Educating white people is not a black student's job

Opinion

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Sharhonda Dawson

'I choose to live in Oak Park so my children can see people of color." I hear this statement from white folks so often, I don't have any one person to attribute the quote to. It is said so often, that most white folks don't think about the racism in that statement. 

We need intentionally diverse communities and schools because black students deserve access to a high-quality education — not for the social benefit of white students. 

Progressive white folks, I know lots of you. And I know you think diversity in schools and community is important. But you all are pushing a sales job on other white parents that has harmful consequences for people of color. 

This problem is especially present in schools. As Oak Park schools try to address their issues with racism, both implicit and explicit, the justification used for white people is that it benefits their children too. 

Here's why that is racist: America has legally and systematically deprived black children access to quality schools. The legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining real-estate policies, and white flight has created an education crisis for black children, and they are owed an opportunity to achieve.

But instead of clearly saying we need racially diverse schools, programs, and opportunities because we have unjustly and systemically excluded black students from top-tier education, many of you point to the benefits of diversity for all students. You assure fragile white parents that their precious babies will not suffer academically or otherwise from proximity to children of color. This is unacceptable. 

The benefits of diversity do exist. But centering whiteness in order to ensure diverse schools certainly won't make racism disappear.

Just as black students won't magically become "smarter" by sitting next to white students, neither will white students magically become "non-racist" by sitting next to black ones. As Jennifer Eberhardt wrote in Biased, "It takes more than interpersonal connection to break the bonds of institutional bias and promote the sort of equality that allows us all to thrive."

Racism isn't eliminated by osmosis or a magical spell — our children are not wizards and our schools are not Hogwarts. Even at Hogwarts, they know that simply having muggles at the school isn't enough to stop wizard supremacy. And neither is having black and brown students at our schools enough to stop white supremacy.

Radical change needs to happen.

The worst part of this false advertising around diversity is that it places an unfair burden on black and brown children — the unrealistic expectation that they will educate white folks. That burden is compounded because black and brown students also experience racism perpetrated by the same children they are supposed to be educating.

Ruby Bridges was just the tip of the iceberg. There is now an entire generation of black student pioneers. In fact, I have talked with many black people who were one or one of a handful of black people in their schools. It was not a pleasant experience. It makes it harder to learn when you are in that situation. When you're battling stereotypes and being attacked with macro- and micro-aggressions all the time, it's difficult to succeed. That's a significant burden alone.

Black students don't want to be placed in predominantly white environments so they can teach and/or influence white folks about racism. Black students want to be in predominantly white spaces because they have more resources. Sure, black students want to make friends that they can talk to, but about normal stuff like the struggles of school, study groups, which teachers are the best — not to serve as a teacher about race. 

It is cruel to demand that the price of black and brown children's presence in Oak Park be that they address the lack of racial awareness on the part of most white children. 

So here are the new race rules for diversity in schools starting this school year: 

• It is not black students' responsibility to enlighten white students about different cultures or to demonstrate that "races are equal." 

• It is not the job of black teachers to teach white teachers about racism, unless you are paying them specifically to teach white teachers about racism.

• It is not the job of black administrators to teach white co-workers and/or bosses about racism, unless they are hired specifically to teach about racism. 

It is not the role or responsibility of black folks to unteach racism. If you want to learn how not to be racist, take a class or read a book (Biased is fantastic)! There are literally thousands of ways you can learn about racism on your own.  

Diversity and access to quality spaces should happen because all Americans should have access to quality spaces, not because white folks will benefit and not because being around black people will make white people less racist. 

It's not a barter. 

ShaRhonda Knott Dawson is a west suburban resident who is involved in multiple service organizations and projects in, and around, Oak Park. Her writing can be found on her blog, sharhondatribune.com.

