Racial code words for dummies

Racism exists in many forms. Perhaps the most hurtful form is the unconscious kind, expressed inadvertently by people who consider themselves to be well-meaning. I don’t think anybody who contributes to the discussions at PPS Equity is a racist, but there have been times when non-white readers have contacted me in exasperation about some of the things they’ve read here.

Just for kicks, see how many code words you can spot in the following passage. This is a real comment on a different blog.

We live in our neighborhood b/c it’s what we can afford, but the schools here are scoring so low and are socially very rough. We go to a charter school (thankfully k-8) about 4mi away, and have been developing a great community there. Most of the kids in our neighborhood go to various other schools too. Ironically, they are the more balanced, healthy kids that I prefer my kids befriend anyway. The ones from our neighborhood school are often yelling cusswords, lying, flipping each other off, and don’t seem to be supervised.

Now, I can see the black readers rolling their eyes and shaking their heads. And I can see some white readers shrugging their shoulders, saying “What? Sounds reasonable to me….”

This, my friends, illustrates the racial divide in “post-racial” America.

Let’s start with the first phrase: “We live in our neighborhood b/c it’s what we can afford….” Right away, we have a denial of privilege. And privilege is at the heart of racism. This is a show stopper for readers who are not privileged (e.g. non-white or economically disadvantaged). Nobody who’s a product of a generational struggle for basic rights and justice wants to explain to you that you are, in fact, privileged, and they’re not likely to get beyond this first phrase.

But if they do, they’re gonna get hit with this doozy: “…but the schools here are scoring so low and are socially very rough.”

Test scores correlate highly to race and income. There is strong statistical evidence showing poor and non-white students score poorly regardless of setting. Conversely, white, middle class students tend to score highly regardless of setting. “Low test scores” are a proxy for race and income. “Socially very rough” is even less oblique, as the writer shows later in the passage.

Note the thankfulness for the charter school being K-8, but no acknowledgment of the privilege that allows a family to enroll in a charter and do an 8 mile round-trip commute for elementary school. Also note that they’re “developing” a community outside of their neighborhood, implying an unwillingness to adapt to the community that existed in the neighborhood before they moved in, presumably “other” in one or more unacceptable ways . This is unselfconscious self-segregation.

By this point, it’s not hard for a non-white reader to read “more balanced, healthy kids that I prefer my kids befriend” as white, middle class kids and “[t]he ones from our neighborhood school are often yelling cusswords, lying, flipping each other off, and don’t seem to be supervised” as describing non-white, economically disadvantaged kids.

This passage is pretty extreme. I’ve never seen anything so blatant here, thankfully. What we see here are generally more frank, direct discussions about race and class, but we still get a failure to acknowledge an unequal starting point — that is, privilege.

Every kind of ism — classism, racism, sexism, etc. –  is a rhetorical match-up between the privileged and the under-privileged.  So if you are white, and you are talking to a black person about race, you speak from a position of privilege. If you don’t acknowledge this to yourself at the outset, or, even worse, if you deny your privilege, you are likely to offend the other person.

If you go further and ask that person to explain your privilege, or argue that you don’t benefit from privilege, things are going to get ugly fast.

Then there are the old political code words for race: gangs, welfare, quotas, crime, state’s rights, “reverse racism”, etc. But more pernicious are the things that come from supposedly well-meaning liberals.

If you’re white, here are some things you don’t want to say when discussing race with somebody who’s not white, with the perceived subtext in parentheses (tip of the hat to Derailing for Dummies, a must-read):

  • You’re being hostile/disruptive/overly sensitive (you are uppity and don’t know your place)
  • If you don’t teach me, how can I learn (it’s your responsibility to demonstrate my privilege)
  • I’ve experienced discrimination, too (so what’s the big deal)
  • Other minorities I know say this isn’t a big deal (so you’re obviously exaggerating and need to prove racism to me)
  • We have a black president (how can you say there is still racism)

Sometimes “compliments” are perceived as insults:

  • You’re really articulate (for a black person)
  • You’re clean/you smell good (considering how dirty you people usually are)
  • Black babies are just cuter than white babies (you know, like puppies)
  • Can I touch your hair (it’s so “exotic”)

This is obviously not a complete list, but it’s a start.

