Moving From Diversity to Justice

The private school system in this country was not created for the intellectual growth and academic achievements of Black students. Exclusion has been part of its genesis story. How do independent schools honestly name and hold this truth while also striving to offer a strong academic program that sees, appreciates, and nurtures the fullness of Black children’s humanity? Furthermore, how do they name and honor the truth that attending school without the constant threat of potential harm being done to students’ psyches should not be a privilege only afforded to some?

Last summer, social media accounts and petitions highlighted the pain and trauma that students from historically marginalized and oppressed groups, particularly Black students, endure at independent schools. As an educational equity consultant, I found myself on the receiving end of numerous calls and emails from public and independent schools looking to begin or further their work in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). As I engage in these discussions, one of my recurring questions to school leaders is: Why do you do this work?

The Problem With DEI Messaging

One major flaw in the way that many schools approach DEI is the messaging around it: It often implicitly centers the needs of white students. Diversity is posited as a way to prepare students at predominantly white, affluent schools to engage with a multicultural world by equipping them with tools to effectively interact and work with people from different backgrounds than their own. While the benefits of learning and working in a diverse community are well-reported—and I, too, find value in enumerating those benefits—I find that approach as a first line of reasoning for committing to diversity, equity, and inclusion to be insufficient, inauthentic and, much like the school systems themselves, largely rooted in white supremacy.
Highlighting the benefits of diversity, which include enhancing creativity and innovation, to largely white student bodies as the primary reason to talk about race and anti-racism in schools and to integrate more curricula focused on Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) is once again centering and privileging the white experience. Independent schools that take this approach when considering the need to bring in more BIPOC students are essentially using these young people as disposable, interchangeable tools to build the schooling experience that they believe will best benefit their white pupils.
If educators are going to discuss the benefits of diversity for white students, let’s state that developing an anti-racist, anti-oppression framework and skill set will help students to access the fullness of their own humanity and liberation, recognizing that all of our fates are intertwined, and we can never be whole if we are unable to see and honor the humanity of others. However, I urge us to not even jump to that part of the conversation too quickly, and not because the experiences of white students are unimportant—but because it may allow us to skip over the painful truths of our past and our present to instead simply revel in an idealized vision for our future.

Shining a Light Inward 

The term “diversity” generally casts an outward gaze, which often has a perceived downward slant. Diversity far too often is about looking at “the others.” As much as conversation rooted in this mindset may ostensibly claim diversity as an asset, if you listen closely, there are generally undercurrents of deficit thinking attached like assuming students of color come from low-income backgrounds or have so-called achievement gaps.
Justice, in contrast, shines a light inward, compelling a school to question its own policies, practices, and beliefs that have contributed to a lack of diversity. It then implores school leaders to right those wrongs and unearth systems that have led to exclusion, marginalization, and oppression and replace them with systems that are co-constructed with the very individuals schools profess a desire to serve better. Essential to the justice process will also be the repairing of harm that has been caused within the community. With an active commitment to internal justice in place, schools can then, with integrity, do the work of preparing all students to be advocates for justice within and beyond the school walls.
As a former English teacher, I believe in and understand the power of words, and yet I will not quibble with semantics. The truth is that terms such as “diversity” have whatever meanings we assign to them. Some conceptualizations of diversity reveal a short-sighted and harmful focus on simply bringing in a greater number of students of color. Others directly connect to tandem definitions of equity and inclusion that evidence a school’s commitment to not only bringing in students from varied backgrounds but also ensuring that they are supported once there. The latter interpretations have the potential to provide the foundation for environments where students are free to bring their full selves in order to contribute to the creation of culturally responsive and sustaining learning spaces. I encourage those who are delving into this work to clearly define what each of your chosen terms means to you; this includes garnering input from all constituency groups such as students, staff, families, board members, etc.
Schools also need to be able to answer the questions of why you want “diversity” and to what end. If the answer to the question of “why you want diversity” does not include an honest acknowledgement of who and what your school has historically been, including why there has not been greater diversity up to this point, then you are still missing the mark. If your answer to the question of “to what end” does not include a vision focused on the inherent brilliance of BIPOC students being cultivated and celebrated, then you are missing the mark.
Moving from discussions of surface-level diversity to sincere commitments to justice must begin with an honest assessment of where you are and how you got there, ideally including the use of restorative practices to initiate collective healing from the traumas of the past. It also will likely involve serious, intentional work in decolonizing your collective minds. This includes continually unpacking and unlearning paradigms rooted in whiteness, challenging preconceived notions of how brilliance and excellence manifest themselves, and therefore how they should be both nurtured and measured, and resisting assumptions of cultural deficits that serve as easy rationalizations for inequitable outcomes. In so doing, you will undoubtedly be met with both internal and external resistance from those who fear what the quest for justice will entail and where it will lead. However, you will also be met with an opportunity to envision a future for your school that is no longer limited to who you have historically been but instead genuinely serves all the children and families you bring into your community.
Christina Hale-Elliott
Christina Hale-Elliott

Christina Hale-Elliott is founder and principal consultant of Elliott Educational Services.


