Tag Archives: Racism

Performative Action Isn’t Enough. It’s Time for Real Change in Hanover County Schools

Michael Johnson is an intern with Bellwether’s Policy & Evaluation team.

On Tuesday, July 14th, the school board of Hanover County, Virginia narrowly ruled (4-3) in favor of changing the names of two schools named after confederate leaders: Lee Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle School.

As someone who grew up in and attended Hanover County Public Schools, removing those names has long been overdue. Located less than 30 minutes from the former capital of the confederacy, Hanover County has repeatedly blocked community members’ efforts to change the two school names in the past, most recently in 2018.

But while the mobilization to replace symbols of white supremacy is imperative, it’s only a prerequisite. In the absence of structural change, renaming fails to redress the structures which reproduce oppression and generate harm for Black and brown communities

Growing up in Hanover County, racism was another day of the week, an inevitable truth which seemed too ingrained to change. My mother knows this first hand. Born in 1960, she was among the first class to integrate Hanover County Public Schools during the 1969-1970 school year, 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education.

photo courtesy the author

I know this first hand as well. Beyond the school names commemorating confederate leaders, racism manifested through the microaggressions of my white peers telling me “you are smart for a Black person” or “you sound white.” It manifested more overtly when being called the N-word by a group of white students once on my way to the bathroom, another time after Prom, and yet again when students etched racial epithets on the building of my high school. The most recent examples include KKK recruitment flyers being found in the yards of Hanover County residents in February and an open rally of nearly a dozen Klan members in July. An Instagram page created in June, @BlackatHanoverCPS, documents ongoing racial hatred filling the halls of our schools. 

These are not isolated events: they are indicative of the endemic racism deeply rooted in the community, symbolized by the former school names. 

However, unlike the names — which were removed virtually overnight following the School Board vote — behaviors, beliefs, and systems are not as easily changed. Similar to the district’s staunch opposition to integration during my mother’s time, the Hanover County School Board and Board of Supervisors continue to illustrate this resistance to change.  Continue reading

Black Superwoman Syndrome: What It Is and How Organizations Can Better Support Their Black Female Leaders

In my late 20’s, working as a school leader, I had two surgeries to remove benign tumors despite having an impeccable health record and no family history of tumors. Over my entire career in leadership, I have watched other Black women — leaders I’ve supported, peers, mentors, clients, and friends — struggle with serious physical and mental health challenges, including anxiety, hair loss, eating disorders, depression, and auto-immune diseases.

With the spotlight on issues faced by Black employees during this new racial reckoning, it’s important to elevate Black Superwoman Syndrome. Coined by Dr. Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombe, professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill School of Nursing, the phenomenon includes five major behaviors demonstrated by Black women leaders: obligation to manifest strength, obligation to suppress emotions, resistance to being vulnerable or dependent, determination to succeed despite significantly limited resources, and an obligation to help others. 

This Superwoman-like behavior can be both an asset and a necessary liability to ascend in predominantly white-led workplaces. The relentless drive to dispel negative stereotypes of Black women as “lazy” or “incompetent” has enabled many Black women to thrive in leadership in these spaces. However, once in these leadership roles, Black women often find themselves to be one of the few or only people of color at decision-making tables, which may continue to feed the syndrome. 

The pressure on Black women to juggle and be perfect at all things because of unequal expectations at the intersection of race and gender-based oppression takes a physical and emotional toll. Amani M. Allen (formerly Nuru-Jeter) of the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health describes the toll as “the slow deterioration of our bodies.”

Many articles on this topic list tips Black women can follow to “put down their capes,” but this syndrome is not Black women’s sole responsibility to address. Leaders of organizations can identify the “Superwomen” hiding in plain sight and create the conditions that better support them.

Tresha Ward, partner at Bellwether Education Partners, quote: "Organizational leaders need to reckon with the reality that they may have cultivated a culture where it’s uncomfortable for Black women to express emotions other than contentedness in the name of “professionalism.”