I’m really grateful that so many people have exhibited openness and graciousness in discussing race here, despite occasional frustration and some understandable misgivings. Nobody’s perfect, and nobody can walk in somebody else’s shoes. But if we begin our discussions by acknowledging how privilege (or lack of privilege) frames our points of view, we can get down to some serious business.

Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

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Universal Design and Modified Curriculum

I have posted before and testified to the school board about the importance of a strong commitment to making schools ADA accessible so the policy that all PPS students have the right to go to their neighborhood school will actually be true.

When the city begins to make these changes it is going to be important to use a universal design approach to updating buildings, classrooms, and communities.

Universal design is a broad solution to accessibility issues where you modify buildings, products, and environments that everyone benefits from; not just people with disabilities. We already have a lot of examples of universal design in our city. The most common example is curb cuts in the sidewalk. People in wheelchairs benefit, cyclists, strollers, people with joint problems, young children, and joggers. Automatic doors are a great help for people with disabilities and nowadays we actually notice when a grocery store does not have an automatic door vs. when they do. Other examples: touch screen tests, closed captioning, books on CD, online classes, choice of languages on electronic equipment, low ramp busses, icons and noises at crosswalks. These things most of us take for granted but they help others a great deal.

Universal design in schools provides benefits for all learners and the modifications a student with a disability might need could also benefit a non-disabled student in other ways. The focus of universal design requires you to gather facts about your learners before you teach them. You will look at the content including academic and social goals of the lesson, the process and how the students engage in learning, how the students will demonstrate the learning, and then also within the process of instruction you will need to look at social, physical, and environmental supports. I will stop here for a moment to throw in a sidebar: Currently, what I feel may be more common is that a general education teacher does not have the academic flexibility to gather information about ANY of their learners much less consider how to apply principles of universal design. Special education departments are undertrained and understaffed and it is hard for a general education teacher and a special education teacher to collaborate in meaningful ways. In a perfect world, every classroom would have both a general education and special education teacher in the same room teaching all the students. An unsupported teacher gets between a rock and a hard place and modifying curriculum and environments is backburnered. The child with the disability is usually the one whose needs are considered last in the absence of resources for all. Disclaimer: I feel strongly that teachers are the salt of the earth and we don’t even know the half of what they do to educate our kids creatively with next to nothing in the way of resources. With that said, a few teachers just don’t want a kid with a disability in their class and will either purposely or with ignorant intent sabotage the experience so the child will be removed into a segregated setting more often during the day or completely into a new school or self-contained classroom. Some school are notorious for dumping kids into segregated placement for behavior they would not even blink at in the general education population. Unfortunately, we place above average expectations of behavior on children with disabilities but have low expectation about what we will teach them or allow them to experience.

Universal design encompasses both widespread structural changes but also creative solutions that are right under our nose.
Here are some examples of creative solutions that benefit all kids in the classroom:
Alpha-smarts are mini word processors that have helped a lot of kids who have a hard time with writing or getting homework in. Give the kid in the class that takes the best notes some carbon paper so the child that cannot both listen to the teacher and write at the same time can have notes. Have the kids sit on exercise balls at their desks so the kids with ADHD can wake up their butts and everyone has better posture. Use colored carpet squares so the kids with autism can have a defined space but everyone knows where they need to be. Have the kid with the wheelchair use his tray board as the desk for other kids to dissect their frogs on. Use station learning with different choices about how to convey the concepts based on multiple intelligences. Pair the kid who is best at math with the kid that needs help; the student as teacher will cement the learning in a new way and the student being helped will be able to learn from a peer model. Many teachers have found that the best way to figure out how to modify curriculum is to expose students in general education to students with disabilities and then ask the kids how they think they can help their peers learn the material.

Kids get it when we give them a chance.

Stephanie Hunter is a behavior consultant and the parent of a student at Ockley Green. She is active in local and statewide advocacy for children and adults with disabilities, which she writes about on her blog Belonging Matters.

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