This is the third 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.
In Berkeley, California, the community in which I live and parent, the particular brand of racism has its own flavor. Though our racism is as deep and ubiquitous as the racism in any community, when gazing at the situation through white progressive eyes, it seems at first not to exist.
Berkeley-variety racism is not the racism of most any other urban environment where I had lived or worked. Here the beast of racism is particularly difficult to identify and name (from within it). It doesn’t look like statues to confederate war heroes, or racially segregated schools or housing projects.
In Berkeley, even more perhaps than in our neighboring Bay Area cities, here a flavor of white supremacy culture operates that I have come to think of as progressive-style white supremacy. This is a particularly confusing brand of white supremacy, at least to this white, educated, politically left-of-center mom, because here progressive white supremacy culture pretends to itself that it doesn’t exist.
Progressive white supremacy culture is slick, well-spoken, and convinced of its correctness, making the hard skin of this nut particularly difficult to crack. In fact, the progressive version of white supremacy culture is convinced (and will try to convince anyone who asks) that it is a nut that has already been cracked. Progressive white supremacy culture promotes a knee-jerk, cultural gaslighting that says: look the other way, there is no problem here.
In white progressive Berkeley, we are quick to bring up that in 1968, the BUSD was the first school district in the nation to voluntarily desegregate schools by bussing kids across town to schools not in their neighborhood. We are quick to remember the investment of homeowners in the schools, which compared to other nearby school districts, means all kids here have better outcomes than the kids in neighboring towns. Which amounts to a rationale something like this: “At least Black and Brown kids here aren’t doing as poorly as those in Oakland or Richmond.”
When pushed to keep looking at the issue, principals and administrators will list all the things they have done in an attempt to narrow the race-based gaps. And finally, the answer comes to this: the problem is not the schools. It’s that Black and Brown kids don’t come to school ready to learn. It’s not the schools, some will say, it’s housing insecurity, food insecurity, poverty, intergenerational trauma. Look the other way, there is no problem here.
What is slick and treacherous about this is that none of these things are wrong: the historical and community-based conditions for Black and Brown families are a separate universe from that of white Berkeley families. So no, these statements are not wrong. The people who say them are not bad or ignorant people. But these statements also pass the buck and ensure that no one has to take real responsibility for the lived experience of Black and Brown kids in Berkeley schools.
And… because of rampant gentrification, as families of color get squeezed out of Berkeley, the numbers of Black and Brown students have dramatically declined in recent years. This of course makes it easier and easier for white parents to not see the problem.
As I spoke with people across the school district about the racial disparities in the BUSD, I found no toe hold to participate in solutions to our racial inequities. Every conversation I had within the BUSD about racial equity directed my attention elsewhere. There seemed to be no forum, no platform, no parent body where a white mom like me could face our racial disparities honestly and directly in order to learn, grow, and participate in changing our ways.
These conversations left me with an all too familiar vague and hazy feeling, a feeling that I was inadequate and nothing could be done. Later, I came to understand this feeling of powerlessness as an expression—and a fallacy— of whiteness itself. It was only much later, when I began to understand whiteness through a trauma-informed lens, that I began to understand how to approach this feeling state, move through it and beyond it. But I am ahead of myself …