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Educating white people is not a black student's job

Opinion

September 17th, 2019 11:54 AM

Sharhonda Dawson

'I choose to live in Oak Park so my children can see people of color." I hear this statement from white folks so often, I don't have any one person to attribute the quote to. It is said so often, that most white folks don't think about the racism in that statement. 

We need intentionally diverse communities and schools because black students deserve access to a high-quality education — not for the social benefit of white students. 

Progressive white folks, I know lots of you. And I know you think diversity in schools and community is important. But you all are pushing a sales job on other white parents that has harmful consequences for people of color. 

This problem is especially present in schools. As Oak Park schools try to address their issues with racism, both implicit and explicit, the justification used for white people is that it benefits their children too. 

Here's why that is racist: America has legally and systematically deprived black children access to quality schools. The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining real-estate policies, and white flight has created an education crisis for black children, and they are owed an opportunity to achieve.

But instead of clearly saying we need racially diverse schools, programs, and opportunities because we have unjustly and systemically excluded black students from top-tier education, many of you point to the benefits of diversity for all students. You assure fragile white parents that their precious babies will not suffer academically or otherwise from proximity to children of color. This is unacceptable. 

The benefits of diversity do exist. But centering whiteness in order to ensure diverse schools certainly won't make racism disappear.

Just as black students won't magically become "smarter" by sitting next to white students, neither will white students magically become "non-racist" by sitting next to black ones. As Jennifer Eberhardt wrote in Biased, "It takes more than interpersonal connection to break the bonds of institutional bias and promote the sort of equality that allows us all to thrive."

Racism isn't eliminated by osmosis or a magical spell — our children are not wizards and our schools are not Hogwarts. Even at Hogwarts, they know that simply having muggles at the school isn't enough to stop wizard supremacy. And neither is having black and brown students at our schools enough to stop white supremacy.

Radical change needs to happen.

The worst part of this false advertising around diversity is that it places an unfair burden on black and brown children — the unrealistic expectation that they will educate white folks. That burden is compounded because black and brown students also experience racism perpetrated by the same children they are supposed to be educating.

Ruby Bridges was just the tip of the iceberg. There is now an entire generation of black student pioneers. In fact, I have talked with many black people who were one or one of a handful of black people in their schools. It was not a pleasant experience. It makes it harder to learn when you are in that situation. When you're battling stereotypes and being attacked with macro- and micro-aggressions all the time, it's difficult to succeed. That's a significant burden alone.

Black students don't want to be placed in predominantly white environments so they can teach and/or influence white folks about racism. Black students want to be in predominantly white spaces because they have more resources. Sure, black students want to make friends that they can talk to, but about normal stuff like the struggles of school, study groups, which teachers are the best — not to serve as a teacher about race. 

It is cruel to demand that the price of black and brown children's presence in Oak Park be that they address the lack of racial awareness on the part of most white children. 

So here are the new race rules for diversity in schools starting this school year: 

• It is not black students' responsibility to enlighten white students about different cultures or to demonstrate that "races are equal." 

• It is not the job of black teachers to teach white teachers about racism, unless you are paying them specifically to teach white teachers about racism.

• It is not the job of black administrators to teach white co-workers and/or bosses about racism, unless they are hired specifically to teach about racism. 

It is not the role or responsibility of black folks to unteach racism. If you want to learn how not to be racist, take a class or read a book (Biased is fantastic)! There are literally thousands of ways you can learn about racism on your own.  

Diversity and access to quality spaces should happen because all Americans should have access to quality spaces, not because white folks will benefit and not because being around black people will make white people less racist. 

It's not a barter. 

ShaRhonda Knott Dawson is a west suburban resident who is involved in multiple service organizations and projects in, and around, Oak Park. Her writing can be found on her blog, sharhondatribune.com.