Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Institutional Racism, a primer

This comment appeared in the Trayvon Martin thread:

"Could someone calmly describe the institutional racism is Seattle Public Schools? Whose actions are racist - and what exactly are they doing? Is it a policy issue? What policy is it? I'd be happy to read something if you could direct me to it."
I'll try to respond to this because I think it's really important. There is a range of opinion here and there will be others with views very different from mine. Those views have equal merit. Since the request was specifically to do this "calmly", I know that I will disappoint a lot of people with the gentleness of my answer. I ask their forgiveness in advance. I also apologize for the incomplete nature of my answer. I believe that members of the dominant culture come to understand institutional racism as a voyage of discovery, so I'm not going to connect all of the dots for you. You need to connect them for yourself.

Institutional racism is a rather unfortunate turn of phrase. It's unfortunate because the word "racism" is incendiary. It instantly makes people uncomfortable, angry, and defensive. Not exactly the mood you want to set when you are asking people to reflect on things that they usually don't think about at all. I was asked to explain things "calmly", so I'll try not to use that word. I acknowledge that a lot of people think that this approach treats the topic too sympathetically, but I find less sympathetic approaches ineffective because they cause people to retreat into a defensive stance and refuse to positively engage. I'm looking for positive engagement here.

We're all familiar with direct personal racism, in both overt and subtle forms. Institutional racism isn't like that. It isn't personal. It isn't even really intentional. It is, in fact, the result of a lack of thoughtful intent. When raising awareness of it - which is the first step towards ending it - I find it more effective for people new to the idea to think of it as ethno-centrism.

I'll start with a story that illustrates the problem.

Imagine that, for security reasons, the back door at your workplace needs to be kept locked. Various people need to go out the door from time to time, so the back door key is kept on top of the molding over the door. Anyone needing to go out the back door just reaches up, takes the key, and uses it. This worked fine for the people who work there, until the business hired someone less that 5'6" tall who couldn't reach the molding at the top of the door. The people who decided to put the key on the top of the molding weren't trying to find a solution that didn't work for their shorter colleague, they just didn't think about the possibility that something within easy reach for them might not be within easy reach for everyone. They weren't being cruel, just a bit thoughtless. When the situation is brought to their attention, they move the key to a more accessible location, like a hook on the wall next to the door.

Institutional racism is like that. It's not so much thinking about how people are different as it is forgetting to think about how people are different.

Let's consider another situation.
My wife and I were talking about our favorite ethnic restaurants in Seattle and I said that one of mine was the Wedgwood Broiler. "The Wedgwood Broiler?" she said, "That's not an ethnic restaurant." "Yes it is," I answered, "They serve White people food like pork chops and apple sauce, turkey and stuffing, meatloaf and gravy, and macaroni and cheese. And you know it's good because every time I go there it's full of White people." My wife didn't see the Wedgwood Broiler as an ethnic restaurant because she didn't regard the mainstream American culture as one culture on an equal standing with other cultures. Instead, she regarded it as a sort of default or null state from which all other cultures were a deviation.

Now ask yourself - is that your view? It's not an accusation. It's not a question of innocence or guilt. In fact, it would be - in a way - "innocent" to have that view. Well, naive. We all, to some extent presume that other people generally do things the way that we and our family do them. We all, to some extent, presume that everyone else generally shares our social norms, our etiquette, and our values - at least until we are instructed otherwise. These are elements of our culture. They were acquired naturally and people tend to presume that they are reflective of human nature universally. Usually we learn otherwise when someone from another culture either gives or takes offense where none is meant. I'm sure you've had this sort of experience.

So, built on that foundation, we can now address the question of institutional racism in schools.

Let's start with something small. Seattle Public Schools serves turkey sausage in school breakfasts. Did you know that a lot of school all across the country serve pork sausage? Not a big deal, unless your faith prohibits eating pork. It isn't difficult for schools to switch to turkey sausage, and schools usually don't hesitate to make the change, but many of them just didn't think of it on their own. It crosses the line from a sort of "innocent" institutional racism to intentional overt racism when the institution refuses to respond after they have been advised that pork is not halal and puts some of their students in a conflicted situation.

Institutional racism is the codification and enforcement of one culture's norms on a group of multiple cultures. It generally isn't intended as cruel. It generally isn't even intentional. It's not done out of awareness of differences but out of a lack of awareness of differences.

What about ordinary policies?
Think of the expectations put on third grade students in a traditional American classroom: that they sit relatively still in a chair at a desk for hours on end without speaking to the other children around them. That they focus their attention for hours on end as the teacher directs. That they stop thinking about math when it is time to put the math books away and start thinking about reading when it is time to take the reading books out. That they raise their hand and wait to be called upon before they speak or rise from their seat. That they grant broad authority to the teacher and other adults in the school and follow their orders without question. That they get help on their schoolwork at home from their family. That they dress in accordance with the school dress code. That they adhere to narrow protocols when interacting with school staff. That they practice autonomy in some ways and obedience in others. That they arrive at school at a specific hour and leave at a specific hour. That their play at recess fall within narrow boundaries for physical contact.

These expectations may seem perfectly ordinary and easily tolerable to many of you. Trust me, however, that there are lots of cultures that would find these social norms alien, arbitrary, and even offensive. Children of those cultures often find these rules difficult to remember or follow. Compliance with these rules is out of reach for those third graders - just they couldn't reach a key resting on the top of the molding over the door. It's not surprising that students from those cultures would find themselves disproportionately subject to discipline for violating the school rules that codify these expectations.

There are more extreme cases.
Think of the various ways that students could respond to bullying. Different cultures have different ideas of what is an appropriate response. All but one of them is in violation of the student code of conduct. Think of all of the ways that offense can be unintentionally given or taken as dozens of cultures mix in our schools. Think of all of the ways that people could respond to that offense. Most of them are violations of the student code of conduct.

So if an identifiable group of students are having trouble complying with a policy or meeting an expectation, take a moment to consider if the policy or the expectation presumes a cultural perspective or a set of resources those students don't have. Take some time to look around and discover examples for yourself. Then you can expand it beyond racism to find elements of sexism, ablism, and classism as well. Consider the expectations put on students and families by schools and the district and ask yourself what presumptions are embedded in those expectations. What presumption of resources and culture are embedded in those expectations?

Again, I apologize to those who would prefer a blunter and less sympathetic explanation. I chose this path because I believe it most effective.


Charlie Mas said...

Here's how I think of the opportunity gap.

Public education is a banquet, set out on a table six feet off the floor.

Affluent families send their children to school with ladders so they can enjoy the banquet. Poor families or families from other cultures either don't have ladders for their children or don't know to provide them. Hence, their children can't eat the food that is, ostensibly, laid out for every child to consume.

Melissa Westbrook said...

I think you did a fine job, Charlie.

I would also consider "code" language part of institutional racism. We all have code language that we use, probably in our workplaces. But there is also code language that gets used around kids that assumes they are all being raised the same way and exposed to the same culture (music, books, video, etc.) No one means any harm (indeed may not be aware of it) but the child feels left out, confused and/or dumb.

Charlie, you said this:

"...third grade students in a traditional American classroom: that they sit relatively still in a chair at a desk for hours on end without speaking to the other children around them."

Of course, I cannot speak for all American classrooms or even Seattle classrooms but my kids' classrooms were not like this. The kids did afford opportunities to talk, move about, do hands-on work. I do agree that more and more kids are not able to do what they want to on the playground (and that list gets smaller all the time).

My kids experienced other classrooms than just Spectrum so I found this mostly true in their schools.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Charlie. I appreciate the time you took to answer my question.

Is it a goal of our schools to graduate students that are aware of and comfortable with the norms of the dominant culture? From my (obviously limited) perspective, this is a part of being college and career ready.

What can we do to prepare students so that by the time they're in middle school and high school, they are prepared to be productive, rather than disruptive in the classroom? Obviously excluding children from the classroom is not the answer.

And if you want to answer what may be another obvious question, how does this affect our advanced learning programs?


Melissa Westbrook said...

Is it a goal of our schools to graduate students that are aware of and comfortable with the norms of the dominant culture?

A VERY tough question to answer (and ground to tread on).

I have actually never seen this really address in SPS. (Of course, I should go back and read up on the taskforces that addressed this or ask Carol Simmons who knows this history well.)

It's a tough question for a couple of reasons.

One, we are one country but one built on the idea of embracing new peoples (and their cultures). That said, we have all heard - mostly in the earlier part of the 20th Century - about a "melting pot."

I think America has wholeheartedly embraced different cultures in how we eat, how we talk and how we celebrate holidays.

But, at the end, of the day, there is an "American" culture? I believe there is and to come to the US and expect to build little enclaves to not just keep a culture alive but sustain it, is probably not going to work.

As someone who lived abroad twice in two different countries and my son(s) were in schools both times, other countries don't give a whit about where you came from in terms of educating your child. (Whether this is good or bad for their country, it's mostly the norm.)

