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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Is your district or school ‘home, sweet home’ for racism?
Defining racism and locating solutions
By Mechale Mency Murphy | March | April 2022
Would you like to find out where racism exists in your district or school? Just add one Black administrator, especially one from outside your district, and you will surely find out.
Social justice in education seems like a myth to me as a Black administrator. How can you have social justice or antiracism as an initiative in your district and at the same time be unaware or ignoring the experience of Black leaders, educators and classified staff within your system living under the weight of racism? A district or school looking to really investigate racism will go to those who most commonly are hit with high grade racism: Black folks.
Community-based solutions is the concept of going to a specific community and using that community’s talent and experience to eliminate a problem. Never have I been asked by a district about my lived experience with institutionalized racism, and no one knows it better than a Black administrator. The fact that I have never been asked is an act of racism, as districts have made me invisible and choose to rely on the expertise of mostly White “equity leaders.” What would happen if a district really accessed their Black community and made a true effort to address racism? I do not know, because after 26 years in education, I have never been asked by a decision maker and racism is just as strong as it was when I started.
Racism is not White, Black or Brown. Racism is a practice, not a people. I stopped connecting my experiences solely with White Americans because I do not want to practice racism by discounting the White people I know who acknowledge America’s racist roots and who do the work of interrogating their beliefs and actions as it relates to Black people and choose to do better. As a Black school principal, I have experienced the practices of racism from a myriad of folks. I’ve even experienced what is called anti-Blackness from Black parents, teachers and especially district administrators. I’ve experienced racism from White, Asian and Latinx adults working in schools and who have children I have served.
The practice of racism is not relegated to White Americans, though it is the group I have witnessed employing the most pervasive practices of racism. I have also seen Black administrators who break the glass ceiling practicing anti-Blackness as well. It seems they take on a “Black hero” mentality where they feel the need to keep those who are “too Black” at bay to protect their White colleagues. Their White colleagues appreciate them and uphold them in their minds as the ideal Black person, triggering their Black hero to go on defense against anyone exhibiting too many of the characteristics endemic to Black culture. That’s how pervasive and sinister racism is — it has folks who look like me using their power to oppress decisions or practices that help Black employees, students and families.
Racism is married to public education and public education is not seeking a divorce. Public education is like the abused wife who threatens to leave racism behind, but thinks that without it, it may collapse and is too afraid to see what will be left after the collapse. Those protecting racism are doing so because they are too afraid of what will happen when it is gone. Sadly, they do not realize they are protecting racism through passive-aggressive behaviors. Racism masquerades as passive aggression. And how does public education respond to racism? Public education copes with racism instead of using the laws and policies created to eradicate racism, because to eradicate racism is to challenge colleagues who you deem to be “friends.” To challenge racism is to be an outlier. Outliers, those who do not walk the district line, will come under attack, and everyone knows that exclusion awaits outliers. Exclusion is a district’s most powerful racist practice. Exclusion is a great example of the passive-aggressive behavior that must be combatted to address racism in your school or district, but how do we do that?
As a principal, it is my responsibility to execute the policies and regulations handed down by the district. Fear keeps most principals from using the policies and systems designed to correct unprofessional conduct and that is what racism is. This fear experienced by principals is a direct response to the lack of support they believe they will face from district administrators. Who, if we are honest, really did not mean that they truly wanted an antiracist district or true equity when they wrote the policy, they just wrote the initiatives around equity and antiracism to stave off criticism from the public. District administrators point to these policies as a to show they are protecting children of color, despite being fully aware that they have marginalized principals to such a great degree that they are afraid to act.
I was constantly reprimanded in a district for applying their policies and following the contract. Now if that is not upholding racism, I do not know what is! Can you imagine a principal giving a teacher a performance evaluation that exactly described what happened in a class and being told by a district administrator to change the evaluation? Or being reprimanded or advised not to address a teacher who openly defies their own contract agreement? Principals are well aware that if they really tried to execute these bold plans, unions would push back, district administrators would choke, and the principal would be the one holding the bag. As a 15-year veteran of administration, trust me when I say I know how racism is upheld in public education and I am tired of it. Racial battle fatigue is a real thing. I have challenged four different districts I have worked for to be better, and I have no plan to stop. Below are two strategies I’d like to share that I use to actively fight against racism.
Strategy #1: Know your enemy.
Racism is the combination of bias and power. However, racism is frowned upon and no longer acceptable, so it must take on a new form. It must shapeshift into passive aggression. Racism is a coward that is fueled by fear. As a result, when you add a Black administrator to the mix, racism will not stand down. It will show up as unprofessional, passive-aggressive attacks aimed at the Black leader. The passive-aggressive nature of racism is how district administrators find ways of not dealing with racism.
My complaints of racist attacks from my immediate supervisor in a district were met with, “I don’t think that is what she meant.” And that is the goal of passive-aggressive behavior. It is designed to allow the user an “out.” They can say they did not mean an act a certain way or that you misunderstood. This works because racism says that White men and women are trustworthy and good, and Black employees are less trustworthy or sensitive. Those practicing racism are astute at using manipulation and their relationships with people in power to start a silent war against a Black leader. The problem is that no one cares enough about Black people to truly investigate and those practicing racism know this. I say this from experience: district leaders do not value Black leaders or teachers, so they will not challenge passive-aggressive behavior that could easily be handled using progressive discipline aimed at unprofessional conduct. That is what racism is. It is maladaptive thinking that leads employees to act in unprofessional ways. So we address the unprofessionalism that racism inspires.
