Why School Leaders Promote Racial Literacy


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School leaders must slow down long enough to take a good hard look at this imposing, yet routinely unacknowledged presence of racial tension. When we stop avoiding it, when we stop pretending it’s not there, when we stop thinking that it’s not an issue that deeply affects schools, we can make huge strides in our diversity work and focus on teaching and learning.

It is the unacknowledged silence about the racial disparities in the school climate, a silence that makes it hard for teachers of color to raise, discuss, or face conflicts related to race. The silence is generated by the dominant culture, undermines the experiences of teachers of color, and perpetuates policies and programs that make true advancement in our respect for diversity difficult, if not impossible.

The question that rises to surface in all such situations is in regard to how a school community responds to such knowledge. There is a tendency in schools to deny the existence of the issues of race and privilege raised by faculty of color, or, if acknowledged, there is little room to discuss them and fix the culture accordingly. It’s also clear that much of the power for making the cultural change needed starts at the top.

Quite simply,  school leaders set the tone for how and how often a school community engages in conversation about equity and inclusion. There’s great value in hiring a “diversity/multicultural/equity and inclusion director” or “Integrated Equity Executive”, but the existence of this position does not absolve the head from taking leadership in this work.

Part of paying attention to issues that undermine the experiences of teachers of color means that heads also examine their school’s hiring practices, beyond just aiming to have a finalist of color in every candidate pool. But the number of ‘interview-weary’ teachers of color remains too high.

It has taken some time to really grasp the essence of diversity, equity, and inclusion work and, thus, understand what undermines the success that schools strive to reach through this work — and to address issues that are consistently voiced by diversity practitioners. In the collective research, a key theme is how privilege, power, and fear of talking about race have prevented schools from creating an inclusive and diverse school community. Collective organizational vision draws its power from the narratives of the majority group. A school that resists or dismisses opportunities to understand or question that narrative is less likely to have practices or policies that address diversity. If we wish to teach and graduate globally competent, college and career ready learners, then we must exhibit and embrace our own global competence. That means that, collectively and individually, schools must demonstrate that which we wish to see.

 Talk the talk! Walk the walk! Walk the talk!

The most socially responsible thing we can do is to prepare our students to be culturally literate in an increasingly global community, equipped to interact with a broad range of people. But we can’t complete this work without a well-functioning diverse adult community in our schools. And we can’t have a diverse adult community in a school without addressing issues of inclusion and equity. Cultural or racial literacy won’t appear simply because we use the word “diversity” on a daily basis. Even when diversity policies are in place, we aren’t guaranteeing a racially literate organizational climate, practices or perspectives.

Learning how to negotiate racial conflicts won’t become less stressful because we remind our schools about the ideas of social justice in our mission statements. Learning how to accurately read and interpret racially stressful social interactions in our school politics and relationships to engage  assertively and competently takes courageous leadership ….. and takes practice.

In school settings, leadership in racial literacy means being able to:

  • face racial conflicts as challenges rather than as threats;
  • resolve your own stress during the moment of a racial crisis;
  • evaluate your stress vulnerability and management after each crisis;
  • use relaxation strategies to resolve stress responses that ignite avoidance of racial encounters;
  • seek help from experts to resolve any racial conflict;
  • keep a log of case studies of racial conflicts that allow you to learn from mistakes and triumphs; and
  • develop mission statements that support the aim of a well-functioning diverse faculty.

Acknowledging racism, implicit and systemic bias, disparities and privilege, while a good first step, is not enough. It will only allow schools to treat the symptoms of racism and privilege, and does not address the root cause. Organizations serious about authentic change will need to draw upon the narratives of individuals from multiple groups in order to better understand their racial realities and embrace the differential stressfulness of those realities. Helping the school community develop intercultural competencies through practice can move education further than just relying on fixed and rigid diversity plans and policies.

Outcome: As we become racially literate, our practices can positively facilitate proactive change and reflect ‘culturalinguistic’ proficiency/ racial literacy. You may call it innovation, I call it progress!


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