They don't have ELL (or, if they do, it is very limited), they expect children to act on the norms in the classrooms and, that parents will follow along. You moved to "our" country, you follow "our" norms. (At some point, it should happen if only for a person to fully operate well in any given country.)

I'm not sure where the line is for embracing other cultures is in education. From a taxpayer point of view, it takes up time and resources (to some degree). Is it worth that time and money? That's a call that's hard to make.

Anonymous said...

Lynn, please define the norms of "dominant culture"?


Anonymous said...

I took the phrase from Charlie's first paragraph. I'm thinking of things like the third grade classroom expectations listed above.

1. Raise your hand and wait for permission before speaking or leaving your seat.
2. Follow directions given by adults in school without arguing.
3. Follow the school dress code.
4. Arrive to school on time.
5. Use an 'inside voice' in the classroom.

I think that is what is expected in an elementary classroom in Seattle.

Curious - how do you think teachers should react when their students do not anticipate these norms? Is it enough to understand that a student is not intending to misbehave - and to focus on teaching those expectations rather than on punishments? Or should the rules be changed?


mirmac1 said...

The way I look at education is, in a hurricane do you prompt victims to ask nicely for rescue?

Education is a basic right (God Bless America), like food and shelter. We don't require individuals to earn their right to the basics (like basic education).

While some students struggle to have the same teacher for more than one week because of where they live, others may not(nicely) ask for, and expect, mo'. This is not Dickens' 19th century London. This is Seattle, home of fat cats who want a school for their employees convenient to their workplace where they can learn Mandarin, and can buy elected officials so they get it.

There Charlie. I said it, NOT calmly.

Maureen said...

Charlie, thank you for initiating and framing this issue in this way.

With respect to public school education: over the years, I have have come to think of this in terms of "School Culture" vs. "Home Culture." Most kids, whether they are members of the "dominant culture" or not have to make an adjustment to school culture. Some kids' upbringing makes this more challenging, but that is as true for middle class children whose parents treat them as peers (my vague way of describing the type of kid I'm sure most of you know--not a direct reference to anyone in particular!) as it is for poor children from underrepresented ethnic groups.

I think some people see school culture as 100% compatible with white upper middle class culture but I think that is (increasingly perhaps) not the case.

In this discussion, I would like to be able to carve out the part of discomfort with school culture that is actually attributable to race as opposed to other factors. I'm not sure that is really possible.

Jon said...

What is missing from this is a discussion of private schools.

Charlie's idea is cute, that school is a banquet, with a table six feet off the floor, only rich kids have ladders. But the reality is that rich kids aren't even in line to eat at this table with us. All those rich people are off at a fancy restaurant eating at a private table.

Likewise, Mirmac1 misses this as well, attacking the entire idea of having language immersion public schools while completely ignoring the many who send their kids private or move to the Eastside.

I think all of you are fighting against the wrong thing. The problem isn't the tolerance of the people in public schools in Seattle. The problem is the people who don't even go to public schools in Seattle, all while they vote for charters and trying to cut our public schools even further.

When we talk about institutional racism in Seattle Public Schools, we should be focused on how to serve all the children of Seattle, especially the ones in most need, but all of the children. So far, this discussion sounds like it's trying to push even more people out.

Charlie Mas said...

Lynn, should we try to make the people walk on the pathways, or should we put the pathways where the people walk?

The schools were not intentionally designed to assimilate children into the dominant culture, that was an unintentional consequence of the ethnocentrism of the designers.

Having become aware of it, some will defend it, saying "It's not a bug; it's a feature!" Not only are students learning math and science, they are being indoctrinated into American society, learning our social norms, learning our culture, learning our epistemology.

I certainly write enough about schools having a culture and assimilating students into that culture. But I write about doing it intentionally, not unconsciously. Which of these elements actually directly contribute to learning? Which don't have anything to do with learning but put the dominant culture in, well, a dominant position - rather than an equal position with other cultures? That's when you forget that the Wedgwood Broiler is an ethnic restaurant.

It's a dangerous line to cross. That's when it becomes more readily recognized as racism. That's when people start to say things like "Yes, I'm making you do it my way because our people's way of doing it is better than your people's way." Sorry to disrupt the "calm", but that's White Supremacy.

As for "disruptive", I will just say two things. First, learning is a disruptive act. Second, something is only disruptive if it isn't anticipated and accounted for. If we wanted to, we could have schools in which it was perfectly fine for students to sit wherever they liked, move around as they liked, wear whatever they liked, and freely engage in side conversations with each other.

Charlie Mas said...

Jon, I didn't say "rich" kids have ladders, I said affluent. Middle class will do. This is the food that is, ostensibly, laid out for every child to consume.

It's true. There's another table in another room where rich kids eat. You can't even reach that room without a key to the elevator. But there never was any promise that every child would have access to that meal.

Anonymous said...

There are problems in Seattle public schools. Blaming private schools isn't going to solve SPS problems. I can't really work myself up since these people are paying tuition and continue to pay their taxes.

I've never heard those classroom rules you described Lynn as norms of dominant culture before. Certainly not by a teacher. I just read up on the meaning of dominant culture, and from the quick research, many of the sources don't describe or define it the way you did. As this post is about institutional racism, I remain confused. Are we talking about classroom behavioral expectation? In the classrooms, what I hear from teachers are expectations and rules emphasizing mutual respect and safety. Or are we talking about instances where institutional policies may have consequences that adversely affect or create inequity among certain populations. (I would include SPED populations in there too.)

I think in today's SPS, you are not going to find policies which are outright and intentionally discriminatory. But it doesn't mean there isn't discrimination in SPS. Wht you will find is less overt cases. In the context of institutional racism, sex/ gender/age/religion/disability discrimination, power to discriminate needs to be there. It can mean the power to withhold benefits, info, resources, so the act doesn't have to be one of action, but inaction (SPED and Native Americans). In addition, if you have an organization or group that has very little interaction with other race or ethnicity, then that group may FEEL it is non racist to begin with.

What I think of institutional racism, I think of the standout statistics in certain populations. People often think of crime and incarceration rate. I think of health outcomes, and housing/employment stats. I think of the ability to access good healthcare, safe and affordable housing, earn a stable and living wage with benefits that tip the balance so people can access a better life. I think of the barriers within our society that makes it harder to access that. It can be something as simple as not being able to cash your paycheck at a bank. I helped several fellow workers who didn't have a checking account and couldn't get their pay checks cashed at the bank our employer banked with. This was years ago, but it struck me even now how ridiculous and frustrating this situation was. These women had no need for a checking account because the lived from paycheck to paycheck and qualified for food stamps. This problem never occurred to me as a college student at the time as I had a bank acct since was 10 yo. (The fix was simple once our boss was told of the situation and with a couple of phone calls to the bank branch, these ladies were getting their pay.)


seattle citizen said...

"In a hurricane, do you prompt victims to nicely ask for rescue?"

Similarly, after the commission of a crime, does the criminal prompt the victim to nicely ask for assistance?

Many who are not in the dominant culture are victimized by it: environment, wealth distribution, the negating of cultural ethos and understandings...and worse.

Should schools, in preparing students for life, demand they walk, talk, and look like the oppressors who have been growing wealthy on the backs of the victim's family and friends?

"We built this country on your sweat. If you can get yourself off the ground after the beating we gave you, and under the continued insults to your humanity, and if you can act a little more like us, we'll give you a hand up. We don't like your kind, and don't think you can be as good as us, but you can be a middle manager somewhere"

I'm reminded of an Episcopal priest, I forget his name, but I've got the 1877 magazine article in which he is quoted. He says, of the Native Americans he is going to as a missionary, "While I cannot bring them up to our level of civilization, I will do my best to make good farmers of them."

This illustrates institutional racism quite well: The priest was a good man, we're sure, kind of heart and all that, but he believed, like everyone in his institution, the Episcopal church at that time, that Indians were only capable of so much. This justified taking everything they had, watching as they died, sometimes killing them...and it made the dominant culture feel even better about itself when it offered to "help" the oppressed rise to some middling level.

Charlie Mas said...

I have been listening to the mayoral candidates on the radio this week and today I heard Charlie Staadecker say that he supports the closure of Nicklesville.

He said that it should be closed because the people were living in squalor and it is unsanitary. It was a stupid thing to say. Does he think that these people are choosing to live in unsanitary conditions? And when they leave Nicklesville, will they be going someplace that isn't equally squalid?

This is the criminalization of poverty. Is the law fair because it prohibits both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges?

Prohibiting children from behaving in accordance with the social norms of their culture - even if that behavior isn't disruptive - is the criminalization of their culture. That is institutionalized racism.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Okay, but again, education isn't supposed to solve the ills of society but it is a place where children learn a lot more than what is in their textbooks.

What IS education supposed to do?

Josh Hayes said...

I'd like to thank everyone for taking part in this conversation. It is, as such discussions always are, variously uncomfortable and also illuminating.

I think the district's priorities are sadly apparent, however, in the closure of Pinehurst/AS1, the only school in the district with an explicit anti-racism motivation (and a kick-ass anti-racism library collection, BTW. I hope that doesn't just disappear).

