White Mom, Troubled

This is the first in a series of email messages about waking up to progressive-variety racism as a white mom and a parent educator in Berkeley, California.

This journey has everything to do with my kid, your kid, and all our kids.

Five years ago, my nine year old daughter came home one day from fourth grade and said, “You know what, Mom? Black kids at school get in trouble for things that white kids get away with all the time.”

I was cutting vegetables. I put down the knife and turned to look at her. Over the next forty-five minutes, with just a few questions from me, my daughter’s words painted a colorful and granular picture of how implicit racial bias and white supremacy culture was operating as a pervasive through-line in her classrooms and school in the Berkeley Unified School District.

I learned from my daughter that Black boys were “playing gang” and white girls were “acting scared.” I learned that teachers were yelling LOUDLY at Black boys and regularly sending them to the office for failing to stay in their seats or for talking out of turn… while barely noticing when white kids did the same things. Even my daughter’s favorite teachers seemed to be “more bugged” by Black kids than white kids, my nine year old said.

She also told me that the teachers often paired her with Black boys so that she could help them when they got stuck on math problems or to do reading exercises out loud with them. One day, the teacher handed back the first drafts of essays that kids had written and told them to write a second draft and then ask their parents to edit it before handing it back in. The boy next to her leaned over and whispered, “Can you read my second draft for me? You read better than my Mom does.” The teacher reprimanded him for speaking.

The next day, I asked to meet with the school principal. I told her everything I had heard. She wrung her hands and asked me anxiously how my daughter was being impacted. “Well, aside from getting a painful and confusing education in race relations in the U.S., I wouldn’t say that she’s the one being most directly impacted.”

The principal told me she was aware of the situation. I learned that she was spending 90% of her time attending to the “misbehavior” of five boys. I learned that my fellow white parents were rallying around their white kids… and indeed, white teachers were losing their minds and screaming at Black kids, and administrators were scrambling to contain the volatile situation.

These were nine and ten year old boys. Barely eighty pounds each. A handful of them. And yet somehow, their “misbehavior” had a community full of white educators and parents running scared.

This is a school we loved. A school we still love!! These were teachers we loved. Teachers we still love!! My daughter was thriving there in a way that she never had in previous (private) schools. But my daughter is a white girl–and although I thought I was aware of race and racism before; I had certainly had many conversations with my daughter about it over the years–that day in the kitchen, I felt the race blinders fall away from my eyes in a new way. I was driven to learn more about the state of race in Berkeley schools. But I found it was difficult to get answers to my questions.

It took me two years of reading what I could find online and talking to people at various levels of the school and district, and then outside the district, to local pastors and the executive directors of nonprofits, before I finally began to piece together some answers. This is what I discovered:

The Berkeley Unified School District leads the nation in what is popularly called the “achievement gap,” though more accurately called the “opportunity gap.” (July 2019, EdSource; June 2017, The Atlantic)

In broad strokes, this is the picture: In the BUSD, White kids, by and large, excel; Black and Brown kids far too often, fail. The kids who are fairing the worst in Berkeley schools, by a long shot, are Black boys.

I also learned that, again, this wasn’t a sign of lack of goodwill or effort on the part of the school system or the community at large. From what I could gather, there had been three waves of attempts to address race based disparities in the school district:

  • The first was in 1968 when the Berkeley Unified School District was the very first school district in the nation to voluntarily desegregate schools by bussing kids to different neighborhoods for their schooling. 
  • The second wave was in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when Black and Brown diversity consultants were brought in to spearhead changes intend to address race based disparities in Berkeley High School. 
  • The third wave of effort had been underway for several years at the time when my research started in 2017. The initiative was called 2020Vision and it had the lofty aim of eliminating Berkeley’s “achievement gap” by the year 2020.

It is now 2021. The year 2020 has come and gone and the long and short of it looks like this: 2020Vision improved all the schools for all kids in Berkeley, but the gap between white kids and kids of color remains a cavern the size of the grand canyon. This year, with COVID-19 and the ways the pandemic has exacerbated all race-based disparities, we are looking at a growing gap between what a white kid and what a Black kid can expect out of education… and therefore, out of life.

In the BUSD, many strategies have been tried by many hardworking, well-intentioned people in and around the BUSD. But the one strategy that has never been prioritized—at least not in a sustained, culturally-attuned way that ensures accountability—is this one:

Listening to the voices, and investing in the leadership, of those who are regularly and systematically left out, pushed out, and silenced in the BUSD: Black and Brown youth, families, and the community-based leaders who know them best.

The most personally painful thing I have learned is that the voices of Black and Brown youth, parents, and community leaders have not been heard because of the near-constant din of the voices of white parents advocating for our white kids.

Which means, the thing that needs to change, first and foremost in this setting is … me. And other people who look and behave like me (white parents). And from there, the culture and the systems that we create and recreate which uphold our inequities.

Five years ago, my daughter stopped me cold on a routine evening while making dinner to tell me about how racism was showing up at her school. Since then, I have been on a journey to understand, heal, build new relationships, and explore new ways forward, with others, on behalf of all kids.

HOWEVER…. Strain and trying hard and doing more (our “old way” of getting things done) are not the hallmarks of the new way forward.

There is a new current that wants to hold sway here and perhaps in communities around the US.…. It’s about new and deeper relationships, it’s about healing from our collective traumas, it’s about centering the voices that have traditionally been silenced, and rebuilding our human systems to bring out our human best. This current of healing, of justice built by healing, is coming for all of us. Perhaps you feel it too.

Want to journey together?

Next I will tell you what shocked me most about race-based disparities in Berkeley schools…..