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.”