For me the key word in all this discussion is "normative": the underlying, often unconscious assumption that some state of being is the "normal" case, and everything else is somehow not normal. It's hard to deny that in this country, and in this state, and yes, in this city, "white" is the assumed normative state. Here's a little thought experiment about it: let's say you go out of town for a couple of weeks, and you arrange for a kid to water your plants, pick up the paper and mail, and so forth. If that kid is white, will your neighbors challenge him or her? If that kid is Latino, or African-American, or Asian-American, will it be the same?

No. Of course it won't. And probably, while the neighbors might ask an Asian kid what he's up to, if he's black? They'll call the cops. It shouldn't matter, but of course, it does: if the kid isn't white, they're somehow not normal. And my neighbors aren't consciously racist, either, I hasten to add! It's all in the worldview, what we're calling here the "dominant culture".

Anonymous said...

Curious - Charlie used those classroom behavior expectations as an example of cultural norms.

Charlie - it sounds like you're describing something like Nova in your comment above. Do you think that's a good example of a school where students from any culture have equitable access to education? Something with less structure and more personal responsibility?

One of my children requires accommodations to be successful in the classroom. He needs these, and he would not be able to learn what he needs to without them. My worry is that by the time he joins the workforce, he will have to be able to do without those accommodations. We have to meet children where they are - and anticipate and provide what they need in order to succeed at school. Wouldn't we be failing them though, if we do not also prepare them for success in college or the workplace?


Anonymous said...


I found this in the New York Times: "Public schools were founded in this country to make sure that future generations of citizens have an appreciation for democratic values, understand what we have in common as Americans, and have the skills to be productive members of society."

Sounds about right to me.

My take away from this is "So if an identifiable group of students are having trouble complying with a policy or meeting an expectation, take a moment to consider if the policy or the expectation presumes a cultural perspective or a set of resources those students don't have."



Anonymous said...


I hope I am not misunderstanding you, but it seems like you're suggesting that children from other cultures be instructed in the "dominant culture", that being white, middle to upper class to the exclusion of their own as that is necessary for them to get to and succeed in college and beyond.

Seattle Citizen touches on this mindset in his post above. What you're implying sounds rather like the reasons many Natives were removed from family and home and forced to "assimilate" to the white man's dominant culture. A friend in Alaska is part of a project in which elders teach children the almost forgotten Native language before they die out and it IS lost. It's becoming lost because so many kids were forced into white schools to learn the "right way".

Believing that your way is the "right one" and that those who speak, act or learn differently is "less than" is part of the racism we're talking about here. I think what needs to happen is to find a way for kids coming in on different rungs on Charlie's ladder to reach the table without having to change into the same uniforms as those on higher rungs or to lose the riches of their own cultures to partake.

Just thinking out loud here, but why should another friend of mine have had to "act white" to do well in school? Couldn't he have "acted black" and gone on to high school and college success? Why is only the "dominant culture" the "right" one?

And maybe there is your answer to your question about how this relates to advanced learning. Maybe not enough of "non-dominant" culture kids are succeeding in passing the "dominant culture's" advanced learning-designed testing?

Regular Reader

Anonymous said...

So what I see is there's institutional racism, but beneath the institution part, we have a certain tolerance or an ignorance/ lack of awareness of racism/discrimination by individuals. If you want to relate it back to classroom behavior, I can see it in the disciplinary/ dropout data and what played out at Center School.

Josh, I don't know your neighborhood, but in some parts of Seattle, you'll have more black, Latino, and Asian kids as neighbors than white ones. So your norm wouldn't be the same. This is where NSAP fails. Schools have become more segregated by race, income, and native vs. non native speakers. People in position of power knew this (aka DeBell) and did not see this as a significant problem. Does it matter if we can improve all schools and make them "excellent"? Does separate, but equal really exists? It matters because reality is all schools are not excellent and not equal. Not even close. Some might improve to become example show pieces (as long as the money, poltical patronage, and interest last). This state won't fund schools fully as it should and city leaders will prioritize its resources for economic development and public safety to satisfy the gains of the power that be first. NSAP accentuates the pockets of wealth and pockets of poverty.

This matter because what is now the dominant culture will evolve and change to one where we may not recognize when our grandchildren become adults. I think we are seeing the evolution now, hence a lot of political turmoil, jockeying to get up that opportunity ladder and fear-mongering of what we don't know or understand.


Anonymous said...

Regular Reader,

What cultural norms are you talking about?

Charlie mentioned arriving at school on time, dressing according to the school dress code and raising your hand before speaking as expectations of third graders that many cultures would find alien, arbitrary and offensive.

I think that many employers expect employees to arrive at work on time, dress in an appropriate manner for the workplace and avoid interrupting people when they speak. Not explaining that to our students is doing them a disservice.

If you feel that our only responsibility is to adjust behavioral expectations in the classroom so that all students can succeed, I want to hear that. I'm trying to understand what other people are thinking.


Anonymous said...

Regular Reader,

Do you think there are students who need the accelerated learning provided by APP - but who can't pass the tests we use to identify highly capable children? If so, what part of the testing isn't working? Do you think a student has to "act white" to get qualifying test scores? What does that mean specifically?

Or is it that there need to be changes to both the testing and the program?

I'm hoping this doesn't sound snarky - again, just trying to understand what you're saying,


Charlie Mas said...

First, I do not view education as job training, so I'm not losing any sleep over the possibility that school isn't teaching children how to become a factory widget.

Second, there's are lots of jobs, particularly for educated people, that do not require people to arrive at a specific hour, leave at a specific hour, dress a certain way, work on tasks for pre-determined chunks of time, or seek permission from the boss to speak, walk around, or go to the washroom.

Third, even if I were wrong about the first point, I would not want schools to be preparing my children for jobs like those described in the second point.

Charlie Mas said...

Before capitalism, the dominant economic system in Europe was feudalism. In feudalism, your boss pretty much owned you and the king owned everybody.

We claim to have evolved out of serfdom, but I see a lot of lingering legacies of it. I see a lot of employers who act like they think they own their employees. They take a lot of liberties and treat the employees like the employment agreement is something less than mutual.

Jon said...

That a nice thought that education should be broad and not job training, Charlie. In the meantime, only 45% of 10th graders can pass state standards in math.

Charlie, I usually agree with you, but, in this case, I think you are focused on the wrong thing. We agree there is racism in the US. There is poverty. And every child should have a strong education. But, right now, the urgent problem, beyond all others, is that most children in Seattle Public Schools are not learning the basics. We should do whatever it takes to fix that.

If focusing even more on institutional racism is the way to teach kids math and reading, fine, but it certainly does not seem to work. We already have a school district and curriculum that spends entirely too much time on racial issues and not enough time on finding ways teachers can succeed at teaching math. We have already tried schools that focus a lot on racism (at AAA and many other places) and it failed. We should do more of what works, and this is not working.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Jon, makes a good point (as does Charlie).

I hear Jon pointing out that our district isn't reaching all kids (and particularly kids of low-income kids of color). So what needs to change? Is it the expectations in the classroom, what is taught and/or how it is taught?

Charlie also makes the point that life isn't a classroom (and blessedly, not high school life). But, I then ask, what's a teacher to do? You have larger class sizes, curriculum to get thru and, oh by the way, your job is partially dependent on getting those kids through that curriculum enough to test well.

I know that the two things - cultural competency and teaching/classroom management - are not mutually exclusive.

But again, how much can the teacher do and what are students supposed to bring to the classroom? I can only point out that most other countries have zero expectation that teachers will worry about the languages/cultural norms of every student.

Would it help more to have more teachers of color/ethnic backgrounds in the classroom? And, if that is so, how do we recruit them to become AND stay teachers? Maybe that's the question that should be asked by School Boards and taxpayers who want better academic outcomes.

mirmac1 said...

I would call the increased reliance on PTSA-financed "niceties" like essential math curricular materials, to supplement the garbage supplied to our buildings, and tutors/tech equipment - institutional racism.

Anonymous said...

Melissa, when you say most countries, are you talking about Canada or Botswana, Japan or Mexico? Depending on the country-its makeup and economy, you will find different accommodation. For me, it doesn't matter. We are a nation of immigrants (like Canada and Australia) and we can make our own path. Our history includes systematic wipeout of its indigenous people and enslavement of others. We are still dealing with that.

Educating children without the barriers of institutional racism/ discrimination go hand in hand. They both go hand in hand if people mean what they say. Do people really mean it? And when Jon say we already spend too much time on racial issues, what is too much time and what is the curriculum? Is creating AAA really the best way to deal with racism? How long did that lasted? Was it well received by you?


Anonymous said...

Some really good points and a very interesting discussion. Lynn, I think Charlie answered your first question to me. School is not job training. But more so-not all children learn the same way, no matter what culture they are from. Sitting quietly and raising your hand, learning how to stand in line-these are not done in all schools even now. Working quietly alone vs. working in mixed age groups-these are both available now. So when you speak of dominant culture, I'm not sure which standards you wish to impose.

