White Administrators’ Guilt

Jose Vilson Education, Jose, Race

“This race discussion doesn’t apply to me.”

Whenever we say that racism isn’t just discrimination of one set of people towards another, but a systemic set of power structures that benefits one (white) group over another. This goes double for principals and assistant principals because, when your standing already endows you with more power than others in the building, your responsibility towards being cultural competent is doubled as well.

We have racist administrators in our schools, some overtly and some covertly. Our school system has yet to assess for racism because education reform assumes that “high expectations” shows up in the form of raising test scores, a bullshit shortcut instead of addressing some of the racist attitudes espoused by some of the highest-ranking adults running our school buildings across the country. It’s easier, mind you, to get rid of a principal for racist tweets or calling staff members gorillas, but implicit bias shows up in ways that aren’t so obvious.

Like, what if an administrator always finds a way to write up and suspend the children of color in their building? What if they talk down to Spanish-speaking parents and treat them as bothersome ignoramuses? What if the administrator looks at the white teachers in the building as the only way the school will reform and points at the veteran teachers, typically of color, as part of the problem? What if they tout their degrees to the kids not as a source of inspiration, but as a way of saying “You’ll never get there and you don’t deserve to be in my midst?” What if they look at the students and assume the father isn’t present or the mother doesn’t care? What if, when visitors come, the administrator only visits classrooms where the students speak the King’s English and puts all the kids who speak only Chinese in the basement? What if they refuse to say the students’ names right, make fun of them for not being called “Jim” or “Sarah,” and yell at them when the students when they’re using their own language amongst their friends? What if they only sit next to other white administrators and assume the Latino administrator probably got the job at a struggling school and because she has connections with the superintendent?

What if your administrator is racist?

And that’s only one level. What if the administrator sees a staff member doing something racist and says nothing about it? Are they complicit and, if so, doesn’t that almost make them racist by association? If they see a student suddenly dip in grades in only one specific class and that child just happens to be the only student of color there, shouldn’t that pique an administrators’ curiosity? What if the teacher has the highest test scores in the building, but genuinely treats the students as “those” and “these” constantly?

Is racism in schools just a manifestation of unfounded anger or does it happen when we stand by and let folks do it, too?

From my purview, white administrators’ guilt, on the surface, suggests that they hold low expectations for the students in front of them. They use the dialogue about poverty and outside influences on student achievement as a crutch for why students can’t learn rather than an understanding that they must try hardest because, in spite, and even so. On a deeper level, though, white administrators’ guilt is the idea that the people of color in front of you are less than human, unworthy of their pristine, yet unalienable education. That idea manifests in bigger issues like high suspension rates and zero tolerance policies and more subtle ideas like teaching students how to clean up their accents and only acknowledging American holidays.

But please: don’t point to Martin Luther King Jr. posters hanging in their offices and think that’s enough to get a pass. Plenty of young men and women of color hang in various ways in these schools, often at the principal’s behest.