Reader Comments

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Christine Vernon  

Posted: September 23rd, 2019 2:52 PM

Correction for below. "We see that often, best when it stimulates thought and discussion but does NOT condemn. Thank you Jason Cohen for your thoughtful and objective account of your experience being in Oak Park. And Tom McMillan, maybe it is because I am one of nine children who grew up in Oak Park, but you remind me of the situation so many people find themselves in raising families and working hard to put a roof over their kids heads and keep food on the table. People aren't all thinking about how they can make other people's lives harder, so many of them are just working on making their own situations manageable...and they have time for little else. That was the part of Oak Park I grew up in, southeastern Oak Park. Making ends meet for those families can't be so easy even these days with smaller families for the very reason you cite, paying their annual taxes in the hope that their kids will get a good education, the streets will be paved and the services people need will get delivered - police, fire, health care. We are truly blessed. And while we can't solve all of the world's ills. We can try to continue to see that justice prevails starting in our own community and when possible going out like the spokes on a wheel.

Christine Vernon  

Posted: September 23rd, 2019 2:38 PM

Did someone actually say that it is a black student's job to educate whites? In a lifetime of living in OP, I have never heard anything like that said by anyone. The demographic of those who have worked for fair housing and diversity and other freedoms we enjoy in Oak Park are always interested in facing real issues, and the broader problem of the revival of racism, antisemitism, and discrimination of every description in this country today. They push us all to do better. An essay that condemns such a large segment of the people here for 'living while white' is not a balanced picture. We may not be perfectly informed by your standards but there is history of a white grassroots citizens group standing up to institutional racism from the late 1960s, against red-lining. Comments about your essay - an "us and them" dialogue; a "derisive remark"; "racist views"; "she views everything through a lens of racism"'; she "discounts the work of others..." show a pretty consistent reaction of estrangement not dialogue. Is the point to have dialogue or just to vent? There is more than one iceberg in the article you mention. There is an anger iceberg floating though the whole essay, free-floating anger. Many of us have experienced that. One might touch a nerve in an essay. We see that often, best when it stimulates thought and discussion but does condemn. The Wednesday Journal provides opportunities for people to express themselves both in essays and in the comment pages. unheard of in small town journalism these days but it serves a community well. Where else can you do that in print in the Chicago area?! Situations of segregation in other suburbs in the Chicago area, where no effort for fair housing opportunities and other strides for equal rights - homes for young mothers; people working on affordable housing; or a place like Sojourner House; and equity statements. It would be harder to lobby for justice in those communities because there is no opportunity for a platform.

John Duffy  

Posted: September 23rd, 2019 11:13 AM

For at least seven years, a multi-racial leadership of administrators and teachers have taken up the work of changing the way those employed at OPFHS see, understand and teach children and families of color. That work continues. Today, it moves forward with the commitment of our racially diverse school boards to confront key structural inequities in school culture, hiring and opportunity to learn. And, finally it appears the Village of Oak Park may also be ready to advance racial equity policy and procedures. I invite other white people to become dedicated allies if this work is to make a difference

John Duffy  

Posted: September 23rd, 2019 11:11 AM

Thank you Ms. Dawson for your instructive observations on race in Oak Park. You remind me as a white anti-racist of my duty to continue confront white power and privilege, that of my own, my family, my white neighbors and others, even when that is personally challenging to do. We must stop expecting people of color to carry this burden. I believe more white members of our community have come to Oak Park's vision racial diversity is far from won and done. Whites must challenge each other to see the reality of how dominant white interests and institutions by both design and default have inequitably constructed schools, housing, policing and the rest of life in America in ways that are painfully unjust. Sadly, the prevailing approach to confronting racism in our communities (Oak Park, River Forest, and beyond) has been how much is the dominant power structure willing to risk in responding to the need for change while not becoming uncomfortable or feeling as though they are risking in anyway accumulated property in real estate and schools. I agree with your central assertion (at least based on my understanding) that the burden and path to racial justice requires Whites to stop expecting people of color alone to bear the burdens of making racial diversity work. More whites must be willing to openly confront long standing racial injustices in our schools and neighborhoods. We can step forward and directly engage other whites to change long standing racial inequities in hiring processes, the reality and impact of personal bias, the persistence of racialized, inequitable opportunities to learn and the racial disparities in school discipline and culture. The racial equity policies and procedures being implemented this year in D 97 and D 200 offer a chance for a fresh approach that is clear about responsibility for achieving equity in our schools. For at least seven years, a multi-racial leadership of administrators and teachers have taken up the work of changin