As for APP, yes, exactly. My family knows of one immigrant family where the oldest did not pass the APP qualifying tests because of the language barrier. She herself told my child this-it was just too difficult in English. Her younger brother, having grown up in this country easily passed. In another immigrant family, the child isn't going to switch schools because her father is undocumented so they are laying low at the school she's at and is accepted. In yet another the parents aren't even literate in their own native language so navigating things like special testing and school choice doesn't compute for them. The likely APP kid just finished HS and though she will be very successful compared to her parents missed out on some better options. So yes, more outreach and changes to testing and perhaps admission criteria are needed. I'm focusing on immigrant but there are issues with non-white native families and advanced learning as well.

It's been mentioned before on this blog that some principals don't like to "give up" bright students in schools that have lower test scores or are unpopular. So there's not much publicizing of the option to test for advance learning. Not all parents even know it exists. As far acting white-that can be complicated but as I understand it, in some groups or families if you're a serious student you're considered to be acting white and that's not a compliment. Not all kids can counter that, or have the internal fortitude to do it.

But even aside from school, what I think some comments are treading on here is that it's assumed that giving up one's background is necessary to succeed. I don't think that's the case. My adult daughter has a friend who came from a repressive African country where girls are rarely even offered much education. She managed to Americanize herself somewhat without losing her heritage. She still follows her religious laws and native ways of dressing, eating, etc. She made it to college where she's studying to be able to help new immigrants navigate American ways. She learned how to GO to school, the behavior issues you mentioned in your earlier post, without having to assimilate into the dominant culture of the white middle class. I think that might be the goal we seek for all "non-dominant" kids.

Regular Reader

Anonymous said...

I will also add this idea that showing up on time, etc. is somehow a trait of dominant culture still befuddles me. Why? Because every day I see many people whom I guess wouldn't be considered part of "white" society show up to do their shift work on time, and work VERY hard and well at jobs most wouldn't want for their college educated kids. So to put it mildly, I'm confused, but I think if people chose to define these qualities as "dominant culture" they better get out of their comfort zone more and look around more.

Anonymous said...

American Schools Timeline and evolution 1778 - 2000.



Maureen said...

People love sports analogies don't they?

Our family doesn't take sports very seriously. When kid1 was in third grade he regularly did handsprings and fake sword fighting in the out field or mid field or whatever. He was not very popular with the coaches or kids (or parents) who cared about winning and didn't get much play time. He's a team sport drop out. We are lucky there are no state tests in soccer. Was it the coaches' responsibility to accommodate his home culture? How would that impact the kids whose home culture had prepared them for and made them value sports ? If there were state tests in soccer, I expect I would have given him a talking to and then practiced with him at home until he could conform. Would that be wrong of me? If he had kept playing, I would have expected him to conform, to some extent, to the the sports culture, if only for his team mates' sake.

What part of school culture is racist and what part is necessary to facilitate learning? Why do we seem to have an underlying assumption that kids of some races or cultures are less able to conform to school culture than others? Is it related to the fact that most teachers are white and women?

Melissa Westbrook said...

Curious, I was in two European countries but I know that most other European countries operate the same way. (I also know from other friends who have lived/come from abroad - like Mexico.)

I agree that the US is unlike most other countries in who comes to live here and that we continue to be a country of immigrants. (But I would put Native Americans in a very different category than any other group and yes, they were treated beyond bad and the district doesn't have a lot to be proud of regarding their programming.)

In terms of how teachers gain/express cultural competency, I don't know.

Do I think AAA was a good way to go? No, I don't. It may have been the way it was carried out and the infighting that occurred about its program. I know that there are many charters - particularly Gulen and others - that revolve around one ethnic group. I'm not sure I think that's the way to solve the issue but for parents who want their child to be in a school with their own norms and culture, there's a way to go.

But I sense in Charlie's comments a disconnect. Are we talking about everyday cultural norms or workplace norms? Because as someone who is trying to help an adult child find a job, I was quite surprised at the number of job descriptions that give the hours and add that "these are not negotiable or optional."

My work experience is that if you want the job, you pretty much have to follow those workplace norms (within the law).

Anonymous said...
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Maureen said...

Eric Lui has a piece in Time about white privilege in the context of the Zimmerman trial. Trayvon Martin and Making Whiteness Visible

Anonymous said...

Of course public education is not job training. When I think about kids who do not graduate from high school, I'm not concerned that they are sent out into the world unable to do geometry. I worry that they will not be able to get a job that provides them with any economic security.
In my job I have a great deal of freedom as to where, when and how I get my work done. I'm assumed to be a professional and to be responsible for myself. I've been working for a long time though - and in my early working years this was not the case. Are entry-level jobs in professional fields different now? It doesn't sound like this is what Melissa is finding.


seattle citizen said...

Maureen writes about her child’s experience with sports. If we take what she wrote and substitute “dominant culture” for “sports” or “soccer” or “team mates’” we have the following:
Was it the coaches' responsibility to accommodate his home culture? How would that impact the kids whose home culture had prepared them for and made them value [the dominant culture] ? If there were state tests in [the dominant culture], I expect I would have given him a talking to and then practiced with him at home until he could conform. Would that be wrong of me? If he had kept [participating in the dominant culture], I would have expected him to conform, to some extent, to the [dominant] culture, if only for [those others in the dominant cultures’] sake.
This opens all sorts of avenues for discussion, as we have been seeing already in this thread (thank you, participants!). I’ll start with an aside: Many states have Physical Ed as a required class; many states have state assessments for PE; some states require schools to collect BMI (body mass) data of students…PE is not one sport, but my point is that the dominant culture (the mainly white, male…dare I say free market…lawmakers already are collecting data and testing students on what they do with their own bodies.
But Maureen’s point is well taken: Do we push students to learn the skills of the dominant culture or advocate for a more expansive culture or both? I tend to believe that it’s a combination of both: What we have in front of us, culture-wise, is what we have. We have to teach students how to operate in this culture. But it’s a dangerous game: By participating, one runs the risk of settling in, of becoming comfortable and, well, benefiting from that dominant culture at others’ expense. Heck, it’s not even a risk, for some: Some people, white males, white females, straights…on down “the scale” of privleges….are ALREADY comfortably ensconced in the dominant culture in many ways. I, a white male, am very comfortable walking in most neighborhoods late at night. I am comforted that, statistically, it’s easier for me to get a job or housing.
I want children…students…all of us to be comfortable. But at what cost? At the cost of homogenization? With the loss of the variety of ways of living that are out there?
So in some ways this question about institutional racism because two threads: One, what to teach ABOUT it, what to change in practices, how to better accommodate a variety of ways of being – in other words, teaching and acting to change the future; Two, what skills must be taught that are,de facto, dominant culture specific: maybe limiting, maybe disrespectful of other cultures, but necessary in the world as it is.
I’ll end on a reference back to sports: The world of youth sports has been expanding into a wider variety – we have Ultimate, we finally have Lacrosse, an eastern Native American sport, on the west coast (yes, I personally brought it with me from New York. You’re welcome! jk….) But if we all insist our children learn baseball in order to pass a state test in it (or in PE or whatever test is coming…and it IS coming: All things will be tested quantitatively) then perhaps we are dragging them, kicking and screaming, from other valuable physical activities which provide them more pleasure, teach different skills, and are inclusive of, oh, I don’t know, women? Why ISN’T women’s basketball on a par with men’s on a national level, on a cultural level? Change is good; variety is good; celebration of all sorts of ways of being (and playing) is good.

seattle citizen said...

oops, sorry, forgot to quote Maureen: Second paragraph, from "Was it the coaches' responsibility...[to]if only for [those others in the dominant cultures’] sake."

Anonymous said...

Regular Reader,

I don't think anyone here is suggesting that a person has to give up their religious practices, traditional manner of dressing or traditional diet to be a successful, productive member of society. What then are the cultural norms in our schools that make it more difficult for children of other cultures to succeed?

As for APP, if there is a language barrier with the CoGat, and we provide a different test to take that into account, wouldn't the language arts curriculum need to be modified for the student? Our current system requires qualifying ability and achievement test scores. I think we'd have a more diverse group in APP (including more 2e kids) if we dropped the achievement testing. Would you support that? It would be a hard battle to win - there are not many people who think APP should grow.

What kind of outreach to immigrant families could we be doing? I have the impression that's something the AL department has emphasized in the past - with not much success.

What do you think are the issues keeping non-white native students out of APP?


Anonymous said...

I'm a little fuzzy here... Is it not racism to argue that certain races can't be expected to make it to school on time or in acceptable clothing, or that children of certain races can't be expected to follow directions without arguing? Some of these would seem to me to be more related to SES than race, and while there are associations between SES and race, I think there's a big difference here in terms of how to think about the issues and solutions.

Are those really good examples of the type of institutionalized racism we're talking about, or can someone provide better ones? I think more concrete examples of what's happening in this district would be very helpful for this discussion.

