So Much Whitesplaining, So Little Time

17 May

Segregation Shifts I admit it. I sometimes click and share an article on Facebook I’ve only skimmed, or haven’t even read, simply because the title implies it’s something I’m interested in, or something I’d stand behind. Which is what I did last week when I shared a piece titled, Samantha Bee’s Husband Fights To Keep Poor, Black Kids Out Of His Children’s School. Rereading the title now, I hadn’t initially noticed how over-the-top it sounded. But I clicked on it that day because everyone—read: white liberal friends—seems to love Samantha Bee, the comedienne alumnus of The Daily Show, and currently host of her own news satire series, Full Frontal. I also wanted to read it because the sticky matter of white people maneuvering themselves to have their kids attend the good public school, is of great interest to me. Not that there is anything wrong with wanting the best for our children, but when we do it at the expense of children who don’t have the same luxury, or who don’t have the same opportunity to go to the good school, it’s wrong.

When I glanced at the article about Samantha’s husband, Jason Jones, also a former correspondent on The Daily Show, it told the story I’ve read in similar articles. The one about white parents in New York City, Brooklyn, or insert any city across the United States, who are able to afford to live in the neighborhood where the high-performing, pleasantly diverse-enough school is, and who vehemently fight any city’s plan to redraw school district lines, or move a school, or close a school, thereby making it a possibility that their kids would have to go to a different school in a neighborhood where the resources are fewer, the standardized test scores lower, and lo and behold, there happen to be more kids of color.

This scares the heck out of some white people. The thought that their child might not get into the best public school that is challenging enough for their gifted child, and who might have to go to that school in the sketchy neighborhood, known to be no good—I mean, have you heard about all the behavioral problems—terrifies them. They hold this fear even when they haven’t ever stepped foot inside the school. It’s as if they think that the kids, and the parents of those kids, who attend the schools with fewer resources, don’t want to be in the best and most challenging school too. All of these thoughts are what ran through my mind as I read the article.

I didn’t think that Jason Jones had it in the forefront of his mind that he didn’t want his kid to be in a school with a lot of Black kids. But I do think the coded language Jones and many other parents use, stands for what schools with majority Black and brown kids represent subconsciously for these parents: inferiority. Certainly, we’d all like it if our kids could go to their neighborhood school, and not have to move to a school in another neighborhood, but when Jones and others say it’s only about the right to attend their neighborhood school, or parents cry foul when they’ve bought a home in an area specifically to go to a certain school and find out their school has to move, it doesn’t sit well with me.

It seems that my sharing the article on Facebook didn’t sit well with some people that came across it, because out came the whitesplaining. Dictionary. Com defines whitesplaining as: “to explain or comment on something in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner, from the perspective of the group one identifies with, as in ladysplain; whitesplain: racism being whitesplained to a person of color.” While the following comments weren’t being made to a person of color, the comments did deflect the conversation away from race and racism.

I was okay when a former neighborhood friend from when I lived in New York City years ago, commented on my article share, pointing out I should consider its source, The Daily Wire, an ultra-right leaning on-line news site. I did reread the article and saw how exaggerated its tone was, and how hard it was trying to paint Jones and Bee as enemy white liberals. But I disagreed with her statement about this not being about race, but perhaps simply about a family wanting to stay with their neighborhood school. And even though I felt a bit taken by posting an article written by a right-biased source, it didn’t change my mind about what this was all about—white parents using their privilege to get and keep their kids in the “right” schools. Besides, a friend pointed out that a more balanced article on the very same story was written at Slate, and commented on on reddit.

Then more commenters, mostly New Yorkers, chimed in. And, suddenly it wasn’t the article that was the big deal to me. It was the tone of don’t paint me, or Samantha Bee and her husband, who we all love so much, as racist, or this as being anything about race.

“This is some seriously biased reporting.

A mere 16 blocks? This dude obviously doesn’t get NYC. That’s a big distance to cover if you’re a kid on a city bus or the subway. I’m guessing this fella drives everywhere.”

“NYC schools are surprisingly segregated, it’s glaringly obvious and weirdly not reflective of our daily life. But this is entirely due to socioeconomic factors, not parents trying to block minority children from attending their school (they don’t have that kind of power). I do know that NYC parents are mostly concerned with class size and avoiding disruptions …the overcrowding in our schools is indefensible. We are all terrified when the DOE starts to mess with our kid’s school, and usually fight to avoid it. (btw, 16 blocks in NY, is like sending your kid to a school one town over, in other parts of the country)”

Sixteen blocks. Sixteen short New York City blocks is less than a mile. It would be an understatement to say I had a hunch that it was Black and brown kids who had borne the burden of being inconvenienced by having to be bused into white schools for decades after Brown vs. Board of Education declared that segregation of our public schools was unconstitutional. I reached out to a friend who just got his Doctorate in K-12 Education Administration. His dissertation focused on urban education, and the history of educational policy in urban areas. I asked him about this, and he shared something I hadn’t even thought of. He mentioned that the Brown decision put out of work thousands of Black educators, teachers and administrators, as white students did not enter into the Black schools, and as a result, these Black educators and everyone associated with these schools lost their jobs, not to mention the long distances Black students had to travel to schools in white neighborhoods. A similar trend is recurring today, with current reshuffling of public education school districts, school choice, and the infiltration of charter schools. Maybe it’s time white kids and families are inconvenienced for the sake of making our schools more equitable for everyone.

I don’t share these comments, or elaborate on the trials of desegregation to shame other white people. I am not one of “the good ones.” But I am here to question other white people, as I question and critique my own perspective and behavior on a daily basis when it comes to the lens I and other white people look through when considering race, influenced by all we’ve been taught and not taught about the history of Black Americans, and not had to experience within the systems of structural racism we created.

I don’t get a pass on this. I am white. I live in a neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island that houses the high-performing public elementary and middle school my two daughters got to attend. They also tested into the good public high school. Centuries of legislated white supremacy, from slavery, to Jim Crow, to redlining, to school desegregation, has afforded me and people that look like me, the free pass to benefit from, what we’d like to think at times, as something we’ve just lucked into—the good house, in the good neighborhood, with the good school.

I am grateful for the opportunity that the article I shared and its comment section spurred me to give attention to the matter of equity in education for all of our children. It is in moments of reflection like this, I can’t help but recall James Baldwin’s 1963 essay, My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation, from The Fire Next Time. In it, Baldwin wrote:

“…the details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration….. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity. Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.” – excerpt from the book of essays, The Fire Next Time, My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation, James Baldwin, 1963

James Baldwin knew we weren’t ready to do this some fifty-four years ago, and it seems even as our illusion of equality is being chipped away at today, we still aren’t willing to do it. It’s time we don’t remain complicit in this. It’s time we look in the mirror, and allow our foundations to be shook, and to see what we don’t want to see, or name, and to act as if everyone’s liberation depends on it. Because it does.


For an excellent article that speaks to the difficult decisions we make regarding choosing our children’s school, read Nikole Hanna-Jones’ article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine, June, 2016, Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City.



photo credit: Southern Education Desk

Dr. James E. Wright

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