Closing the opportunity gap is NOT racial justice

By Heidi K. Schillinger


We the Future Write Our Own Liberation. Artwork from Amplifer by Kate DeCiccio

Okay, Peeps, It’s Time to Admit “Closing the Opportunity Gap” is Not Racial Justice or Racial Equity.

I’m glad you’re intrigued enough by the title to keep reading. You’re a fakequity fighter. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t open to trying on a different perspective, right?

Commitment to Learning in Public

I’m embarrassed to say, it’s been about a year since I last wrote a Fakequity blog post. It’s been a long time. I have a long list of excuses, some more valid than others; a lot of life changes, a lot of Korean dramas, a lot of miles on my bike. Recently, I asked myself why I have such a hard time putting my ideas out in writing. My initial thought was I feel more at ease expressing myself through speaking. That made sense, I speak to groups about racial equity on a regular basis. So, I went on this quest to see if I could start a podcast. Attended a podcast conference and found out it is more complicated than I anticipated.

I haven’t given up on a podcast, but I realized that if I am being honest with myself, one of the reasons I don’t blog a lot is because I have perfectionist tendencies. I want to fully think through my ideas, consider all the potential resistance, and all the potential missing perspectives before putting my ideas out in public. I think these perfectionist tendencies come from adoption trauma, learned behavior as a woman of color who is constantly challenged to defend my ideas, and from the infection of white supremacy that asks us all to try to aspire to unrealistic expectations such as perfectionism.

After a lot of internal dialogue, and sparked by listening to the podcast, All My Relations, I decided I need to make a stronger commitment to learning in public. One of the All My Relations hosts, Dr. Adrienne Keene, frequently talks about “consenting to learn in public.” (Side note, if you haven’t checked out the All My Relations podcast, please do. They describe it as “a podcast to discuss our relationships as Native peoples– relationships to land, to ancestors, and to each other.”) 

Here is what I realized. I am constantly evolving. My ideas are constantly evolving. I develop drafts and drafts in my head while I am riding my bike. I am constantly being influenced by other people’s ideas, questions, and perspectives. I am guessing I am not alone, and I need to model the vulnerability of learning in public that I am asking other people to make. So here we go.

The Admission: I Uphold Systemic Racism. I Uphold White Supremacy.

Yes, you read that correctly. I am making the admission. Even as a woman of color I uphold systemic racism. I fall easily into the default ways of whiteness that are rewarded in our system. I am asking you to make this admission too. No, this is not a “we are all equal” statement. People of color, especially Black and Indigenous Peoples are disproportionality impacted by these systems, but we can all uphold systemic racism.

This might be the hardest part of undoing systems of racism, the admission phase. Here is how this works as it connects to the “opportunity gap” narrative. What stage of denial are you and your organization in right now?

  • Straight Up Denial: Racism doesn’t exist (anymore). All this emphasis on the “Opportunity Gap” or “Achievement Gap” or whatever you want to call it is reverse racism [read: against white people]. What about all [read: white] kids? What about poor [read: white] kids? What about my [read: white] kid?
  • Fakequity Denial: No, my organization has worked a long time to switch our language from “achievement gap” to “opportunity gap” [read: but everything else stays the same; same mostly all white decision makers, same mostly all white designed “evidenced based” programs, same mostly all white framed evaluation tools, etc.] and we are now on the path to racial equity.
  • Fakequity Fighter Denial: No, we have pushed so hard to change the narrative from “achievement gap” to “opportunity gap.” I read [the 2012 article], Please Stop Using the Phrase ‘Achievement Gap’ and changed my framing. We’ve even pushed philanthropy and government to start using the phrase opportunity gap. No. No. . . .Okay, maybe the phrase has gotten appropriated, maybe people changed the words but not the [mostly all white] decision makers. Maybe people are still funding and pushing “promising practices” asking students of color to change by developing grit, studying harder, etc. rather than changing the systems. Maybe I am, unintentionally, supporting approaches that ask students of color to learn how to survive in education systems that have mostly all white decision makers, mostly all white teachers, mostly all white curriculum, and mostly all white cultural norms.
  • Acceptance: Yes, it me. It is my organization. We are pushing programs, approaches and processes under the banner of “closing the opportunity gap” that uphold systemic racism and white supremacy.

Does the resistance sound familiar? It is hard to confront and reflect on how we operate and to realize we uphold practices we claim to be working to undo. Have you worked through your resistance?

Are you ready to make the admission and move onto identifying the problem? Next week I’ll share more about how closing the opportunity gap is not racial justice. Your homework for the week is to identify which level of denial you or your organization is in, and to identify ways you’re upholding systemic racism.

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