How about the NSAP? Is that institutional racism? On it's own? Or in conjunction with a policy that allows high levels of PTSA funding for supplementation?

There will always be cultural differences between--and even within--racial groups. The goal isn't to eliminate those, nor should it be to let those differences rule, such that students pick and choose whichever rules and practices feel natural for them and disregard the rest. Shouldn't it be about finding a balance, what works reasonably well for all groups?


Anonymous said...

Lynn, I gave some examples of people I personally know who didn't have the opportunity to get into APP (or Spectrum) due to language issues at home or individually. I think language is probably the greatest barrier. And yes, it's possible that they would need accommodations in an APP/Spectrum class if they are not conversant in English to the extent that the current program requires. But there's the problem-they're still just as bright-maybe brighter than some of the native-born, English speaking kids already in APP/Spectrum.

I do think some different testing would help. I also think direct outreach to such families would help. I'd like to see teachers of these kids reach out to their parents and explain that AL exists and what it is when they have a kid of promise.

As to cultural norms, it's hard to see when we are members of the dominant culture, but when you go to school everyday with kids who do not eat what you do at home, who do not speak your language, who do not dress like you, who don't play games at recess that you recognize, and so on, it's hard to find a way to fit in and concentrate on learning. Sure, many kids figure it out and play by the rules but others see a completely foreign landscape from the time they walk into school till they go home. The cultural norms in their way are...everything all day every day.

As Melissa says, in some other countries you're left to sink or swim in both school and the workplace if you move there. I'm not sure that's all we should do HERE. Some schools (I think) offer family workers that can help at least a little, and some immigrant cultures have organizations that help outside of school. Perhaps if schools and such agencies could work together on getting kids acclimated and their parents up to speed? Some kids come here without ever having been in a school at all-they have nothing BUT the dominant culture to conform to!

Regular Reader

Anonymous said...

HIMSmom, I don't think anyone is saying that we can't expect immigrant or non-white kids to not follow basic school rules, but here's an example of how these things might come up. In one of the immigrant families that I mentioned above, they had lived in refugee camps where school rules didn't really exist, if they even got lessons regularly. So when one of the kids lost bus service due to changes in the NSAP, the parents just kept her home. They 1)didn't realize they could get her on a bus "as space allowed" 2) change her school or 3)that she was even REQUIRED to send her every day!

So whether or not that's institutional racism, I don't know, but what we take for granted can be completely foreign to new immigrants. Other families don't realize that they can get free lunch for their kids and the kids go hungry until someone at the school figures it out-they have no food at home to send in so the kid goes without, just as they did in their home country.

It's not racist to acknowledge these things and try to work with them. How would a kid who's never been in school know to stand in line, sit quietly at a desk until the bell rings?

Regular Reader

Anonymous said...

This whole discussion about what is the norm of dominant culture in a classroom is a perfect illustration of the murkiness of this discussion. I too have lived and worked overseas from Asia to Africa. In refugee camps of Kenya and S.Sudan, kids went when they can to makeshift schools consist of UNHCR blue tarp and dirt floor. The classes are loud, boisterous and disciplined. They are loud because of the sheer size of a "classroom" and disciplined where older kids maintain order and shared materials. Kids value their education because opportunities are rare and hold their teachers in high regards. Kids will walk far to get to school. In Nepal, children easily walk many miles especially in the hills where there are no motorable roads. School is considered a privilege by these children and their families. It isn't just the logistic of education that makes it valuable, but many know it's the path to a better life.
The same holds true in SE Asia.

In Canada, where my sister in law teaches, her school makes accomodation for ELL, have bilingual ed (french/english) and there is strong acknowledgement of first nation people. Here in this country, you need to meet black families from Prince George co., MD and your will quickly find how this "dominant culture" norm is in fact a vey much a part of black families value at all SES levels. Your will often find in many black families a list of educators as that has been the traditional path to middle class life (along with military service and government careers). Please visit Howard U. campus whe you are in DC or Moorhouse in Atlanta and talk to the students there.

I think there is a lot that gets published or chronicled by academia and mainstream media that is simply out of date, missing nuance and too stereotypic, or are simply wrong. Time is changing.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Regular Reader,

I had been thinking we were discussing the rules/behavioral expectations that are established assuming children and their families understand them and can conform to them. We need to identify what those rules and school customs are and determine if they are necessary or not. If they are necessary for the classroom to function, we should focus on educating students and families on those expectations. If they're unnecessary, we can drop them.

I would like to hear a couple of examples of which rules/expectations are causing the disproportionate discipline in middle schools and high schools.

The issues you raised must be very disorienting to immigrants - but I'm not sure they are examples of institutional racism.

If language barriers are keeping immigrant students out of APP, what is keeping non-white native students out? How are our schools failing them? I believe someone from AL called the parents of students whose MAP scores qualifed them for AL programs a few years ago. Would we get different results if classroom teachers were required to schedule a conference with the parents to discuss advanced learning opportunities?


Anonymous said...

The sad part to all of this is the missed learning opportunities of integration, of finding shared commonalities as well as differences that should be a part of all our kids education in SPS. IMO, it's just as important as learning Pythagorean theorem and writing a good essay. If education is to impart lessons in good citizenry, then teaching "cultural competency" is important not just for teachers to learn and apply, but for the students as well. By doing so, we might be having a different conversation about what happened to Trayvon Martin and the SYG law (or closer to home what happened to John T. Williams).


Anonymous said...

Lynn, I think the best answers are ones you seek out yourself. You can go back through old threads on the APP blog where there were extensive discussion and research materials quoted on testing ELL and minority students (to reduce cultural bias) for advanced learning. You can google this subject and will find many, many articles from NYT, ed weekly, university papers. As to disciplinary issue, please check out old threads on SSS or go directly to SPS site for the data and discussion paper. It's all there. I highly encourage you to volunteer and get involve with the schools for first hand experience or with IRC (International Rescue Comittee) which help new immigrants often from war torn countries settle in the Seattle area. It's quite eye opening.


Maureen said...

Seattle Citizen, I reject the idea that Education is itself the dominant culture. I think Education is a valuable thing in and of itself regardless of what culture a person belongs to. (I don't think your substitution of "dominant culture" for sports in my story makes sense, substituting "education" would make sense to me.)

Both sports and education exist within our dominant culture and reflect that. My kid was actually able to play team sports for fun (and participate in great PE classes at his schools) in a way that avoided what our family considered to be the negative parts of sports culture. Some people home school to avoid what they see as the negative impact of the dominant culture on school culture.

Unknown said...

Here's a short answer about some examples of institutionalized racism. The Federal government has 14 categories of disability that qualify a child for special education if that child's educational access is hindered by the disability. There are some categories that are "hard," such as deafness or blindness. Then there are categories that are soft such a "intellectual disability" or "emotional disturbance." The hard categories are equally distributed across races. The soft ones are not. African American children are over-identified for soft disabilities. There are many reasons for this, many having to do with society at large, but others having to do with the school system's unwillingness to address differences in culture and language.

Black students are also over-identified for discipline. Again,there are some kinds of offences that are "hard" such as weapons or drug-related offences. These account for very, very few of the thousands of cases of suspension in the district. Then there are others that are soft, such as "disruptive behavior." Whether you want to call sitting in your seat, and talking only when spoken to, school culture or dominant culture, it is a cultural mismatch for many students and African American students get at over twice the rates as whites and Asian Americans. These students then receive less access to the education which they need.

The phenomenon known as the "school-to-prison pipeline" is a direct result of discipline policies that are overly punitive and result in a large number of black students, often black male students who qualify for special education services, exiting school directly for prison.

Policies which place more emphasis on looking at the roots of classroom behavior would serve society and these kids far better than the current system of punishment and would be a step in the right direction at eliminating some institutionalized racism.

ArchStanton said...

I've only been loosely following this thread, so I might be restating an idea or two. I'll throw this out there anyway.

Should a black person have to 'act white' to be successful in school or business? We can debate the ethics of that question 'til the horse is dead, but practically speaking, until the institutions change, not 'acting white' will probably put the hypothetical black person at a disadvantage - even in dealing with other black people who are trying to be successful in the context of the dominant culture. The institutions may eventually change, but that change will be slow and until the change occurs, the disadvantages will persist.

Certainly, we should examine our assumptions about cultural norms, adjust them accordingly, and maybe even make allowances for certain individuals/circumstances. But, it's not generally unreasonable to expect people to learn to behave in certain ways in certain situations. There’s a continuum, and asking a child to sit down, pay attention, and use ‘proper grammar ‘ in school without diminishing the norms of their home culture is a far cry from removing indigenous peoples from their families and placing them in missionary schools.

