Systemic Racism

Matt Kay, one of the people from whom I learn much on twitter, has talked recently about how meaningless a phrase ‘systemic racism’ is unless we’re naming those systems.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because I know I’m guilty of doing it. I lack the knowledge, or lack the confidence in my knowledge, to speak more specifically. That’s something I can change. I can learn. I own plenty of books that are just sitting there with this information. Owning them isn’t helping me if I don’t read them and dig deep in them.

I do, however, know what some of these systemic issues are in education. And I can address those.

Dress Codes

I know that dress codes are frequently racist. In my classroom I don’t care if kids have hoods up or hats on or whatever. When my kids have been called out on such ‘violations’ by other teachers, I’ve spoken up and defended them and their choice. I haven’t, though, gone beyond that. I haven’t addressed it proactively in any way.

Responding to Behavior

Behavior is another area I need to consider. Do I respond to students’ behavior differently? Am I harsher on students of color? Especially Black students and even more, Black boys? When I reprimand a child, does that look the same regardless of their race or gender? Answering these questions with complete honesty is likely impossible. Not just because it is hard to admit to racist behavior, but because it’s hard to know for sure how things might have gone. That means I have to be extra vigilant in these areas that are systemic. I have to be willing to reflect on my actions every day. I have to be hyper aware of my tone, my words, and my actions when it comes to responding to behaviors.

Low Expectations

Low expectations, often as evidenced by special education labels, is one more area of systemic racism in education. Do I expect less from my students with special education labels? Do I expect less from my students whose parents have received less education? This might be evidenced by who I call on in class, who gets opportunities for enrichment activities, who gets pushed forward for advanced academic programs, and more. It’s easy to not notice or consciously ignore lowered expectations. Knowing the problem exists is just a baby step for me towards making sure I’m not adding to it.

Issues that are systemic, like those above, are now a norm. They are the status quo. Awareness of them is not enough to change them. I can be aware of a tree blocking the road but if I just turn around and go another way I’m not doing anything to remove the barrier. I have to begin removing branches, cutting it apart, and dragging it off the road. I can do this by doing better for the kids in my classroom and I need to do so. In addition, I need to work to dismantle this through conversations and advocacy in my school, my district, and educational organizations of which I am a part. I must name these systems and work to tear them apart.


4 responses to “Systemic Racism”

  1. smith5522 Avatar

    Hi, interesting ideas, but I’d like to challenge a couple (and it’s driven by good intentions as I’m similarly trying to figure this out). Specifically, a system is a set of rules and procedures. It’s NOT individual behavior and choices.

    Hence, I agree that a dress code, if set up to systematically (set of rules) deny particular groups the ability to express their culture, could indeed be racist. But your other two examples are not systems – rather, they are individual choices. Your choice to respond to someone’s behavior is your choice, it’s not a system. The same holds true for having low expectations of people with “special education labels” – each individual makes a choice about how to treat others. It’s great for you to reflect on your choices, but it isn’t systemic racism.

    Good luck in your journey.

    1. jenorr Avatar

      My choices, when it comes to responding to behaviors and the expectations for students, are both impacted by the current system. That system certainly is racist. I could have made that more clear. My goal is for my individual actions to fight against those systems, as that’s what I control.

  2. Smith5522 Avatar

    Thank you for your response. But I am still confused by this:

    “…are both impacted by the current system.‘

    I don’t understand – exactly what system? Can you please be specific?

    Let’s take the case of special education students. What is the system to which you refer here?

    Again, this is driven by good intent. I truly think that many people are as confused as I am.

  3. […] and natural hair bans. I was so encouraged to see Jennifer Orr, an admired teaching colleague, write about her own reflections on naming specific systems. If she, and we, have the courage to name distinct racist systems that infect our profession—if […]

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