Strategy #2: One, two punch.
This leads me to the second strategy. It is my Muhammed Ali “one, two punch” that exposes racism and makes it easier to track. The execution of your district’s policies or your state’s code of ethics for educators related to professional conduct, coupled with your district’s progressive discipline plan for employees, is racism’s biggest enemy. Here are just a few examples of micro-aggressions or the passive-aggressive behavior of racism in schools I have experienced that could easily be handled by applying your district’s policies related to professionalism:
  • Excluding the Black principal from a pre-meeting for an IEP for an African American male kindergarten students who all the White team members wanted moved directly into the most restrictive self-contained class. I had made it clear that my position was to honor “Larry P” case guidelines and ensure the student was in the least restrictive environment (LRE). The White teacher wanted the student out despite the fact that he had autism. There was a White male student also with autism in the class who was just as disruptive, but the team recommended he receive LRE and have a paraeducator with him.
  • A teacher quite randomly sharing that their former Black principal accused them of racism and retorting that, “That was ridiculous! My boyfriend is Black!” Suggesting that romantic attraction to Black men makes you exempt from being racist. It does not. It was a micro-aggression because the teacher appeared to putting me on alert that she could never be accused of racism by me because “her boyfriend is Black.”
  • Tears and messages that communicate that a Black leader is intimidating despite their being no evidence of acts designed to make someone fearful. Unexplained fear is discrimination and can be addressed through the uniform complaint process.
Those protecting racism are doing so because they are too afraid of what will happen when it is gone. Sadly, they do not realize they are protecting racism through passive-aggressive behaviors.
  • Black teachers have it even harder. During a PLC meeting, the PLC leader showed open acceptance to the ideas shared by White peers. I noticed a pattern in the interactions. Whenever the Black teacher shared a response the room tensed and the PLC leader shot her ideas down. Later, two White teachers came to me to share that the PLC leader made them uncomfortable in how she engaged the Black teacher who had already come to me wanting to transfer because of the mistreatment. This same PLC leader had complained that I hired the Black teacher to be on the team because she was Black and had reported another Black principal for hiring Black teachers.
  • Complaining about small concerns that would exist even if the Black leader was not present and trying to enlarge those concerns in the minds of other colleagues in hopes of gaining a following. This basically is leveraging the racist ideas that exist in another person to create opposition for a principal. This is unprofessional which results in a toxic climate. Unprofessional conduct can be addressed easily in how one engages others in conversations. Leaders are responsible for ensuring a positive work environment for all and the way people talk to each other is key to assessing a school or district’s climate.
  • Putting one “ideal Black” person on the interview panel because you know they have no allegiance to their community and then claim to have a diverse panel. This is open dishonesty and can be addressed through policies in your district.
  • A teacher wanted me removed as vice principal because she said that I, “Rolled my neck, was ghetto and was not fit to be an administrator.” I had only been at the school for a month and had not had one conversation with the teacher. That teacher is now an administrator in that district despite a documented complaint from the director who she shared it with in my presence.
Here’s the skinny on all of the above: solutions live in your district’s policies about unprofessional conduct and an administrator truly interested in eradicating racism will go after unprofessional conduct because that is what racism is. It excludes others in hopes of trying to make them feel less and acquiesce or turn their power back over to others racism deems more capable. It groups Black administrators as one and doesn’t allow them to break out of the stereotype that racism has recorded in its mind. It attempts to exert power it does not have.
Racism is toxic to the working climate and is driven by implicit and/or explicit bias which results in openly unprofessional conduct that should be treated as such. Racism is outed and less likely to keep showing up if it has to have a meeting with an administrator who is not going to focus on intent, but instead on impact. Never forget, racism likes to hide, and administrators calling it out of darkness are going to cause a vitriolic reaction as racism has been allowed and will push back when addressed. Should that principal then decide to use progressive discipline and put their writing skills to work, racism will kick and scream, but will eventually bolt because it is getting no fuel. The fuel of racism masquerading as passive aggression are those who ignore it.
Racism hates to see power in the hands of a Black person and it really hates any leader who is not permissive and who will apply policy and progressive discipline. Your silence as a principal or district administration in the face of racism will tell racism it is welcome, and it will dig deep roots. Your failure to address unprofessional conduct will make it difficult, if not impossible, to retain Black teachers and leaders. So if you are wondering why you cannot attract or retain Black principals, it is because you have created a permissive and unprofessional climate where racism feels comfortable to abide and Black folks have had enough.
We are leaving spaces that do not value us. We are exiting districts that house district administrators who use racist practices. I encourage every Black leader to move on from a place you know welcomes racism. We can identify the districts that welcome racism very quickly. They discourage you from using written documents to track behavior. They tell you to cope and try to make you feel weak when you call racism out. The solution to racism is not coping, it is resisting. Resisting racism will get you excluded in most districts, but real fighters against oppression are not looking to make friends anyway. We are looking for change, and until your desire for change outweighs your desire to be liked, racism will continue to be a force in public education.
I used to work with a district leader who said that using progressive discipline and adding improvement plans to evaluations resulted in low morale at a school. She did not care about the low morale experienced by students and colleagues working with racism. And get this, she was a district equity leader.
Mechale Mency Murphy is a principal in the San Diego Unified School District.
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