Here are ways I’ve seen this syndrome manifest itself: 

Obligation to manifest strength

There is an expectation to put on a “strong face” even when Black female leaders don’t want to or have the energy to do so. To do otherwise could cause others to question their capabilities. This looks like powering through the day without breaking a sweat; handling crisis after crisis and meeting after meeting; and solving every problem that walks through the door — alone — because that is the expectation many have of them.    Continue reading

The Black Lives Matter Education Platform Is Part of a Bigger Conversation

Last week, a collective of organizations engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement published two policy briefs (here and here) which together articulate an education platform. Although Black Lives Matter crystallized into a cultural force after several well-documented incidents of police violence, it has never been a single-issue movement. For many Americans, critical analyses of public schools have never lived very far away from conversations about racism, policing, and the fundamental role of government.BLM

In many education circles, these conversations became open and explicit with the introduction of  “school resource officers.” A school resource officer is an on-duty police officer assigned to a school campus. These positions ballooned after the Columbine tragedy, ostensibly to protect students in the event of another attempted school shooting. That hasn’t worked out as designed, and although there are stories of heroism, they’re dwarfed by the ongoing incidents of mass violence with student casualties. Unfortunately, the presence of school resource officers on campus has also meant that every discipline problem (even fake burping) can quickly escalate to an arrest.

And just like formal policing outside of the school gates, the unofficial policing of behavior on campus shows markers of racism and bias. Black students, both boys and girls, are disproportionately suspended and expelled. For a school, that might be the end of the story, but for a young person and their family, it’s likely just the latest in a series of disruptive encounters with agencies supposedly tasked with protecting and caring for them.

This new Black Lives Matter education platform acknowledges the central role that schools play in communities today and that they are woven into the fabric of families’ lives. Education, policing, and criminal justice are in constant interplay, and none of them function independently of the others. Some of the policy wonks among us might take issue with the particulars of the recommendations — and that’s fair — but the platform should be read in its intended context, and policy debates should be informed by an understanding of the complex relationships among these public agencies.

What Should An “Empowering Girls of Color” Initiative Look Like?

Improving education for low-performing groups of students shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. DC Public Schools (DCPS) have drawn attention (some of it negative) for their Empowering Males of Color initiative, which includes a new all-boys high school. But girls of color need specialized supports, too, in DCPS and nationwide. The graduation rate for black girls in DCPS is 20 percentage points lower than that of white students.

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Photo by Noah Scialom

What should a high-quality support system for girls of color look like? DCPS shouldn’t open an all-girls high school across the street from the boys’ school and call it a day. Here are some focus areas for DCPS and other school systems to consider:

