Identifying the Problem: Closing the Opportunity Gap is NOT Racial Justice

Editor’s Note: This is part two of the blog post “Closing the opportunity gap is NOT racial justice.” Be sure to go back and read part one to get a fuller understanding of this blog post.

By Heidi K. Schillinger

Fakequity Checklist 1.0Last week I asked you to do some homework. Did you identify what stage of denial or acceptance you and your organization are in with upholding the opportunity gap?

Once we can admit our organizations are upholding systemic racism, we can start looking for the root causes of the problem. This is going to be the start of a list, but not an exhaustive list.

Only a Single Lever: Changing the narrative is important, but a narrative change alone doesn’t dismantle systemic racism. It can be an important pivot point to get people to, in the words of organizational psychologist Adam Grant, “doubt the default” and engage in different conversations. But as we have seen with racial “equity,” talking about racial equity is not the same as implementing racial equity (#fakequityoriginstory). Narrative changes without also changing decision-makers and approaches, still upholds the status quo of systemic racism.

Ignoring the Impact of History: Too many people and organizations ignore or don’t make explicit connections to historical practices of forced assimilation of Indigenous Peoples through boarding schools, enslavement of Black people, and segregation of all people of color in education to why we currently still have systems where whiteness is still the standard. In the United States, we need to acknowledge that education has been weaponed as a tool to oppress people of color, especially Native and Black people. If we don’t make these explicit links, we uphold the implicit racist narrative that schools have mostly white leaders, white teachers, white curriculum, white norms because white folks are superior. Or white folks have been here longer. Or that the pervasive whiteness in our system is normal. All these statements are false, widespread unconscious beliefs that uphold racial injustice.

Dominant Society [Whiteness] Appropriation: Using the Closing the Opportunity Gap narrative has become the safety pin/easy version of performative organizational racial equity work. The origins might have been rooted in racial justice, but the appropriation of the term by mainstream organizations from school districts to philanthropy has watered down this term. It is like watching the same people who told me kimchi smells now making a fortune off selling their “more palatable version of kimchi.” And now, this new trendy and profitable version is more recognizable and popular than the authentic, smelly kimchi. #appropriation

Same Ole’ Tools that Use Whiteness as the Standard: My main argument around why “closing the achievement gap” is not racial justice is rooted in the fact that we continue to use the same ole’ tools. The continued obsession over standardized test scores and graduation rates as the indicators for “closing the opportunity gap” keeps our misdirection guided by whiteness as the standard. Before I get a lot of nasty notes, I am not making a statement about the usefulness of standardized testing (although I could), I am making the statement that using standardized test scores as an indicator of “closing the opportunity gap” keeps our strategies and approaches focused on “fixing” kids of color to meet this standard set to whiteness. It is also a standard that uses mostly East-Asians as a model minority tool to uphold this racist standard. This cannot be called racial justice work. If your closing the opportunity gap work is fixated on standardized test scores as the main or even primary indicator, we should not be calling this racial justice or racial equity work. Likewise, if your organization relies heavily on [read: white] evidenced-based programs, [read: white] promising practices, and [read: white] evaluation tools, you are using tools that uphold white supremacy and racial injustice.

Individual Support vs Disrupting Systemic Patterns: Somewhere in the national conversation, we have established an overdeveloped muscle to talk about individuals and an underdeveloped muscle to talk about systems. This is how this plays out in the “opportunity gap” conversation. It has organizations focused on meeting “individual student needs” and believing this is racial equity, as if being racialized Black or Native alone creates an individual need for a student that we need to “fix.” This is another of the roots of racism; the false narrative that race creates biological differences that we can attribute to the societal gaps we see. The continued, albeit mostly implicit, false belief that people of color are inherently and biologically inferior. Being racialized has nothing to do with individual effort, it has everything to do with unfair policies, practices, and narratives. Want to hear real examples of systemic racism in education, check out Start Up Podcast’s Success Academy 7: The High School Episode.

