“No curtain under heaven is heavier than that curtain of guilt and lies behind which white Americans hide.” —James Baldwin
We are in need of leadership. Anyone involved in educating children knows that our national political discourse has pressed on young people in ways not seen in a generation or more. Basic rules of civility, decency, and mutual respect have been breached, and communication across social differences has been strained to the breaking point.
The message to our students must be clear. It is essential for the adults around our students to continually navigate the conversation around race, gender, class, and national and regional identity. We must use this historic moment as a catalyst to explore within ourselves and within our institutions the ways in which we often unknowingly and unintentionally reinforce the divides we say we want to heal.
Now is the time. Schools are the place. This is our work.
Our schools must, once and for all, lead the way to equity and inclusion. This means that each school must not only reflect but also affirm each student’s identity; otherwise, the whole child does not enter its doors.
To that end, I want to address the emotions that often arise when we begin to speak about true inclusivity, particularly in regards to race: guilt and embarrassment. Rather than experiencing these emotions as purely negative, we could instead demonstrate the bravery to learn from them. It is time to move beyond thinking of guilt as a strictly negative emotion. Used as a sign of our moral compass, guilt can produce positive outcomes. It signals that we can choose to do something differently — and better.
In particular, I believe the guilt that many white people feel, especially in mostly white independent schools, about the racially stratified society and institutions we have created can be put to good purpose. Guilt can be the stimulus we need to produce fundamental change, which is more necessary now than ever. It is time we stopped feeling guilty about our guilt, and instead listened to it.
The Power of Guilt and Shame
We know that all individuals come to understand their racial identity in their own way. Schools, too, need to understand and grapple with their racial identity. Often, it is a racially charged crisis that spurs schools to take specific action. Is it sufficient for a school to put out a statement of inclusion or a mission statement that espouses the virtues of equality, or equity? I would argue that it’s not. So how do we tackle the discrepancies between these lofty statements and what’s happening within our schools? First, we need to be clear about the racial identity of our institutions.
For example, consider these statistics: “Private schools are more likely than public schools to be virtually all-white, defined as a school where 90 percent or more of students are white. Forty-three percent of the nation’s private school students attended virtually all-white schools, compared to 27 percent of public-school students,” according to a Washington Post article published earlier this year.
Just as the notions of “colorblindness” and America as a melting pot were necessary stages in our development as white anti-racists, so, too, was the idea of “no shame no blame.” This slogan created space for people to look beyond their own personal negative feelings and see larger structural racism at work. At the same time, the slogan has allowed institutions to relax because its message has been translated thus: Do the best you can with only minimal discomfort. Essentially, “no shame no blame” has removed an institution’s accountability on racial issues. Perhaps shame is a necessary impetus for accountability.
As Leland Beaumant writes, “Shame lurks in the gap between what is and what ought to be. By alerting us to times when we failed to do our best, it can help us improve. However, if we ruminate on our shortcomings, it can distract us from taking constructive action.”
Renowned shame researcher Brené Brown delves further into the intricacies of shame and guilt in her 2007 book I Thought It Was Just Me. She writes:
“So often I find that our feelings of unearned privilege kill empathy. By unearned privilege I mean the privileges afforded us simply because we are white or straight or members of a certain group. We get stuck in what I call privilege shame. This is very different from privilege guilt or white guilt. – Guilt can motivate change. Guilt helps us reconcile our choices with our values.”
Shame prevents us from taking action. What’s worse is that shame can put folks of color in the position of taking care of white people so that they might “take constructive action.” Guilt, on the other hand, signifies discord between values and actions, and that can and should galvanize white people.
How to Close the Gaps Between Schools’ Aspirations and Reality
How does this apply to our schools? To begin with, independent schools need to reconcile that their very existence has been rooted in segregation. However, now we know good education includes a diversity of students, educators, instruction, references, and texts. Simply admitting students of color does not mean a school has made a great education attainable.
To be sure, gaps remain between what independent schools know they ought to be and what they really are. While this may cause some people to feel guilty, it could also push them toward constructive action.
So how can independent schools begin to achieve racial accountability? The efforts of the board and the administration are paramount. Without a genuine desire to desegregate our schools and provide the money to support those changes, our schools will continue to have no more than pockets of inclusion. For institutions to honestly engage with racial justice questions, I suggest those at the top take some key steps forward to show leadership. The following ideas are based on my observations from working in schools.
- Mandate a comprehensive look at practices, policies, and procedures that may inadvertently or knowingly lead to exclusion or inequity among students, teachers, and families. No policy is too small to examine. Racism is insidious and concealed in the details.
- Create a school climate that encourages dialogue about race and equity. We are long past the era when talking about race is considered racist. We must be able to speak the truth about what’s happening on race to make progress.
- Educate white people about whiteness and white privilege. Until teachers understand their own race, they cannot help students to understand theirs. Until white folks understand systems of oppression, people of color will be doubted, isolated, potentially traumatized, and will leave the school.
- Think beyond recruiting faculty of color. Develop professional development and mentoring systems to support and retain faculty of color. Acknowledge that their experiences will be different from those of white teachers, and will require a different support structure.
- Commit to supporting students on financial aid beyond tuition awards. This means examining the opportunity gap. How are students spending their summers? Do all students have access to extracurricular activities and tutors?
- Provide ongoing professional development on racial literacy, and create goals and benchmarks for multicultural competencies for both teachers and administrators. One workshop every couple of years is not enough to undo the messages we are constantly receiving about racial inequality.
- Set expectations and develop measurable outcomes and benchmarks for students’ racial literacy, including intentional learning around stereotypes, discrimination, and how to decode the thousands of images they see in a day. Establishing assessments will help us prepare students to be citizens in an increasingly diverse world. Students believe that if we are not grading or charting their progress, then the content must not be important.
- Ensure that white folks and people of color are leading the charge together. For too long, a lone person of color has been in charge of equity and multiculturalism issues. Since white people have explicit membership and credibility in our institutions, they are responsible for interrupting racism and exposing inequality. However, white people need to be trained to see it — and then speak up about it (see No. 6).
This is not a comprehensive list by any means. But employing these ideas can help us begin to shine a light on all the implicit racial structures, practices, and content in the education we provide. The work may be daunting — but I believe it is doable.
Every school wants to do a better job of supporting teachers and students of color as well as to create a strong racial identity, so let’s not dissolve into a place of shame. Instead, let’s pay attention when we see discrepancies between what we know is right and what is actually happening. As institutions, we can afford a little white guilt to make up for the great cost that has been paid for exclusion.
Brown, Brené. 2007. I Thought It Was Just Me. New York: Gotham Books.
Brown, Emma. “The Overwhelming Whiteness of U.S. Private Schools.” The Washington Post, March 29, 2016.