People not of the dominant culture are capable of successfully navigating their own culture and the dominant culture (not to mention other cultures). It is a necessary survival skill. Like savvy travelers, cultural minorities learn the local norms, mores, and speech and choose to adopt them or at least be respectful of them. People are quite capable of putting on their "business, white, middle-class" act just like they put on a suit and take it off when they return home. Even without considerations of race/culture/class, we all behave differently in different groups or social situations. It's an important social skill and one that people of non-dominant cultures are forced to learn more readily than people of dominant cultures. I'm not saying that's the way things ought to be, but that's the way they have been and will be until the dominant culture changes. And the dominant culture may well be changing, but it is going to be a slow process and whatever it looks like 50/100/1000 years from now, there will still be some form of dominant culture. It might not have as much of a white, middle-class bias, but some people will have to adjust to it more than others.

mirmac1 said...

Right. What Mary said.

I have lived institutional racism. As immigrants in the 60's, we were steered by real estate agents to the wrong side of the tracks (White Center area) when looking for a first home. Our school was Roxhill. My college-educated parents were underemployed because they talked funny (accented speech). Assimilation was the be all and end all.

Fast forward to 2013. Roxhill continues as a welcoming haven for immigrants. Out of its 376 students, 309 are FRL, 129 are ELL and 88 (23%) receive special education services. That last datapoint illustrates two things: a)Roxhill has for years had more than its fair share of SpEd programs; and b) low-income and/or immigrant students are over-identified as SpEd.

Last year the district tried to dissolve Roxhill into an Arbor Heights on steriods. A few stalwart neighbors were able to fend off this attack, however I believe the district will ultimately accomplish this. How can this be? Many adults in the "subordinate" culture have too much faith in the dominant culture, not recognizing the severe inequities fed by group-think, bureaucrats and outside powers-that-be. How can they recognize the extent they're getting the shaft, when the shaft is all they've known?

My parents recognized what was being done to them in the 60's. What could they do? They put their efforts in providing for their kids and teaching us how to be strong and not put up with %$@*&

seattle citizen said...

Maureen, I didn't mean to suggest that education IS the dominant culture, only that the dominant culture, in many ways, has structured education, and thus a person participating in it might have to go along with some ideals or expectations of the dominant culture.
Sports and education exist outside the dominant culture, too, and it is those bits that I would like to see brought to the table, not as parts of the dominant culture (co-opted; merged...the "melting pot" idea) but as co-equally valuable, interesting, and respected elements of a more diverse culture (the "tossed salad" idea.)
In other words, I would like to see less "dominant culture," period, and more recognition of a variety of cultures as part of our world.

Unknown said...

As mirmac1 has alluded to, some of the institutionalized racism in the district ("north end" and "south end" - code words for white and not white--is the by product of housing covenants which were in force in some neighborhoods until 1968. Races in the covenants require translation; "Hebrews" meant Jews; "Ethiopians" meant African ancestry; "Malays" meant Filipinos.

Here are a few examples:
Alki: The lot, nor any part thereof, shall not be sold to any person either of whole or part blood, of the Mongolian, Malay, or Ethiopian races, nor shall the same nor any part thereof be rented to persons of such races.
Ballard/Sunset Hill: No part of said property hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay, or any Asiatic race, and the grantee, his heirs, personal representatives or assigns, shall never place any such person in the possession or occupancy of said property.
Beacon Hill/Jefferson Park: No person other than one of the Caucasian race shall be permitted to occupy any portion of any lot in said plat or any building thereon except a domestic servant actually employed by a Caucasian occupant of said lot or building.
Bitter Lake: And that the property covered by this contract shall not be conveyed to any other than one of the Caucasian Race;
Blue Ridge: No residence property shall at any time, directly or indirectly, be sold, conveyed, rented or leased in whole of in part to any person or persons not of the white or Caucasian race.
Broadmoor: No part of said property hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by any Hebrew or by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic Race...excepting only employees in the domestic service on the premises of persons qualified hereunder as occupants and users and residing on the premises.

You can look up the area where you live at Racial Restrictive Covenants.

Anonymous said...

@Regular Reader asked: How would a kid who's never been in school know to stand in line, sit quietly at a desk until the bell rings?

Answer: Most likely by watching the other kids and doing what they do.

Arch explains is better than I, but at first blush, it occurs to me that any child in a new, unfamiliar and possibly strange environment would probably first observe the behavior of their "local" classmates and endeavor to "do what the locals do," such as raising their hands to speak, standing in lines, and sitting quietly and listening.

I think we should give such kids more credit and recognize that much of what we expect of them is not dissimilar from what we expect of all kids everywhere, and what most kids are quite capable of discerning without much teaching or interventions.

As Arch points out, it is, and will forever be, a work in progress, and shouldn't require people to relinquish their home culture, but situational awareness and adaptive behavior are something all people employ daily.

There's no denying the challenges some face when not born into the dominant culture, but I find the "How would they ever know or figure it out without our help(?)" questions to be a bit patronizing.

The kids are smarter than we think. If only we could look beyond test scores and arbitrary grades to see that more often. WSDWG

Charlie Mas said...


You started by asking one question and you have asked a series of follow-up questions that are beginning to trip warning lights for me.

Do you have a pre-determined destination for where these questions are headed?

"I would like to hear a couple of examples of which rules/expectations are causing the disproportionate discipline in middle schools and high schools."

When middle class White kids misbehave there is an impulse to ask "What's wrong for them?". When poor minority kids misbehave there is an impulse to ask "What's wrong with them?". That's your institutional racism. The evidence is found in the disproportionate referrals to special education for minority students from low-income households.

A young Black man is regarded as threatening and seen as suspicious without saying, doing, carrying, or wearing anything to justify that response while a young White man triggers no such perceptions. White families are not giving their sons The Talk and begging them not to appear threatening.

As I wrote, a person from a different culture could take offense at a statement or action that would not offend you. And cultures have different responses to offense. So it isn't hard to imagine a middle-aged, White, female, educated middle class teacher innocently saying or doing something that will give offense to a young Black man living in poverty. Nor is it hard to imagine that young Black man responding in a way that - while appropriate from his perspective - the teacher finds unprovoked and egregious.

This isn't hard to imagine at all and I'm becoming suspicious about how long it is taking you to conjure this scenario in your mind.

Anonymous said...

Obviously kids and usually their parents figure it out to some extent, WSDWG. The families I know have had varied success with doing so, but sure, they know more than they did when they moved here. I don't think it's patronizing to have supports in place to help them get there faster, though. The same family with the bus issue was sponsored by a related family with far more education and a better life in their birth country. Their kids adapted faster, have better higher education options (for the older ones), even the adults have better jobs, etc. Just sitting kids in "our" classrooms and expecting them to "get it" without some level of assistance strikes me as cruel.

ArchStanton is right too about (some) people being able to live in both cultures, but again, it depends on their starting line. And there's some debate about that too-I recently read a blogpost from someone who pondered why should they HAVE to adapt or "act white" in "post racial" society? Why can't people "be themselves"? I think that's a valid question we should all ask.

Regular Reader

Anonymous said...

So is one of the big problems that the SPS teaching staff is not diverse enough and/or culturally competent? If they were to better understand where different groups are coming from, they might be less likely make the types of assumptions discussed here, whether re: behavior or perceived disabilities.

I think part of the challenge for this discussion is that this can happen at multiple levels within SPS, from individual teachers to overall district policies. Lynn was asking for hard examples of policies, and Charlie was talking about softer examples of individual prejudices. When it's individual teachers, is that institutional racism? Maybe not if it's just a few, but probably yes if it's many--and disproportionality may support the idea that it's many, in which case the district should probably provide some additional training, modified policies, etc. If there are existing policies at the root, these should be addressed as well.


Anonymous said...

Charlie-you put into words something that's been troubling me all day about Lynn's line of questions. You explain exactly the problem, especially regarding discipline.

Mary Griffin's post about the over-identification of soft disabilities in non-white kids is excellent also.

Here's an example for Lynn and others: My (now adult) kid was in honors classes with only a handful of non-white kids at her school. She went through a rough period and missed an important paper. Her teacher called home to ask what was wrong and could she help. One of the non-white students turned in the paper on time but didn't do well with it. The teacher talked to her after class and suggested that maybe she was in the "wrong class". She honestly thought she was helping. Like Charlie said-it's "What's wrong FOR them" vs "What's wrong WITH them?"

RR (yet again)

Maureen said...

I have been thinking along the same lines as Arch Stanton and WSDAWG. As far as "Why can't people be themselves?" I guess it depends on what part of themselves you mean. I would have been a very annoying Hermione Granger type in school if I hadn't figured out a some point that it's more correct (in terms of school culture) to let someone else answer a question every once in a while. I have met kids who absolutely can't bring themselves to call me by my first name (their moms would be horrified), obviously, I think that is just fine and would never consider insisting they do.

I think the numbers on disproportionality Mary Griffin provided are very eye opening. The question they bring to my mind is Is it the definition of misbehavior that is wrong, or is it the teachers/administrators application of the rule? I would say the former would be an example of institutional racism while the latter would be just plain racism.

Anonymous said...

Charlie and RR,

Nope - I really don't have a destination in mind. I see people refer to SPS as a racist institution and I wonder what exactly they mean by that. Concrete examples are more helpful for me - that's why I've asked for them.
I am the middle-aged white educated woman with pretty limited exposure to these issues - though not a teacher. I've found some related reading material and hope to cover that and learn somthing over the weekend.

