After a racist incident at my son’s predominantly white school, I was forced to think long and hard about the trade-offs many black parents and other parents of color have to make when it comes to their educational options. My dear friend calls it the “head versus heart” dilemma. That’s the frightening realization that while a certain school may be a better option academically, if it lacks racial diversity there is almost always a price black children will pay in terms of their sense of self and identity. As a parent, your head tells you putting them in a high-ranking public school or private school is a smart decision. But your heart — your heart aches at the thought of what your child may have to endure in these environments.
My history of heartbreaking experiences recently involved watching my son have to attend class with two white girls who had created a racist blackface video, complete with monkey sounds, while the school engaged in hand-wringing over how to address this blatantly racist act. Who was there to protect my son and his learning environment while the school sought to protect the offending girls? My heartache was accompanied by sleepless nights, during which I tossed and turned about my decision for him to attend the school. Had I made a mistake? Was this a setup for educational success but personal failure? Was I diminishing his humanity as a black boy by keeping him in this environment? Being a black male in America is hard enough.
One black friend, an educator himself, pulled his fifth-grade son out of his city’s most elite private school and put him in an all-black male academy. “I saw the collateral damage to his self-confidence and sense of agency. I had to say, no more,” he said.
This is the constant “head versus heart’ rumination black parents make on a regular basis. Even when there are no major racist incidents, your child faces an assault of daily challenges: not having teachers who look like them, the isolation of being an “only,” which often comes with social exclusion, the burden of being the representative minority who has to explain or represent all black people all the time. In these environments black children can never come to school with the freedom to just learn. They are forced to carry so much more with them every day along with their backpacks.
That should be heartbreaking to all of us.
Other concerns for black parents include how blacks are represented in the curriculum, overrepresentation of black children in special education and how the parents themselves are treated by school staff. “Too many black parents say they’re ignored, talked over, talked down to, and will speak of the radio silence they experience with school administrators except when it comes to the school staff wanting to discuss ‘behaviors’ that are, by most indicators, appropriate for their age level,” notes Kelly Hurst, executive director of Being Black At School, a national nonprofit based in Springfield, Ill., that works for an equitable school system.
African American students are 3.8 times more likely to receive one or more suspensions as white students, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Analysis of that same federal report showed that in white suburban schools black students are discouraged from taking AP courses, and in some school districts white students are twice as likely as black and Hispanic students to be enrolled in at least one AP class.
It is no wonder then, that the question of, “is it worth it?” churns relentlessly. “The worth of the trade-off isn’t always considered simply because parents don’t have much choice or voice here,” says Hurst, who is also a national trainer for Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training. “School boards and teachers are overwhelmingly white and lack the racial analysis or awareness, which means that black parents have to accept this trade-off.”
Some parents do their best to mitigate the risk by seeking out sports programs, after-school programs and summer camps that are more diverse and more culturally affirming, notes Mahalia Watson, founder of Let’s Talk Schools, an online educational resource that hosts parent information events in New York City.
That has often been my strategy. But for many parents, working hard to pay for private school or to live in the suburbs does not leave much time for the additional “jobs” of school advocate, bias watchdog, cultural cheerleader and everyday therapist. At times, it is exhausting.
What can black parents do? “Organize in every sense of the word — from curriculum choices and town halls to creating support for other parents in the same situation,” Hurst advises.
All parents, and parents of color in particular, can do their due diligence by asking schools the right questions:
1. What is their understanding of terms like: racial equity, anti-bias/anti-racism ideology and pedagogy, trauma-informed work or behavioral programming, says Hurst. What do they know about implicit bias? Do they use restorative justice practices? Find out if the school has social and emotional safety at the center of its mission, how it uses crisis intervention and how anti-racism work is reflected in the curriculum, she adds.
2. Watson warns that asking about “diversity” is not enough. “Schools conceptualize diversity in many different ways — family composition, address (where students live), gender, religion, race, nationality, socioeconomic status. You need to know what diversity means to that particular school. Then parents should decide what type of representation is important to them and then see if the school includes it in their diversity goals,” she adds.
3. With younger children, for whom social exclusion can be even more traumatizing, Watson suggests asking about any policies about social events. For example, some schools require that all kids be invited to birthday parties in elementary grades. The aforementioned friend who removed his son from private school said black parents may want to delay non diverse environments until the children are older and more established in their own identity and self-worth — his son began at the school in pre-K. “In those schools a child needs to show up with a strong sense of who they are, not at the age of still being formed into who they are,” he said.
Hurst cites two glaring red flags: Schools that say, “We don’t see color” and schools that exclude parents from the classroom and decision-making process.
Kimberly Seals Allers is a New York-based journalist and author who writes frequently about motherhood and parenting. A former writer at Fortune, she is the author of “The Big Letdown — How Medicine, Big Business and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding.” Follow her on Twitter @IamKSealsAllers.