4/5/2021 1:13:07 PM
Christina Hale-Elliott,

I really appreciate your insights. My son graduated from Hawken School (Cleveland, Ohio) in 2019, and my daughter will graduate in 2021. Understanding the original purpose and customer base of Independent Schools is so important to navigating the "illusion of inclusion". The Black students as well as other students of color expend so much energy and effort merely assimilating into their environments.

Black mental health experts often convey the stress and trauma experienced by Black children - trying to obtain an education while coming face to face with systemic exclusion perpetuated and sustained by the elite white one percent. In her book "Caste", Isabel Wilkerson profoundly explains how Black people, achieving a higher class status, are still relegated to the bottom case.

Well-intentioned white people need a lot of help in owning and solving the problem. Black people have always paid a price for education - even when they reach the "pinnacle" of an Ivy League school. My son is a sophomore at Howard University, my alma mater. Needless to say, his journey from Hawken to Howard is a case study. My daughter graduates in May, and we have been preparing her to deal with the collegiate challenges of a young Black woman studying STEM and the natural sciences.

Thank you for your contribution.

Johnathan Harris
3/28/2021 11:17:12 AM
Hi Christina,

I appreciate this article very much. The idea of “decolonization” of thought, especially around curriculum and instruction is perhaps at the heart of white supremacy at many independent schools. It’s a great way for these schools to begin “unpacking” their implicit bias by looking at the very texts and content they are teaching their students. It’s a continued form of white supremacy if it’s not evaluated. Many of my white counterparts loath that word-white supremacy- They say it feels too racist and dominate. They harken it to slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation. In reality, many of their policies, curriculum selections, family engagement activities, and overall western dominate traditions mirror the antebellum south. It’s almost unconscious. The rallying cry and “answer” is to add the word DEIJ somewhere on the website, add a black family or two on the website, or conduct an in service or two. The reality is, they simply want to feel good about themselves and check a box.

Here in Richmond, the independent school’s answer is to have a “sliding scale” for tuition, hire a DEI Coordinator, offer a few scholarships to lower class black families who couldn’t otherwise afford tuition, and have their students volunteer at an inner city recreation center for lower class BIPOC individuals. Many of them actually believe diversity is simply to aid the downtrodden of humanity, and they happen to be poor black people.

You are spot on with many of these schools who simply maintain the status quo so to speak, by not looking inward as you say. I think even saying the word diversity or justice causes much anxiety and complacency at best for these what I call “status quo” schools and leaders, especially in Richmond. They never thought what it means to be white...let that sink for a minute. Some advocates and leaders believe that “white guilt” will prevail and awaken these status quo independent schools leaders. The sad reality is, here in Richmond, which is at the heart of the former (not so former) segregation academies; these school leaders have no real desire to change. As you say, it’s all surface. It’s only important if they appear to be diverse.

Lots to add here. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts and opinions.

Corey Olds
3/24/2021 5:47:06 PM
Thank you, Christina Hale-Elliott, for your insightful article. I particularly enjoyed your distinction between the outward and inward gaze.

Having consulted with and facilitated DEI workshops for independent schools during the past decade, I have encountered a general reluctance on the part of administrators and faculty at these schools to undertake the "decolonizing" of minds and the scrutinizing of whiteness (e.g., notions of affinity, talent, intelligence, normalcy, success, professionalization, etc.). The most conspicuous obstacle to the process of "inward" gazing is the curriculum itself, which tends to be Western-centered and weighted toward acceptance at prestigious colleges and universities that themselves operate on the presumption of white entitlement and cultural superiority.

How many of those who do not identify as BIPOC accept positions at independent schools because they wish to cultivate and celebrate the "humanity" and "brilliance" of BIPOC students? If the "private school system in this country was not created for the intellectual growth and academic achievements of Black students," then how does the system include and extend justice to these students without dismantling their original foundations? Will schools reinvent themselves from "bottom to top" to give birth to an institutional space not conceived in the sins of inequity and injustice? If the stage of reconciliation and restorative justice can even be broached, will non-BIPOC administrators, faculty, and students endure feeling uncomfortable to whatever degree necessary to make BIPOC students feel comfortable and welcomed at their respective schools?

In short, can justice for all exist without the sound practice of equality, fairness, and access for all?

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