Schools in America are failing to build cross-racial skills. Racism is so deeply embedded in the fabric of American society that the educational system has become, wittingly or not, particularly effective at reproducing racial inequality.
It’s time to start talking about how society affects our educational system through the cultural transmission of the beliefs and norms that prop up our racial responses. Discussions around education usually focus on the importance and impact of education on society. But the truth of the matter is that society and education are closely intertwined and cannot be separated from each other. Society is the foundation for education, while education provides the building blocks for learning.
Defining society and education
Society is defined as the whole range of social relations of people living in a certain geographic territory and who have a distinctive cultural and economic organization of to which they have a sense of belonging. As such, society transmits and even imposes the social norms, customs and traditions that are embedded in the educational system. This includes teaching our children, in the words of Robin Diangelo (White Fragility, 2018) “to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people, rather than a complex, interconnected system” that still undergirds American society.
Education is a social institution that is essential for the effective and constructive participation in society. It plays a key role in determining how you spend your adult life. It also helps produce and maintain the operation of society through the cultural transmission of social behaviors and norms that structure and restructure it.
In other words, education doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It’s a social phenomenon that takes place in society. It functions as sort of micro-society that mirrors the entire society and transmits cultural norms and behaviors from one generation to the next.
What you learn in school becomes a fundamental mechanism for adapting and thriving in your environment and is critical to your and everyone else’s social life. But education begins at home, in the family and in the child’s surroundings, where his/her interactions with others and his/her observations of the social behaviors and norms of others prepare him/her for life in that society. It continues at school, where the child, from grade school through young adulthood, is prepared for a useful life by developing his/her KAP (Knowledge, Attitudes, Practices) so s/he can contribute to the development of the greater society.
However, if a child’s KAP development does not include cross-racial skills, that development is being short-changed by preventing their ability to understand fair and just “rules of engagement” in a multi-racial and multi-cultural society and to establish productive social relationships. It also handicaps the ability of children, regardless of their race, to, as adults, invest in social change.
A tipping point for social change?
Social change is necessary and desirable in the evolution of any society. It is usually caused by tension and conflict and entails a change in relationships, organization, culture, institution, structure and functioning of the social system. The change allows that society to adapt to trends in population growth or decline, technological advances, social institutions, the natural environment, and interaction with other societies.
Social change may be the only constant in the evolution of a society but it always brings new ways of thinking and acting through human interactions and interrelations. However heinous and grotesque murder of George Floyd, and African American, under the knee of a white policeman is, it has become a potential tipping point for social change in America.
The aftermath to the killing of George Floyd has the power to unleash a profound transformation of American cultural and social institutions. But whether or not his death becomes a tipping point that will make a big and lasting difference - to end the patterns and practices of racism –depends on two things: 1) that American society have an honest reckoning with issues of race and the racial biases and privilege that cultivates racism and 2) that education support that reckoning by inoculating against the systemic and recirculating virus of racism in America.
Now is the time for intentional teaching
In this sense, every teacher is a catalytic leader. In the classroom, virtual or not, every teacher is a catalyst for positive change and contributes to building the entire school’s capacity to make a difference by combining his/her learning with student learning, by valuing the work of his/her learners, by accepting and acting on constructive feedback, by honoring all perspectives, by fostering a sense of community, by engaging in honest communication with all concerned stakeholders, by motivating students with his/her passion, by engaging in reflective examination, by supporting the growth of others and oneself, by seeing the big picture, by having the courage to take risks to support positive social change.
Paraphrasing from the title of Brian Lowery’s opinion article in the June 14 edition of The Washington Post: the time for talk has passed. Now is the time for work. It’s time to break the good/bad binary that Robin Diangelo, in her book White Fragility (2018), is at play every day at work and at school and “obscures the structural nature of racism and makes it difficult for us to see or understand”.
It’s time for education to recover its role in promoting positive social change that is critical to our children’s ability to understand and make sense of their social existence.
It’s time to build real classrooms, ones that instead of limiting preparation of students to conformity with racial inequality actively push for progress and improvement by promoting cross-racial dialogue.
Now is the time to be courageous and interrupt racism through intentional teaching of racial awareness, equity and equality.