The White Parent Problem

This is the fourth email in a series about waking up, as a white mom, to progressive-variety racism in the the public school system in Berkeley, California. To read the last post, click here. To start from the beginning of the series, click here

Between 2017 and 2019, for about two years, I tried every possible angle to try to get my head and heart around how race and racism operate in the BUSD and in my local community of Berkeley, California. I searched for inroads to participate in solutions, but it was difficult to get a toe hold. In my quest to understand, I read everything I could get my hands on, and I spoke with community leaders of all stripes. Finally, I found the experts who helped me begin to see what I hadn’t seen before.

The most helpful thing I learned about what needs to change in the BUSD was not from the director of 2020Vision. It was not from any of the principals, teachers, or school board directors I spoke with. And it wasn’t in any book or article I read. The most helpful thing I learned, I learned from outside the academic setting. I learned from Berkeley-based Black community leaders: pastors, community organizers, and the executive director of a Black-led non-profit.

More times than not, my conversations with these Black community leaders eventually led to this awkward moment when they would look at me squarely and gently say: You want to know what really drives the disparities in this school district? Yes, I would nod, emphatically.

White parents.

White parents drive the racial inequities in the BUSD. One African American community leader spelled it out to me most clearly by describing the “backstory” in my daughter’s elementary school which led up to the moment my daughter described as “Black boys playing gang” and “white girls acting scared.” While this conversation happened all the way across town, this Black leader had kept tabs on the situation through the currents of communication traveling through Black mothers and grandmothers, and now shared with me.

Two years previously, before my family had arrived at the school, in the middle of the school year a third grade teacher had a tragic accident and was absent for the remainder of the school year so that she could recover. To fill this gap, the third grade class was taught by a series of substitute teachers. The teaching amounted to babysitting, with very little of the learning curriculum covered that year.

What white parents did to get their kids through this time was circle the wagons around their white kids. They had study groups and reading circles (pods, anyone??), they taught the kids themselves, and they brought in tutors. By the time the next school year had come around, the white kids in the class were completely caught up with grade-level expectations for those entering 4th grade.

The Black boys in this class (there were three of them) did not have parents with extra time, bandwidth and money to fill in the gaps left in their education that year. When the next school year rolled around, they found themselves behind and not able to catch up. And they did what kids do when they feel left out, insecure, or incompetent: they acted out.

But when Black boys act out, it is not flagged as the outer expression of a legitimate struggle going on inside the child. Or if it is, the particular flavor of how Black boys act out leaves adult white women flustered and scared. In fact, some of the boys’ “bad behavior” (which my daughter characterized as “playing gang”) landed on white girls as “sexual harassment” which stirred up torrents of white parent fear and outrage.

In a school that had zero Black teachers and only 2 adults of color (one in the lunchroom, one in the office), the Black boys were not met with understanding, nor with culturally appropriate setting of limits. Without inquiry into the roots of the situation, and without doing whatever it would take to bring in Black adults who could act as allies for the boys, the white community further isolated the boys. By the end of 4th grade, these nine year old boys, who had now drawn in a few of their Black peers, were already being routed into the school-to-prison pipeline.

The day this wise and patient community leader took the time to really lay it all out to me, I left with a head full of things to consider…

The pushing out and down of Black boys begins early, with small everyday white parent decisions and a school district that backs us up.

Here I am, a white woman who–before becoming a parent–had spent a dozen years helping communities and public agencies realign resources around Black and Brown youth and families…. Only to find myself here, a white parent in the BUSD, 100% part of the system that pushes Black boys into prison… and worse, into the grave.

This, my friends, was quite a thing to grapple with. In my next email, I will share with you what I am discovering about what drives us as white parents, as we drive racial disparities in our schools.