I really do appreciate your patience with my questions.


seattle citizen said...

HIMSmom asks, " When it's individual teachers, is that institutional racism?"

My take on this would be that IF the teacher was following policy or curriculum or common expectations of the school or district, explicitly or by a sort of implicit understanding of the institution's culture or ethos, then that is institutional. If the teacher is acting independently, acting on personal biases, then that is "just" bigotry.

EXCEPT: One definition of racism, as opposed to "mere" prejudice that I have heard is that racism requires some power differentiation: Someone with power who acts against someone with less power, acting in a way based on race (or culture, etc), then THAT is racism. Personal prejudice is just that, personal. But since all teachers (and other educators in the building) are in a position of power, ALL their actions, if prejudiced, are institutional because they have the power of the school behind them: Because they can give grades, punish, etc, everything they do comes from a power relationship so everything they do can be institutional racism through that lens.

There is a difference between personal prejudice and bigotry and institutional, but since all educators have the power of the institution behind them, their personal biases become an institutional problem.

seattle citizen said...

Lynn writes, " I see people refer to SPS as a racist institution..."

I've always been of the opinion that no person, or institution, is "racist": Only sometimes do they do racist things. The only time, maybe, an institution can be called "racist" generally is when its sole purpose is to set up or continue racist structures. I don't think SPS is racist. I KNOW it acts in a racist fashion sometimes, usually unknowingly. Just as I am sometimes prejudiced but I am not a prejudiced person.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Seattle Citizen,

I misspoke there. The actual comment that gave rise to my original question was "But there is real racism in this city, and institutional racism in the educational system." That's more in line with your understanding that the district is an institution that sometimes does racist things.


Anonymous said...

If the transition into school (and the microcosm of the larger society that schools happen to be) were as seamless as some have suggested, then the outcomes of these students would be far better.

I think the school and classroom rules emphasis on this thread is a rather superficial and unhelpful approach to this topic. I have taught students from all over the world (and different sub-groups within the US) for many years. The main condition of the teacher is to give and instill respect, and be always mindful of one's own ignorance. I have always been "strict" (in terms of not wasting the short day we have together plus making sure there is kindness), but know that students from most cultures do better when they are able to help each other learn in class, rather than compete. I also cannot over-emphasize the role of vocabulary in learning and thinking. In many ways, it is the academic root of disproportionality.

I think we can all look at these demographic statistics in advanced learning and agree there is a problem. Rate of learning is actually a very valid measure of likely progress. What the student knows when they walk into the classroom is not as valuable a tool for measuring capability, in my experience, as the rate of learning once they are introduced to new concepts.

Too bad that the APP demographics totally mirror the power structure of the larger society, but, then again, schools are always microcosms. As a teacher, it has been my striving to try to make make the playing field more fair. Mary Griffin and mirmac have pointed out that we are living with many recent historical manifestations. We do not live in a vacuum, and neither do our children.

--enough already

Anonymous said...

I would argue if it's an individual act by a teacher, but tolerated by parents and other school staff, then it becomes institutional racism. At our old school, we had a black principal assigned to a predominantly white school without school input. To her face, people appeared friendly, but the conversations among parents on the playground and in hallways revolved around her being a "poor fit." The descriptions of her included details of her "loud" outfits, driving one of those big a** town cars, using "earthy" language, etc. There were internal politics at the school, but with this new principal, things just went into a tailspin. The worse thing was the attempt to petition the district for her removal and to hear the explanations for it by the parents seeking our signatures were skin crawling offensive, cushioned by lots of code words. This got pointed out by some of us who weren't comfortable and refused to sign and boy were we given the stink eye, even now. Ugh! The troubling thing is school staff were aware of this since at our school there were lots of personal friendship between staff, their families and the rest of the school community. Perhaps it was just a method employed to get rid of a person by using the worse stereotypes, but in my mind it was more than that and indefensible! The thing is white principals with poor administrative skills weren't subjected to the same personal nastiness and contempt.

it's here

Melissa Westbrook said...

"White families are not giving their sons The Talk and begging them not to appear threatening."

Charlie, you don't have boys. I did have The Talk with my sons (albeit not the same probably as parents of color).

But people are generally worried around big, loud, acting-out teenaged boys. I've seen it.

My talk involves mostly how to act with police officers. I often get asked, "Why would you do that? Do suspect your children would get into trouble?"

The reason is two-fold. One, things happen. Yes, you can have a great kid who is out with some friends who get a dumb idea (or are nearby a group of kids with a dumb idea) and suddenly, there's the police. It's a good idea to know what to say (and not say) to police officers. And, in particular, don't run (cops hate people who run).

Two, one son has a disability that would not present well to police. He needs to know what to do.

I'm with Arch - there are some norms that, if you live in any given country, for a longer period of time and access government run services, you will have to deal with. And so will your kids.

I got asked - by one mayoral candidate - about the World School and the need for it. I explained how many immigrant students we have, the variation and that some may not have been in school before or not a westernized school. Those are the students who probably need the most care and guidance.

But many students do learn from other students what the norms are. What is great is that students learn about each OTHER as well.

I do believe there is such a thing as institutional racism. I don't believe that having social norms in a classroom is necessarily, in itself, one of them. It could be (depending on how it presents itself) or it could just be the reality of life in the US.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
But in some of these schools and programs with little diversity, what are the chance of kids learning from each other? How do they develop cultural competency there, especially if there's little exposure of it at home?

7/18/13, 5:36 PM

reprinted by enough already, so it doesn't get erased without a moniker

Anonymous said...

For many people, the role of education is no longer for the greater good, but for actualizing what is best for their own child.

That is the essence of the on-going debate on this blog, in terms of APP/Spectrum, student assignment and many other issues.

The answer to your question is that students probably won't learn dominant culture competency like they would in a school with more diversity.

--enough already

Alanis M said...

It is a bit ironic that the people who are most impacted by institutional racism are unlikely to participate in this conversation.

Anonymous said...

Are you sure about that? Sounds like you are doing a bit of profiling here Alanis M.

Anonymous said...

I think the school and classroom rules emphasis on this thread is a rather superficial and unhelpful approach to this topic.

Right on, enough-already. The whole idea of "institutional racism" puts the responsibility of racism on somebody else. Therefore the conversation is vapid. And sort of slap on the back, feel good catharsism. It blames a nebulous "SPS" (the unnamed institution)for something that should be the responsibility of individuals. The Charlie's of the world believe in segregation as a core value. This is the racist belief, separate but equal. This undermines equity at every point. Some people should get advanced learning, if they've proved they deserve it. And, they must prove they need it by being non-black, and non-impoverished. Look at demographics and you see it. APP@Lincoln has 1 black student. 1!!! And, 3 FRL. A huge school. And all we can do is wonder about that? First he says he needs "separate but equal" for his child because his kid absolutely must be taught "at the frontiers of their knowledge". (None of the "frontier" pushing should be instigated by the child, even though that is the valuable skill for adults. As adults, we aren't spoon fed information at a "frontier". We don't sit around waiting for the next spoonful to expand our "frontier". Neither are kids. And, it doesn't sound very gifted either.) In the very next thread, he says "no, no, the only real important thing is the segregation. It's the cohort - non-black, non-poor, and off course - test taking smart." Instead of examining values and attitudes, we point to test scores as evidence of our non-racism. IQ scores. But all the measures are known to track income and race. Yet we are happy to use them as evidence that our kids need segregation: status quo maintainance, racism. In that case, we shouldn't be surprised when things don't change.

-Move On

Anonymous said...

NPR had an interesting piece on this morning about fighting racial bias and what works and what doesn't:


Quote: Scientists agree there's little doubt that hate-filled racism is real, but a growing body of social science research suggests that racial disparities and other biased outcomes in the criminal justice system, in medicine and in professional settings can be explained by unconscious attitudes and stereotypes.

Subtle biases are linked to police cadets being more likely to shoot unarmed black men than they are unarmed white men. (Some academics have also linked the research into unconscious bias to the Trayvon Martin case.)


Melissa Westbrook said...

And Move On brings it back to APP which is NOT the topic here. Again, unbelievable.

"The Charlie's of the world believe in segregation as a core value."

You have nothing to really base this on except his support of APP and Spectrum. I'm sure you are going to now advocate against any kind of sorting for music, athletics and any other kind of sorting.

Anonymous said...

You have nothing to really base this on except his support of APP and Spectrum.

Right. Oh so shocking and unbelievable. And the hundreds of posts supporting segregation. It dwarfs any other type of posting. Are there no other issues? If so, they are certainly not so interesting to anybody. Segregation is indeed a core value, as demonstrated by the sheer volume of postings supporting it. Why do YOU think it is so unbelievable? To my mind, that's what's shocking. Total lack of accountability, yet some sort of feigned interest. Isn't that what "institutional" racism is all about? It's so easy to say: "It's not me, it's the institutin." That's the dang topic we're on here.

Move On

Anonymous said...

