Relationships First: Resisting School-based White Supremacay Culture During Distance Learning (and Beyond)

In my last message, I shared with you my reactions to my daughter’s middle school graduation ceremony, and how this experience reminded me that what schools celebrate and ritualize reinforces our white culture. Culture change can begin and be sustained by shifting what we each celebrate in our lives and families. In this email, I describe what it looked like in my family to resist to school-based white supremacy culture during distance learning… and beyond.

Relationships First: Resisting School-based White Supremacay Culture During Distance Learning (and Beyond)

In December 2020, when we were sheltering-in-place during the coronavirus pandemic, an email message from my daughter’s middle school showed up in my inbox with this heading: “Does your child have distance learning fatigue?” 

For the briefest of moments, I felt hope. Hope that perhaps the school administrators were actually getting it. Perhaps they understood that the way they were marching kids through educational material with a clear goal of achieving as much of the “normal” curriculum as possible–despite how tragically not normal this school year has been–was actually hurting our kids.

Distance learning was certainly hurting my kidAfter 3 hours on Zoom every morning she would come out of her bedroom bleary-eyed and gray-faced, eat a little food, and then try to tackle the list of assignments required for submission before the next day. Easily, she spent 6-8 hours in front of the computer in a day. Many days she was teary-eyed, lethargic, resigned.

In my daughter’s words: “I think they are more interested in making this look like school than actually caring if I learn anything.”

Being effective at distance learning was more about checking boxes than actual learning. As the months wore on, I was watching her natural curiosity and intellectual hunger wane. But this email from the school made me hopeful: Did they have something helpful to say?

When I opened the email, my little sprig of hope quickly wilted. The note had a list of recommendations that were all variations of ways that I, as her parent, might monitor my child more closely, push her harder to move through the material, and motivate her to check all the boxes every day.

The schools’ best advice was about helping my child perform well, despite not being well.

After recovering from my moment of disappointment in the school’s lack of visionary leadership, I realized that this email was actually quite clarifying for me. The teachers and administrators, all very caring and compassionate people, were only doing what the school district had charged them to do: get as many kids as possible to achieve as much as possible by a standardized set of expectations established in the core curricula.

However caring and considerate the individual teachers are (and they really are!), the bottom line for school system is what it measures: individual academic achievement.

This emphasis on the individual comes directly from white supremacy culture, which renders invisible the reality that all achievement is collective: for every A that appears on a report card, a whole web of relationships, personal and professional, has come together to set the child up to “earn” it. And what the district means by “achievement” is likewise directly out of the whiteness playbook: For schools, achievement is limited to that which we can test and measure objectively, from outside the child, according to standards set out by the white institution that has been created to satisfy previous generations of white parents.

To expect public school teachers and administrators to work toward a different goal–a broader goal, like whole child wellbeing, or whole community wellbeing—this is not realistic without a significant shift in school culture and a recasting of desired outcomes at the district and state level. It doesn’t look like that is going to happen any time soon.

But all hope is not lost.

One thing that has been reinforced for me from being in Black-centered spaces is this: the school district is not the ultimate authority on my child, nor on any child. Black parents have long known that at the end of the school day, work must be done to remind Black children who they really are. White parents would do well to follow suit: we do not need to let the fears and values of previous generations of white parents, codified into our school standards, determine the culture of our families.

In fact, the school district should not be the force that shapes my priorities as a parent. The school district’s culture and standards has been painstakingly crafted by past generations of very vocal white parents expressing their power, their values.

As parents, we can reclaim our authority over our families. This is how I see it: My job as a parent is not to make sure that my kid jumps through as many hoops as the teachers set before her, no matter the cost to her wellbeing. 

My job is to protect my child’s wholeness… by having her back no matter what. My job is to be the person who sees her worth and dignity even when she can’t perform. The one who remembers she is infinitely more than the sum total of her achievements, for good or bad. My job is to continue reaching for the amazing person I know she is, and cheer her on as she finds out what it means to be her own person in a world that is far, far less than what we would hope for.

The bottom line is that my kid’s core strength is more important than the core curricula. When these two are at odds, I can prioritize meeting her where she is at over pushing her to meet the standards of school by overriding who she is, what she knows, and what she needs. For in feeling felt by me, my kid builds her core strength. 

The school system will not be the champion for her wholeness. That is my job, as her parent.*

So yes, my daughter had distance-learning fatigue. But I did not look to the school for solutions, for their charge is not my charge. My solutions? They were far less than ideal, but they were good enough. They included things like:

…Writing the history teacher to say, “I apologize but this assignment won’t be complete. We are prioritizing my child’s mental health this week.”

…Asking my child regularly: Is this what “good enough” feels like today?” And “which part do you not need to get done?”

…Hanging out in her messy bedroom to listen to episodes of the podcast she is passionate about…. and finding something to enjoy about it (even if it isn’t what I would choose to listen to on my own).

…Remembering to simply enjoy her. To laugh with her at her crazy hair and delight in her quirky ways. To help her feel felt in whatever she is going through, whenever I am able.

… And then, to listen to her tears and outrage at all that is being asked of her, of all kids, in a time when nothing is normal but performance expectations remain in place. And when she is done with the outrage, my job is to trust that her body did what it needed to do, and let it go… so we can have some fun. 

My kid had distance learning fatigue, and this is what I figured out about how to move through it, well enough intact. It’s not what I would have wished for, but we lived through it, plenty ragged around the edges, but connected enough. In your family it probably looked different. You have a different kid, and your life circumstances are different than ours.⁠

In fact, this is worth saying: For parents of Black and Brown youth, the emphasis on helping kids achieve by the standards of the school system is a whole different matter to consider. The risks for Black and Brown kids who fall short of the standards of the school district are far more dangerous than I can get my head around. I am not claiming to know what resistance ought to look like for Black and Brown care providers (nor for other white families!). 

What I know is that under white supremacy culture, we have all been influenced to prioritize the appearance of individual achievement over interpersonal relationships. And because caring relationships are what make us strong and resilient, our adherence to the “cult of the individual” (thank you Emile Durkeim for this phrase) has undermined allof our resilience. However…. how we each, as parents, determine we need to respond to this reality has everything to do with our own circumstances and social location. Each parent knows their family, their kid, like no one else possibly can. You are your family’s expert.

I will say this: I believe that in white families, where white supremacy culture is concentrated and reinforced regularly, to shift toward more of a relational focus is almost always helpful for the child, the family, and I contend, even for the wider community. Even if on the surface it looks less “successful” our kids’ sense of being connected and respected and seen whole, is far, far more important than grades and test scores.

There are a million differences in how this pandemic is impacting our families. A million ways to resist white supremacy culture as we face scary and uncertain times. A million dofferent ways to support our children, and all our community’s children, to bounce back and thrive in an uncertain future. This is the piece I know:

Our kids’ core strength is far, far, far more important than the core curricula. And core strength is developed relationally, as in: through healthy relationships, first and foremost with the adults who see them, understand them, and believe in them. That means you, and that means me. But not alone in our siloes. We’re better off if we look at these things together. 

What does it take to support your child’s core strength? Do you notice ways that your child’s school holds out standards and expectations that you know in your gut do not serve your child? All children? 

And…. what might it take to recast our collective priorities for our children?

In my next email, I describe what it took for me to begin to build relationships with some of the Black and Brown leaders in Berkeley who have long been dedicated to building a better world for all our children.