.

Who knows why they do it? It could be because of all the things mentioned in the sections above: the increased pressure; the intersections of identity, positionality, and personal safety; maybe they’re counter revolutionaries, as Freire calls them – people disillusioned with the fight. I don’t really care why they do it. I’m here to say they don’t get a pass.

“In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” Angela Davis

If you are a POC in a leadership position doing this shit YOU DON’T GET A PASS. If you want to maintain the status quo, great. Do it and be quiet about it. Get out of the way for those of us who are willing to take the risks. And to my other POC colleagues who agree what what I just said, you don’t get a pass either. We all need to be calling this shit out. White people aren’t going to do it, and shouldn’t do it. We need to stop supporting POC leaders just because they are POC “leaders.”