Isn't the real problem that the school system doesn't challenge many students in a way that they achieve and actualize their potential? We supplemented heavily at home (lousy SPS math...), and lo and behold, math achievement rose. Reading was learned primarily at home. The idea that SPS is offering a banquet is somewhat laughable.

I'd like to see the district focus on delivering coherent, sequential, quality curriculum as a means of increasing student achievement. Fix the math, improve reading instruction, and give science and social studies a standing equal to math and reading.

All this harping on AL seems so misplaced. It's the general education system that needs shoring up. If families were happy with what was offered in their neighborhood school and they felt their children were appropriately challenged, would there be such a disdain or demand for separate AL programs?

wake up

Charlie Mas said...

Self-contained classroom do, in fact, represent segregation.

It is segregation based on academic needs (whether SpEd, Spectrum, or APP), which is a legitimate rationale for segregation and one that is well-supported by research.

We also segregate our classrooms by age. We don't mix students of different ages in our classrooms. That's another segregation that we accept because it delivers academic benefits.

Segregation, by itself, is not evil.

Segregation by race, faith, income, gender, or any other basis that does not serve a legitimate academic purpose, however, is wrong and is properly opposed.

Don't get hung up on the word "segregation". Pay attention instead to how and why students are segregated. Some segregation is good, some is bad. I guess the trick is to learn to discriminate between them.

mirmac1 said...

"It is segregation based on academic needs (whether SpEd, Spectrum, or APP), which is a legitimate rationale for segregation and one that is well-supported by research."

Sorry Charlie. The law does not say segregate special education students based on academic need. It says provide specially-designed instruction and appropriates in the least restrictive environment. Poor rationale.

TechyMom said...

The age separation really bugs me. I think we'd do a lot better with classrooms that had mixed age and consistent ability or level, rather than consistent age and mixed ability and level.

Charlie Mas said...

Growing up in L.A., part of my driver's training class at school was a section on "How to survive getting pulled over by the police." It wasn't exactly the Talk, but it was good advice.

I was instructed to stay in the car, keep my hands on the wheel from the time I hear the sirens until the officer leaves, to answer questions calmly, concisely and politely, and to say nothing more than absolutely necessary. And that's what I do. Even now, when asked by the police for my registration and proof of insurance I say "They are in the glove box. I am reaching for them now." before reaching over to the glove box. I say "My license is in my pocket. I'm reaching for it now." before reaching into my pocket for my wallet. I'm aware of their concerns and I am scrupulously careful not to make them feel threatened at any time.

It may seem over the top, but I have never had a police officer complain about it.

That's a very narrow context. I was specifically instructed to demonstrate my non-threat status only to the police. I have since learned to do it in some other contexts.

Melissa Westbrook said...

"It dwarfs any other type of posting."

Nope. The comments do (and I always say - want to start a fight here? Mention AL.) But posts? No. (I'll wait while you go check.)

Anonymous said...

Research supports self-contained only when it is the least restrictive environment for the student.

There is no research supporting the Spectrum program in Seattle. On the contrary, Spectrum is operating against best practices. The research does support grouping and other strategies within the general education environment for advanced students.

There is no research supporting the the design and function of APP in Seattle. There is research to support the need for properly identified GIFTED children to receive a continuum of services, based on their needs (like a student on an IEP).

The segregated programs in Seattle have NO research basis. The discussions underway in the district seem to be moving toward what research does support.

Notice the linguistic shift on this thread in the past six months. APP used to be used as a synonym for gifted. At least people are now aware that that is the case in a much smaller percentage of students in that program. Most of the other students are best described as being well-prepared for the demands of schools.

--enough already

mirmac1 said...

That's "appropriate supports in the least restrictive environment" Oops.

mirmac1 said...

Well said, enough already.

Unknown said...

On gifted children receiving an appropriate level of educational support, I would like to add that there may be research supporting this, but there is no law that supports this.there is law about special education services being supplied to students who qualify for special education. but as previous posters have pointed out there is no law that requires segregation by academic ability or for any other reason.children who are placed in self contained classrooms are placed there as a result of the decision made by their IEP team. There is good law to support the placement of children to receive special education services in inclusive environments regardless of their intellectual ability,as long as that child receive some educational benefit.

Anonymous said...

I like your last post Enough Already. But like anything, reality hits in the classroom and without the AL designation, my child wouldn't get the harder stuff. We've been told by 2 teachers to NOT drill our child. We weren't, but they made the assumption we did. We did use a math book to supplement EDM, but so were other families and they didn't get called out for it.

Which brings me to the minority experience in a predominantly white school. We are not of the right minority if you were to profile. That compounded the whole who gets to walk to what math class. Never mind the MAP and MSP scores. MAP scores for our kid was a fluke and inaccurate because one teacher just wasn't seeing it in class even though the spell list, writing, and reading were up there with the best of them. I suspect if our child was in different school with different demographics, this whole experience would be different.

Our child won't be in SPS regardless of APP status. People sure like their stereotypes on both sides. The AL war just compunds it because our kid was suddenly a useful token in the whole AL segregation debate. We don't want to deal with some of those parents in APP or the local neighborhood school anymore.

We look beyond and found a school that will meet our child's learning needs and our child will not stand out. Best of all, our child won't have TO PROVE it all the fricking time!


Melissa Westbrook said...

Enough, I can only say there are hundreds of self-contained gifted programs throughout the US. You can find research supporting both. (If you have some new info, I'd appreciate a link.)

BUT, I note that you didn't back up your claim that the majority of threads are about AL. Hmm.

Lastly, this post is about institutional racism, not AL. All comments from here on out need to address that topic, not gifted education. Any that do speak of AL will be deleted.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Sorry, my last post overlapped with yours, Melissa. I'm all for deleting the AL discussion, which is off-topic.

It's just so hard to bite your tongue (or hold your fingers?) sometimes when there are people who clearly don't seem to want to understand the needs of gifted children... Apologies for jumping in!


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HIMS Parent of 8th grader said...

What I think of as institutional racism in the educational system is the lack of support given to families from lower income levels. One of the biggest predictors of educational success is income and the level of parent education. Like Charlie’s first analogy - we know some kids come to school with a ladder and others don’t. So it is our lack of providing a ladder to everyone that is the problem. Obviously, this goes beyond Seattle Public Schools. It would be easier to just blame SPS.

We do not fund small class size. If we did, would we be having these discussions about classroom behavior? We do not provide intensive intervention in the early grades to bring kids up to the level of their better prepared classmates. We separate out those that came prepared and have the family support they need to succeed. Success can build on itself. But what do we do for the kids that are left behind? What do we do about the widening gap between the haves and have nots that takes place every summer? What kind of ongoing academic support do we provide for kids that are not getting this at home?

Anonymous said...

If you can't change what goes on in SPS or in your own school, how are you going to change society? Took a quick peek at articles relating to Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis who aren't poor kids, just dead black middle class ones, and the commentators are celebrating the shootings with glee. Education may lessen the odd, but not foolproof. It's scary and really, really depressing right now.


Anonymous said...

PO, I have to say, your experience is not the only one like that. Even in a diverse classroom, our child's score was assumed to have been a fluke on the reading test (DRA?)and held back from achieving. We didn't catch on right away that ANY black child was not being offered the same opportunities to move ahead/walk to that the white kids and "model minorities' were being given. We made administration aware of things but we didn't stick around to find out what happened. We left SPS too.


Jon said...

I have read every comment here, and I am going to go back to what I first said, it is odd to have a conversation about institutional racism in Seattle Public Schools without addressing the fact that so many people, mostly somewhat wealthy and often white, opt out of Seattle Public Schools (either by going private or moving out of Seattle). Already, Seattle has an unusually low participation rate in public schools, and any solution that does not address racism by including as many children as possible is going to create more of a problem with segregation not less.

I think the focus entirely should be on increasing test scores, especially the dismal 10th grade math test scores of below 50% passing standards, which would help all the children in our public schools, disproportionately many of which are from families struggling with poverty. But, even after reading everything that has been said so far, I cannot understand how anyone thinks even more time talking about racism solely in Seattle Public Schools will do anything for racial issues in greater Seattle given how many people are not even in Seattle's public schools (and how people who have the most issues with racial and economic diversity are probably the first to leave).

Anonymous said...

LR and PO, we have also experienced building-level discrimination against our brown-skinned son. He doesn't walk to math and hasn't been referred for AL testing despite MAP scores and private IQ testing that show he is clearly qualified. When I had The Talk with my son, who is only seven, I used the example of the instructional assistant who hassled him on a daily basis because he "looked like trouble." It pained me to tell him to keep his head down and be respectful, no matter what. I'm not sure which private school accommodates our bright, curious, African American boys but the fact that this isn't occurring in Seattle Public Schools (personal anecdotes aside--AL, SPED and disciplinary demographic data)is clearly institutional racism.

Anonymous said...

Truthie - just in case you don't know this already - you can refer him for testing yourself. If the results of the private testing qualify him for the program you're interested in, I would just turn them in with the request for testing.