  • Support girls of color in STEM and CTE. Black girls are less likely to take AP courses in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects, and less likely than white men or white women to graduate college with a degree in a STEM field. In recent NAEP Technology and Engineering Literacy results, girls beating boys by three points made headlines, but black and Hispanic girls still lagged behind white boys and girls by 20-30 points. Schools should encourage girls to take advanced courses in STEM subjects and enroll in career and technical education (CTE) programs linked to high-earning careers in traditionally male-dominated fields.
  • Confront racial and gender bias in school discipline. Racial gaps in school discipline impact all students of color, but boys and girls experience it differently. In DC schools (including charter schools) in 2011-12, 13% of black girls received out-of-school suspensions vs. 1% of white girls and 2% of white boys. While good data on discipline causes are scarce, researchers suggest that girls of color are more likely to be punished harshly for minor behavioral issues, such as dress code violations. More data on discipline by race and gender are needed, as are better school policies and resources to show educators how to respond to behavioral challenges fairly.
  • Enhance pregnancy prevention and support for teen parents. Teen pregnancy and parenting are cited as key factors among 38% of black girls and 36% of Hispanic girls who leave school. In DC, efforts to reduce teen pregnancy have been very successful, and the number of teen births fell by 20% from 2009 to 2012. DC is already doing more than many jurisdictions to prevent pregnancy and keep teen parents in schools: comprehensive sex education is the norm, condoms are available in all high schools from the school nurse and student volunteers, educational programs aimed at supporting teen parents are available in DCPS high schools, and the DC Department of Human Services sponsors pregnancy prevention education in afterschool programs.
  • Acknowledge other family responsibilities. Girls are more likely than boys to be responsible for caring for younger siblings or other family members. This kind of care is not as well-documented as teen pregnancy, but it can be just as stressful. DC has the most expensive childcare in the country, and struggling working parents have to rely more on informal care, like teen sisters. Policymakers should expand the availability of high-quality affordable child care, and school leaders should allow for more flexible attendance/scheduling policies, transportation assistance, and other educational supports for girls who need to get their siblings to school or help siblings with homework.
  • Target bullying and sexual harassment that disproportionately affects girls. Girls cannot learn successfully if they feel unsafe. A national survey by AAUW found that 56% of girls in grades 7-12 experienced some kind of sexual harassment in the 2010-11 school year. And girls from low-income families were more likely to stay home from school in response to harassment. Girls also experience bullying in ways that may be less visible: girls are more likely to be the victims of cyber-bullying and relational bullying (where someone is ostracized or gossiped about, rather than being directly confronted). School policies on bullying and sexual harassment should address these different experiences, and educators should be trained to recognize signs of distress and trauma in girls.
  • Break out the data. One of the most basic things all states can do is publish easily accessible “cross-tabs” of key achievement metrics, so communities can see how boys and girls are performing across racial/ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Separate data on gender, socioeconomic status, and race/ethnicity tend to be more accessible, but going deeper, to look at black students by gender or gender groups broken out by socioeconomic status, is not common or consistent even though state data systems would support it.

Schools should intervene to help students who are struggling most, and in most school systems, that means supporting boys of color; initiatives like Empowering Males of Color could be a good start. But girls of color need unique supports, too. If schools go the route of gender-differentiated strategies to close racial achievement gaps, they should articulate plans for both boys and girls. This is not a meaningless gesture to give the appearance of fairness, it’s about recognizing that intersections of race and gender and lots of other factors can affect students in different ways and demanding strategies that are responsive to students’ experiences. This can have real positive effects on student learning — just don’t leave girls out of the picture.

Charleston, Black Weariness, and White Allyship

I am tired. I am weary. Welcome 2 my world.

via www.writerightwords.com

Another tragic racially motivated hate crime has taken place, this time at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. In the wake of too many brutal shootings of unarmed black men captured on video and thus exposed to the world, the event in Charleston elicited a range of reactions: outrage, grief, solidarity, disgust, resolve. But a common sentiment of weariness has emerged in many of the articles and commentaries that I’ve read.

Singer Solange Knowles poignantly expressed her fatigue this way:

To some degree, the recent spate of highly publicized race-based tragedies has elicited weariness in anyone invested in social equity. Waking up to these headlines is emotionally draining. But there’s a stark difference between the exhaustion experienced by people of color and whites that deserves attention if we are to find motivation to move forward together in these moments.

Tawnya Denise Anderson, a Presbyterian minister and author of this fantastic post, puts it this way:

I wish I could help non-Black folks understand what it’s like to be inundated with stories and experiences like this. It scars the psyche. You go from anger and indignation to depression and dejection and back and forth and back again until you’re inevitably numb. When news of Kalief Browder’s suicide broke, many of my White friends expressed their anger about it and the system that facilitated it. I told them they could be angry all they wanted. As for me, I’m exhausted.

This expression of collective weariness reminded me of a candid conversation with a colleague about our reactions to the Michael Brown shooting. She expressed her experience confronting and then battling racism this way, “I’m sick and tired. And then I get sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Continue reading