Those words came out of my mouth one day and I just couldn’t believe it. There was silence in the room. Let me explain, I said. And I began to talk to them about how my practice has changed since COVID-19 hit the United States – and especially since it became clear that Black and brown people are disproportionately dying.
So our emotions went this way and that for a while. But for me, in my practice as a school psychologist, there has been a sort of silver lining – if you want to call it that. I was able to reach more people when discussing racial injustices in school.
Here’s what’s changed.
Everybody knows what “disparity” means.
I have been talking about disparities in the education system for a very long time. It is, in fact, why I started my practice. I could see the system chewing up Black children and then spitting them out (too often into the prison system).
I was born and raised in Philadelphia, a city that’s been plagued by systems of oppression and systemic disinvestment and the “disparities” it has generated. As a resident of the city and a student of its education system, I could see the impact on schools. These disparities, compounded, create and perpetuate the wealth gap.
But it was hard to talk about disparities in schools, and be heard. Everyone can kind of see them. Parents, educators, and the communities in cities like Philadelphia could surely see the disparities. But we have many interpretations for what we saw – and we found it very, very difficult to talk about honestly.
What I see is a system currently only functioning well for a select few students. I also saw many students pushed out of school.
Truth-telling has brought understanding to the reality of Black life in America.
White American schools have long peddled what Cheryl Dorsey at Echoing Green Foundation called the “gauzy narrative” about American heroism. They have not taught the true history of the country – especially the history of the past 100 years. Many, many Americans had not realized how government policy over many years has been crafted specifically to favor some groups of people and to disfavor others. That is not polite conversation.
Even many Black people did not understand the degree to which America’s greatest disparities are man-made phenomena. We, too, are indoctrinated with the idea of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. We are fed the myth of American individualism from the time we are born. There is talk about white privilege, but most people have underestimated its impact on their lives. Even White people have not realized the degree of it. And most of us just want to live, not fight.
But now we are talking about all of that. The fact that we were all home and online gave me – and all of us – an opportunity to “talk” about in real-time the different phenomena we were all experiencing. And among those for whom these are revelations, a new attitude is taking hold.
This is good news for our nation’s Black and brown children.
From distinguishing our culturally different experiences comes the possibility of transformation.
I see in these conversations the possibility of real change. The main thing is that we are talking again. I get the sense that we are talking toeach other, and not just past each other as we’ve done so often in the past.
Educators and clinicians care deeply about these subjects. It’s just been really hard to make changes within the systems we were handed. And though we take on lots of self-critiquing, learning, and talking about justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, we are still blinded by many of our own biases.
We now know that this is the work – or at least an important part of it. The work begins on ourselves.
White people are giving up their fragility.
While nobody has been eager to talk about these painful subjects, Coronavirus has exposed deep fissures in the American fabric. Crisis has made our emotions raw, and we are talking to each other honestly.
Lots of people – of all races – are reading books like Dr. Ibram X Kendi’s “How to be an Anti-Racist”and Robin Di’Angelo’s “White Fragility”and understanding some of what has been in the way before. The word “anti-racist” is in the national vernacular today.
If we can all stop feeling attacked whenever the subject of racism comes up, we will be able to work to dismantle the house it built.
As a school psychologist, I see the lost opportunity costs of the system we are in. Too many children are in pain. The children of immigrants today live with a different kind of trauma – questions about their very legitimacy. At least at school they should face culturally-responsive educators and service providers who truly see them.
So I am heartened, and eager to take up the banner and continue to work for children’s emotional wellbeing in our nation’s schools, so all children can participate fully – and thrive.
Resources to track issues related to (in)justice in schools:
- Along with a colleague, I recently co-authored an article for Policy Press. Take a moment to read this article.
- Order the recently released Agenda For Social Justice
- American Psychological Association Bias, Discrimination, and Equity Resources
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