Last week, Seattle teachers participated in Black Lives Matter at School Week where many of the teachers wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts and taught lessons about black history as part of a national week of action. While I can appreciate the sentiment of this gesture, I question how willing Seattle schools are to do the work that is required to treat black students like they matter beyond the celebration of Black History Month.
My neighborhood school has a poor reputation for racial inequity as is the case with many Seattle Public Schools. In a Stanford study, published in 2016, Seattle ranked as having the fifth-biggest gap in achievement between black and white students. Compared with their white peers, black students in Seattle lagged behind by three and a half grade levels
As my daughter approaches Kindergarten, I look at our local public school and wonder if, in 2018, my brown child will have an equal opportunity to education as our white neighbors should I send her to our neighborhood school.
Even outside of school, I continue fighting negative images of blackness that saturate our public spaces – from commercials to the overt racism that our current Present espouses.
A recent trip to Target with my toddler, where she pointed out that the blond-headed, white Barbie was the “pretty” Barbie, set off Mama alarms in my head.
“They are all pretty. See this one is beautifully brown like Mommy,” I told my daughter, as I pointed to the brown doll that resembled the color of my skin.
I hadn’t insisted that all of her dolls have brown skin, but I was beginning to notice a disturbing pattern. She was always choosing the white dolls, and this time had even pointed out that the white one was more of a standard when it came to beauty. Elsa, from the popular Disney movie, was white – Snow White, because she was the fairest of them all – was also the prettiest.
That moment in particular, I was hit with an urgency and fear that so many parents of color experience.
‘How will I be able to continuously battle against both explicit and implicit racial bias so that my daughter doesn’t grow up hating blackness, and thus hating herself,’ I thought.
In the 1940s, a famous doll study was designed to measure how segregation affected Black children. The study asked the children a series of questions and found they overwhelmingly preferred white over brown. This study, and its conclusions, were used in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which led to the desegregation of American schools.
While the Stanford study didn’t directly address a white bias the way the doll study did, I can’t help but wonder if what is happening in Seattle is the direct manifestation of a city that is essentially still segregated. My daughter is growing up in a place where she is more likely to see a homeless person of color on our drive to school, than a person of color who is walking their dog in our neighborhood. Seattle prides itself on being liberal and progressive, but it is also an extremely white city where it is easy for a large swath of the population to never be forced to confront racial bias.
In 2010, CNN conducted a study that was aimed to re-create the original doll study. The study found that there had been an improvement in the bias toward whiteness in Black children, but that this improvement was likely the result of an interpretative wedge – the burden parents of color had in reframing what their children experienced. Even with the improvements, the study concluded that “we are still living in a society where dark things are devalued and white things are valued.”
The CNN study also found that the negative implicit bias found in white children in the 1940s remained largely the same as the children who were studied in 2010.
As a former educator, I understand that teachers cannot control factors outside school walls that could create challenges for students in the classroom. There are many factors that could contribute to the drastic divide in performance between students of color and white children in Seattle schools. The socio-economic divide along racial lines could be a contributing factor; however, this doesn’t make up for a lack of incentive to address root problems that leave students of color to lag behind their white peers.
I sincerely hope that the teachers who are choosing to wear Black Lives Matter shirts, are also taking the time to think about how they can address unconscious and conscious bias in their classrooms. I hope that instead of going through the motions once a year for Black History Month, they will dive deeper and find solutions for the children of color in their classrooms – whether that means addressing their own bias with regard to ability or providing a child who came to school with a disadvantage the opportunity to succeed.