In December of 2020, Fox News reported that parents of children at the upmarket Dalton School in New York were upset at the institution’s new anti-racism policies. The proposals were supported by teaching staff and came as a reaction to repeated complaints of racism by pupils. The preparatory school is an expensive place for children to learn, but is considered to be amongst New York’s educational elite. At the same time, The Dalton School maintains a progressive reputation, promoting independence and social responsibility as well as academic prowess amongst its pupils.
To combat discrimination, Dalton have encouraged the reporting of racist conduct, be it by students, staff or alumni. As part of their commitment, they promise to adapt and learn to become a ‘structurally anti-racist institution.’ It may not seem like an unreasonable set of proposals, but the uproar amongst some parents reveals how challenging it is for schools to deal with racism in a meaningful way. From discussions at home to teacher training and a curriculum which promotes inclusivity, it is clear that any anti-racist drive must be comprehensive.
Confronting unconscious bias in teaching staff
Former teacher Dr Bree Picower now works as a University Associate Professor in the Montclair State University College of Education and Human Development. Her work on social justice and school reform has frequently touched upon the need to educate the educators as a way of tackling deeply held racist views. In her book, Reading, Writing, and Racism (Picower 2021), she argues that institutionalized racism can no longer be ignored in teacher education.
With the proper training and support, educational professionals are more able to identify their own unconscious bias, then take steps to deal with it. Teachers who are still dealing with racial bias may treat students from certain backgrounds differently without realizing. In turn, this can influence the behavior of an entire class.
Promote diversity and call out racism
When professional development is geared towards understanding racism and equality, difficult subjects can be discussed from an anti-racist standpoint. Maintaining a neutral stance on high-profile cases such as the killing of George Floyd is not helpful in terms of anti-racism in a school. It’s far more impactful when teachers clearly condemn this and similar incidents.
For younger pupils, exploring diverse cultural experiences is a positive step. Using multi-lingual signs to reflect the various languages spoken in a school and giving praise to children who have multilingual abilities, promotes positive ideas about diversity. Schools can also keep books, put up visual displays and show off other resources which celebrate a racially diverse population.
Create and nurture an inclusive environment
Although New York is made up of a rich blend of ethnicities and cultures, the overwhelming majority of teachers are white. The lack of representation won’t be dealt with overnight, but in the long term, it will be beneficial for children to see people who look like them (or their BAME peers) in the teaching body and the administration team. Just as fundamental is the need to see their history and perspectives represented in the curriculum. Teaching black history throws light on prejudice and stereotyping, whilst simultaneously revealing more about the global contributions made by people of color. An inclusive curriculum anticipates the engagement of all students, allowing them to learn more about people from their own background who have excelled in science, art or leadership roles.
Provide a safe space for school staff
As the recent reaction to The Dalton School review shows, not everyone will feel comfortable with proactive anti-racism policies. It could take time to get these people onboard, but schools should provide a secure environment for them to explore their feelings. When educators themselves are uncomfortable speaking about racism, students will find it hard to report incidents and problems are more likely to become entrenched. Encourage connections by asking staff to share their experiences of racism with colleagues. Good leadership will recognize anti-racist student groups as well, giving them the time and means to organize their own strategies for change.
Parental engagement completes the picture
Some families may find it awkward to speak with their children about racism, but others have little choice. Opening the lines of communication will look different from family to family, but it’s important to make a start as, ultimately, schools will rely on parents to help children adopt an anti-racist stance.
At home, it helps to introduce young people to other cultures in simple, accessible ways, such as through food, books and films. Parents can also nurture friendships with children of different races and talk about current events involving race in an age-appropriate way.
Younger children especially follow their parents lead and early conversations around racism will be their introduction to the issue. By using these opportunities to challenge prejudice and talk about how harmful racism can be, parents in New York can help to nurture an inclusive culture in their children’s schools.