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: September 22nd, 2019 6:48 PM

Very well said Jason. I agree, a dialogue could be extremely robust and interesting, but Ms. Dawson is only interested in a monologue. Ultimately, what Ms. Dawson seeks is power and as you can see from some of the comments, she has quite a few white folks eating out of the palm of her hand.

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: September 22nd, 2019 4:19 PM

@Steve Bankes. Ms. Dawson knows exactly what she's doing: Playing to the many whites here who enjoy being flagellated. It's as if they're saying, Thank you Ma'am may I please have another?" Many were deprived of a deprived childhood. Oak Park is their version of New Harmony, Indiana. Read up on that failed effort.

Steve Bankes from Oak Park  

Posted: September 22nd, 2019 2:57 PM

In a time when we need unity, Ms. Dawson moves us farther apart. Please resist this type of hateful speech, always be kind to your neighbor and work toward an equitable, peaceful society. I know Ms. Dawson doesn't live in Oak Park and I'm not sure the last time she visited. But she sure seems to know how we all think and feel. And I look forward to her next piece where I will learn more about how I think and feel.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: September 22nd, 2019 1:13 PM

The real shame with these opinion pieces is that there could be interesting dialog but she always posts as if every single white person is the same. I remember the one about all white women in OP are scared of AA boys and therefore call the cops on them all the time even though there was literally no data to prove this. My initial reaction is to be irritated by this piece but instead I will simply share my actual experience as a white parent in OP. I was born and raised in NYC and that experience really impacted me as a person. I was always around people from all over the world. Different religions, races, and sexual preferences. My view of the world and other people was very positively impacted by this. When it was time for me to have kids I wanted them to have similar experiences not because I expected anything from anyone but because life experiences matter and being around a diverse group of people adds to these life experiences. My kids are friends with a wide group of people and do learn from them but it's not because they are asked to share anything. It's simply being around them and seeing what they are about and who they are. As I said at the beginning the shame about these posts is that they do touch on things that are real but do it in such a combative way that kills the dialog. It's clear from the comments that some feel this article is very valid. I just wish the focus of these opinion pieces were about sharing experiences instead of assuming things of an entire group of people that is simply untrue.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: September 22nd, 2019 9:19 AM

@Ramona Lopez That was spot on. After reading your excellent reply, all I could add is that, not only does Ms Dawson not know how all caucasians think, she doesn't even know how many African Americans think.

Kevin Peppard  

Posted: September 21st, 2019 7:20 PM

@Ramona Lopez. You've zeroed in on Ms. Dawson's mindset.: Nothing but ideological purity will do. We're all sinners and need to have get our minds right, just like an engine is rebuilt. Tear it apart, clean it with powerful solvents,, re-bore the cylinders to a precise new size, install over-sized piston rings, and add new gaskets and bearings. Then reassemble. It won't be the same engine it once was. Ask the GIs who had their minds rebuilt as POWs during the Korean War. Twenty-three on them, when voluntary repatriation was allowed at the 1953 truce, chose to go to Red China. They were hollow shells of what they had once been. But their minds were at last right. Such demands for ideological purity of thought eventually lead to a collapse of the group that champions them. Think the French Revolution, The Thousand Year Reich, Soviet Bolshevism, and our own Anglo-American Puritans. God save us from Dawsonism.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: September 21st, 2019 7:12 PM

What's truly sad about Ms. Dawson is she views everything through a lens of racism. When doing so she does nothing more than discount the work of others who are combating true racism.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: September 21st, 2019 6:49 PM

