diversity in the classroom


I want you to know that adults can sometimes make some terrible decisions about what we’re doing with students in schools. I’m talking about socially and emotionally with kids in middle and high school especially. We think we’re doing it in a silo and that no one will know, but we aren’t fooling anyone, are we? Least of all the students. Particularly when it comes to diversity in the classroom.

Sometimes, we get visitors in our school buildings and we give them tours to show them what our learning looks like and how we structure the day. Sometimes, those visitors are delegates from other countries and the U.S. Department of State and the Congress suggests a school. Sometimes, they ask to visit history classes since the education system in the United States is different from their countries.

Those visitors will be from interesting and far away places like Iraq and Pakistan and the Czech Republic and Uganda and Thailand. The diversity will astound you and when they walk into the building it will be like looking at the United Nations in the flesh. It will be glorious and the cultures will be beautiful and you will smile as they walk through the halls and as they peek into the classrooms.

You may find yourself already sitting in a classroom where the delegates are about to enter, only to find that the students’ schedules have been changed to accommodate the visit and, instead of the regular education class that’s supposed to be there, you’ll notice that the high track advanced class will walk in instead because we want them to see our best and brightest. The problem, you will notice immediately, is how white that looks. It’s hard to ignore that with the diverse backdrop of the visitors and it will be stark. You will be shocked and a tad bit embarrassed that someone made this change and that students are inconvenienced because looking smart to outsiders is more important.

It isn’t what’s best for students at all.

But, it will get worse.

You will ask the teacher if she approved of this change and she will resignedly and exasperatedly tell you she was told to do this under the guise of having students doing “something worth seeing,” even though the lesson plan will be the same as the first class you watched.

It will get worse again.

You will check the demographics because you are, rightfully, alarmed at this change in student schedules. In terms of numbers, the original 2nd hour has 17 white students, one Asian, five students of two or more races, one Latino, and seven Black students. The replacement group had 29 students of whom 20 are white, one is Asian, one Latino, five Black and two students of two or more races.

This is the stuff not everyone will see and it’s behind-the-scenes work that happens when personal bias comes into play and hopes to look like true diversity. The truth is, however, that this is window dressing diversity. This is spook-by-the-door diversity in the classroom wrapped up in the Meritocracy Myth that people hope looks like they’re paying attention to color.

I want you to know that every year when looking at classroom demographics I have asked the following questions:

  • Is there equity in this classroom if it’s an advanced course?
  • Did we allow students access to this course if they have been, historically, marginalized in public education?
  • What are the reasons or assessments used to deny entrance into an advanced course?

You will come to the conclusion that moving students on the day of a visit means that schools want to look good in front of the diverse visitors.

You will know that it’s using students to look better than we look. It’s so wrong and morally reprehensible that you will feel sick to your stomach and then, it will get worse again.

You’ll find out about how much worse it can get because a white student will come to your office very upset about what just happened in her classroom. She will tell you that extra students were brought in to her advanced class. That class will have 23 white students and three students of color, but magically an additional two Black students and an Asian student will be taken from their other classes and made to sit in this class to look balanced when the diverse visitors come.

The white student will be upset to watch her friends used in this way and she will ask you why school leaders would do such a thing.

You will not know what to say.

You will ask those “added” students how they were asked to leave a classroom and sit in another one that they weren’t a part of and they will tell you that they were told: “We don’t want to leave you out and think you’d be really good at answering their questions when visitors are in the classrooms.”

They were made to feel special and like their voices mattered. Each of them thought it was because they were smart. And they are. Because they walked into that classroom, looked at one another and clearly saw the racial component that they brought to the table, and they knew. They knew.

When I asked the students what their parents said about what the principal did, they said their parents weren’t going to complain because they didn’t want any retaliation for their children.

It wasn’t an accident or a random picking or even something that should make them feel like this new access was anything other than race-based. This seemingly innocuous invitation from biased leadership is when leadership thinks it’s okay to see color BECAUSE OF THE VISITORS.

It will not be important to see color when I ask about the number of students of color in high track classes. When I do it then, I am “always bringing race into it,” but when they engage in this sort of thing, they act like they’re doing me some kind of favor because I’m always asking that we consider the racist foundations and institutional racism on which this system is built.

The last time I wrote about such disparities in how we honor students and the equity that we have to challenge, people got upset about it. Then, I was “making our school look bad” and “being negative” instead of saying all the great things we do. Then, I was told “everybody isn’t ready for this conversation.” And yet it’s 2016. When will you be ready? Do you have a time frame where I might be able to point out systemic racism and biased policies and the covert rules of discipline that disproportionately affect Black students? When it is okay for me to tell you how hard this job is as a Black woman and I notice and call people out for practices and beliefs that harm children?

Let me know when a good time is for that.

Because while you have hurt feelings over me shining a light on it, kids are dying. Children are being murdered out on the street because we have yet to dismantle what Brown v. Board of education sought to remedy. And when children are not in school, it’s because they’ve noticed how we’ve used them as pawns to make ourselves look better. Lick your wounds instead of tending to the gaping holes and broken bones of children. Make yourself feel better while you tear down children.

We can just wait for a better time to tell you all this.

* * *

Kelly Wickham Hurst is the founder and CEO of Being Black at School, an initiative to empower parents raising Black children in schools that are safe for them. She is the married mother of six who recently left a 23-year career in public school systems. Find more of Kelly’s writing at kellywickham.com.

Support Being Black at School by joining the movement here and donating here.

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  1. While this in its entirety resonated with me (and I saw it happen more than once when our first schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, would walk through our schools), it is the fear of retaliation against my children that sits deep in my soul. Because it’s real. It is so real and defining.

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