Racial justice provokes us to understand and change the dominant white systems that create these patterns of disproportionate outcomes. Differentiating for an individual student based on interest, needs, or culture is not unimportant, it is just not racial justice. Racial justice looks at broad patterns of disproportionate outcomes by race and changes the system for all, yes even white folks will benefit from systems that don’t constantly center whiteness. Specifically, it asks us to acknowledge we have education systems that have mostly white decision makers, mostly white teachers, mostly white curriculum, mostly white cultural norms, and mostly white kids “succeeding.”Racial justice asks us to not make excuses for this system, to not continue to push an education system that is rooted in white supremacy. Racial justice work is a movement towards real, specific, and tangible changes to create systems (leaders, teachers, curriculum, norms, etc.,) that don’t have these predictable patterns by race. If you want more on shifting from thinking about individual support to identifying systemic patterns, check out this article The Achievement Gap vs. The Justice Gap: Race vs. Redemption.

Required, Not Desired: Seek, compensate, and follow the wisdom and leadership of the people most impacted: communities, families, and students of color, especially, within Indigenous, African-American, Latinx, Pacific Islander, and Southeast Asian communities.

So how can we get closer to racial justice in education? We need to engage and support power from within communities of color who are farthest from the current default white system. Communities of Color are context and content experts in how the system is broken AND experts on proposing new ideas and ways to test and try. We need to seek, compensate, and follow the wisdom and leadership of the people most impacted: communities, families, and students of color, especially, within Indigenous, African-American, Latinx, Pacific Islander, and Southeast Asian communities.

This work needs to be required, not just desired. And, if you are reactively thinking, well show me what that looks like, I gently remind you that there is no such thing as an easy answer. We need to continue to engage in the hard work. But we do have numerous examples of how our communities of color have come together to set our own educational standard, they are just not usually publicly funded or deemed a “best practice” by whiteness. Consider some of these examples:

We are talking about communities of color, not individual people of color. One person or even two people of color cannot and should not “represent” the vast array of different racialized experiences. Too often white systems tokenize or two-kenize – a phrase that captures when we have two, not just one token – it is a phrase I heard on a podcast (I can’t remember the name of). All the examples above bring a specific racial (or ethnic) community or a coalition of communities of color together and allow us to show the complexity and humanity of our communities. Although we may be connected by race, our racialized experiences are complex due to other factors of identity such as class, gender, age, sexual orientation, faith, disability status, immigration status, language, etc. This diversity of racialized experiences will never be recognized if white systems continue to tokenize or two-kinize one or two people, continuing to uphold racial injustice. We can do better. We must do better if we want to pursue racial justice.

If you’d like to apply some of this framing to work outside the “closing the opportunity gap” narrative, try using this simple checklist with your team, co-workers, organization. It is inspired by the book, The Checklist Manifesto. It is a “read and do” list.

We’ve created a Fakequity Checklist 1.0 to help guide you through the checklist thought process. Like all toolkits and checklist, it is only as useful as the time and effort you put into it. Print out several copies, mark them up, rewrite, analyze, think, and write it up again. Share what you’re learning with others and have some deep conversations with accountability partners about the problem to get to better results.

Since PDFs aren’t always screen reader friendly, here is the text of the worksheet:

  • Name / Team / Group / Department – be race conscious
  • Date
  • Title of Problem – What is the Racial Injustice you’re trying to address?
  • Accountability Partners
  • Historical context of the racial injustice
  • What parts of the racial injustice are we upholding?
  • Who is impacted – Which Communities of Color are most impacted?
  • What is within our personal or organizational control, what are we upholding or what can we change?
  • How are we currently learning in public and what else can we do to learn in public?
  • Identify the societal systemic levers that uphold racism. Be specific to the racial injustice identified on page 1 (of the worksheet)
  • Identify our organizational systemic levers that uphold racism, be specific?
  • Document the required processes and approaches to seek out, compensate, and follow the lead of Communities of Color most impacted by the racial injustice — be specific. DON’T TOKENIZE. Is compensation for BIPOCs in your plans?
  • Notes, comments, reactions from accountability partners.

I am testing this new checklist to practice learning in public. If you use it, let us know how it works for you. Maybe we can write a post sharing the way people used the checklist and propose a next draft to test and practice using.

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