I am a White Assistant Principal of a New York City elementary school. My journey to being able to talk about race and how it impacts our students and schools has made a tremendous difference for me, my practice, and the young people I serve.
I grew up outside of New Orleans and had the opportunity to go to a public school that prepared me to go to and complete college. I noticed that some students in my school and other schools in my city had a very different experience. Reflecting back, I realize that these different experiences and outcomes had a lot to do with the privileges I carried as a White child from an affluent background. I went to college on the West Coast as a student of education and journalism. After college, I joined Teach for America and was placed at a New York City school on the Lower East Side.
From 14 years of experience as a teacher and now an assistant principal at the same school, I can tell you that developing an environment that creates equitable outcomes for all children is impossible without talking about race. I know because I tried. I became aware of White privilege after college and had informal conversations with my principal about the impact of race in our school, but it took 10 years before we were brave enough to address race directly with staff.
For 10 years, we worked to create equitable outcomes for our Black and Brown students by focusing on reading, writing, and math. While this helped lower the number of students performing at a Level 1, we still had a disproportionate amount of Black boys receiving suspensions and performing lower than other students. With the best of intentions, we were still perpetuating the same outcomes we were passionately working against.
I thought I was “progressive.” I was taught to say “I don’t see color” and to love everyone and treat them how you want to be treated. When I first engaged in conversations around racism, I remember my White fragility coming out through tears and comments like “I am not racist, I’m Jewish and we know what it’s like to be oppressed. My family was the only Jewish family in my entire high school!” Or “I have Black friends.” I am appreciative of my learning experiences both formal and informal that led me to understand that by not acknowledging someone’s identity, I am not acknowledging who they are—their experiences, the challenges that are unique to them, and that in our country people have different experiences based specifically on their race.
It was not until a few teachers gave us the nudge to talk about the White elephant in the room… specifically, the predominantly White teaching staff serving a community of color. We started by coming together as a school staff and self-assessing using the Continuum on Becoming An Anti-Racist Multicultural Organization. We were shocked to discover we were in the passive stage towards becoming an anti-racist multicultural school. We immediately formed an equity team to guide the work we knew we needed to engage in with ourselves and our staff. We began to talk about Whiteness and the three I’s of racism (institutional, interpersonal, and internalized). It was hard, and there was discomfort, there were tears, there was pushback. These difficult conversations were healthy and necessary—the work brought progress, awareness, accountability, reflection, and action.
Talking about race can feel so personal and White folks compare this to feeling attacked. But it’s not an attack, its discomfort and through it, we grew. A huge ah-ha moment for me was that confronting racism in my school is not about just me as an individual, it is about me and the systems and culture in which I am automatically a part of. We have to be willing to push through the discomfort for the sake of our students. Discomfort is such a tiny ask for the sake of changing systems and practices that are negatively impacting our students.
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Our school became a part of the CREATES (Culturally Responsive Environments Attaining Transformative Equitable Solutions) cohort, where we meet monthly with other schools to examine our practices, unpack the institutional racism embedded in our school system, and reimagine what schooling can look like. Last year, I participated in a mandated two-day training for school leaders called Courageous Conversation About Race, which helps educators to address persistent racial disparities intentionally, explicitly and comprehensively. I am blessed to be in my second year of the Critically Conscious Educator Rising Series provided by the DOE and NYU—one of the many equity-focused trainings being used throughout our school system.
As White folks, it takes practice talking about race, many of us were taught that “White” or “Black” are bad words. Through our equity work, our staff and I have grown together to understand that by seeing one’s identity, one can acknowledge the person as a whole—who they are and how that has shaped their experiences. These professional development opportunities have gone far beyond the traditional one-day workshops that schools are normally offered, they impacted our practice and sparked on-going conversations that have helped us grow both personally and professionally.
Previously, we did not talk about race. We talked about closing the “achievement gap” through strong instruction and differentiation based on standards-aligned units of study. Now we’ve shifted our language to naming the disproportionality that exists as an “opportunity gap” because the deficit is not in the children, it’s in the schools.
We now directly look for where disproportionality exists in our data and what shifts we need to make to address it. This has led to our school to design more intentional school-level reading and math intervention programs and redesign our data cycles to better monitor student progress. Now, we analyze our social studies standards to see whose history is not being told, whose history is being told inaccurately, and create our own units to include a holistic and accurate history. We try to ensure that our units of study question injustices and teach students about a variety of perspectives, develop empathy and design social action projects. For example, our kindergarten students wrote to publishers to demand representation of more and varied family structures in books. Our 4th grade students studied indigenous people and the impact of colonization. Our 1st graders read “The Colors of Us” and developed a love for their unique skin color by naming it something beautiful—like mocha chocolate chip. As a result, student engagement has increased substantially and so has student academic performance.
Before talking about race, we were unsure of why on our Learning Environment Survey, we received lower ratings from parents in areas such as “I feel welcome in my child’s school” or “I feel like the school partners with me for my child’s success.” Now, we reflect on our identities and the impact of how we are perceived. As a result, we have shifted our interactions with parents from teachers as experts to families as experts. For example, instead of launching the year with a curriculum night where teachers present to families, we have listening conferences where families lead by sharing with us about their child. Parents are now invited into their classroom for Star Reading and Math mornings, for publication celebrations, and to share about their family. Our survey results have improved dramatically.
Pursuing racial justice is not about having all the answers, it’s about taking the time to slow down and know that there is no right answer, that there will often be no closure and that the work is messy and will never be done. Throughout my personal journey of understanding my racial identity, I have gone through all the stages—denial, fragility, debilitating guilt, the savior complex, otherness, and I still visit those stages as my consciousness changes. New questions constantly surface. I have learned with and from folks who were patient with me even though they didn’t have to be and brave enough to bring my attention to harm that I may have caused. I roll my eyes at my earlier self who didn’t acknowledge color. This reminds me that this work is a true journey and that I must have a sense of urgency but be patient with myself. If I can shift my consciousness so can others.
I continue to take time to learn on my own. I read a lot, tweet a lot and follow amazing people on social media who I learn from daily. My journey is complex, but as a White school leader serving Black and Brown children, I have a responsibility to unlearn, relearn, and challenge my own complicity. I support the NYC DoE in investing funds into training all staff on implicit bias, developing equity teams, and other racial equity initiatives such as CREATES and CCER. Our school systems are creating one set of outcomes for White children, and another set of outcomes for Black and Brown children. It’s common sense: we cannot address the causes of these outcomes if we do not directly talk about race. I can’t think of a better investment that would impact our students.
Jodi Friedman is an assistant principal.