LOL so if I move to a town because I want my children to experience a variety of cultures, I'm a racist. Got it. This is just one of the white bashing racist articles we get fed here every quarter by Ms. Dawson. So all you white Oak Parkers know, you are all racists no matter what you do. It's in your DNA. Ms. Dawson prescribes to a quasi cultish movement that equates being white with original sin. You can never escape it and you must pay dearly. Sorry, but no reasonable, prudent or judicious person actually believes that one individual represents an entire race of people, nor is it the responsibility of that one individual to "educate" everyone about his/her culture. For being a black woman, Ms. Dawson sure seems to think she knows precisely how white people think. Based on her writings here and on her website, she is clearly a very fragile woman. This is what you get when people like Ms. Dawson define everyone by the color of their skin and not the content of their character.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: September 21st, 2019 2:41 PM

I hear people say they move to Oak Park because of the location. So close to both airports, work downtown or in the western suburbs. Great access to public transportation. Everyone is welcome. Nice, historical architecture. It's not anyones job to do anything but live here, and work really hard to pay the incredibly high property taxes.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: September 21st, 2019 12:59 PM

Yeah, well, thanks Junior. I knew you couldn't resist your windbaggery compulsion to always have the last word.

Marianne Zapotocny  

Posted: September 21st, 2019 12:54 PM

If a publication gives opinion- column space continuously to anyone who espouses racist views, it speaks to journalistic standards of the publication. Thanks for the constructive feedback.

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: September 21st, 2019 12:27 PM

Actually, you can tell it's not a news story but rather an opinion piece by the word "Opinion" in bold black type immediately below the headline.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: September 21st, 2019 11:56 AM

Well Mr. Anderson, these days one can barely tell the difference.

Kevin Anderson  

Posted: September 21st, 2019 8:08 AM

It's an opinion piece, not journalistic reporting.

Marianne Zapotocny  

Posted: September 20th, 2019 9:57 PM

Precious white babies, fragile parents? What kind of journalism is this??

William Dwyer Jr.  

Posted: September 20th, 2019 4:53 PM

"You assure fragile white parents that their precious babies will not suffer academically or otherwise from proximity to children of color. This is unacceptable." Wow. Hope that makes you feel better, Ms Dawson. Because I doubt you persuaded many people with that sort of derisive remark.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: September 20th, 2019 3:04 PM

Dave's still not here, man...oops, wrong article... got lost there for a second...

Lynette Hish from Oak Park  

Posted: September 20th, 2019 12:12 PM

Yep. Yep. Yep. As usual, ShaRhonda Knott Dawson, saying what desperately needs to be said.

Elizabeth Titus Rexford  

Posted: September 19th, 2019 3:47 PM

This is so well written and it's something that everyone needs to hear and understand I am white and I am really tired of hearing from white people that that aren't racially biased. One person said, "I'm color blind". No, you're not!! Everyone sees color! ShaRrhonda Dawson is telling us we need to develop a much more critical view of how we think, speak and act in regard to racism. Thank you, Ms. Dawson. Your contribution to the discussion is awesome and necessary!

Terence Jones  

Posted: September 18th, 2019 2:41 PM

It seems to me that educating all of our children is the responsibility of everyone in the community. My first reaction to reading this piece was "What does this say?" Then, I read it again and it comes across to me as an "Us and Them" dialog. Sorry, but I don't buy this perspective.

Donna Peel  

Posted: September 18th, 2019 8:26 AM

Eye opening, will be reading to my kids, and thank you for taking the time to educate. I do understand it's exhausting.

Krissy Bee from Oak Park  

Posted: September 18th, 2019 8:07 AM

This is very well said. Thank you for continuing to write and to educate. My understanding grows every time I read what you write.

Aisha Coleman  

Posted: September 18th, 2019 7:18 AM

Thank you for putting my thoughts into words.

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