Imagine that you are driving to work one morning. When you stop at a red light, you see three students of color waiting for the bus. They are dressed in their school’s uniform. Each uniform shirt is distinct to its school, yet they all have one similarity: “positive” messages.
Do you feel inspired by these messages? What do you believe these statements mean to students of color? What do the words say about what staff believes about students?
Sometimes words that are meant to empower students are built upon assumptions that actually disempower them.
Racial microaggressions are daily verbal, behavioral or environmental messages that communicate harmful slights and insults about people of color. Whether intentional or unintentional, racial microaggressions shame racial/ethnic minorities and are ingrained in systems that perpetuate racism. Without consciousness, schools can be promoting microaggressions.
Sometimes someone who is trying to be nice may offend a person of color without this intention. Statements carry more weight than some may realize. For example, a white teacher compliments a black student who has gotten her hair straightened for school pictures. The teacher states, “I like your hair this way.” The student appears uncomfortable and doesn’t enjoy the compliment because it feels like an insult. Though the teacher had a positive intention, she has micro-aggressed the student. In this case, the student may feel that what the teacher is not saying is that the natural state of the student’s hair, before it’s pressed, isn’t good enough.
You can only ensure that racial microaggressions aren’t promoted in schools if you are talking about race and ethnicity with school teams. Staff should know how their actions or failures to act impact students of color. It is the school administrator’s responsibility to ensure that the values instilled in students through staff and school initiatives celebrate students’ identity, validate their lived experience and support their esteem.
Racial microaggressions break down into three categories: microinsults, microassaults and microinvalidations.
Thinking about the microaggressions that live in schools may be tough for some school staff to swallow. That is good. Where there is discomfort, there is an opportunity for growth. If you are a school leader, take these feelings of rage, sadness and confusion and use them to make your school better. Reflect on how your school works to inspire and lead students of color. And, think about what ways you may need to change.
Assumptions are made about students of color based on their race. Schools should operate with awareness of racial inequities and work to dismantle systems that impact student growth. But, before schools attempt to talk to students about systemic racism and oppressive systems, they must first address racist thoughts and practices that exist within the staff and that live in school practices. Then, school leaders must clarify how the vision, mission, values and priorities of the school should change in order to support students in a culturally appropriate way.
Overcoming Racism helps schools to reflect on their school systems and determine if the messages that they send to students through curriculum, values, initiatives and language empower or disempower. In collaboration with Overcoming Racism, Kickboard is focused on supporting equity in schools. Given that the vast majority of our schools are comprised of predominantly students of color, the culture and climate work we do with schools inevitably intersects with issues of race and disproportionality in discipline.