We know that using the overused “elephant in the room” metaphor these days is to risk losing the reader’s full attention. But when it comes to diversity work in independent schools — especially regarding race — the research makes it clear that there is one huge and rather noisy elephant in most schools. It’s stepping on just about everyone’s toes and trumpeting loudly for attention. And if not acknowledged and addressed, it will keep schools from fulfilling not only their diversity, equity, acceptance, and inclusion missions, but also their overall missions, especially regarding excellence as 21st-century schools.
What is the elephant? In this context, it is the unacknowledged silence about the racial disparities for teachers of color in the school climate, a silence that makes it hard for teachers of color to raise, discuss, or face conflicts related to race. The silence is generated by the dominant culture, undermines the experiences of teachers of color, and perpetuates policies and programs that make true advancement in diversity work difficult, if not impossible (Coleman, Sherry; Stevenson, 2014).
There's an African proverb that goes, "The lion's story will never be known as long as the hunter is the one to tell it. ---West African Proverb. Acknowledging the elephant in the room is an opportunity to begin an authentic effort to develop teacher and school leadership training in racial literacy. By doing so, educators will have the opportunity to recast “avoidant reactions” and move toward “assertive coping reactions” that lead to open conversations, increased racial understanding, better individual experiences, and an all-around healthier community.
The 3Rs of Racial Literacy
Racial literacy as defined by Stevenson (2014), also known as racial consciousness, refers to an individual’s deeper awareness and understanding of race. With racial literacy comes the tools and vocabulary to discuss more complex ideas about race and a growing understanding of how racism operates in its multiple forms. As Guinier (2003) puts it, racial literacy, “is about learning rather than knowing.”
According to Stevenson (2014), racial literacy offers an interpersonal approach to making change. We need institutional, systemic approaches as well as interpersonal approaches. When it comes to interpersonal, change is not easy if you don’t have a stress management approach. In the moment, what do I do when I’m not just upset by watching George Floyd’s murder on video, but when I’m facing somebody different from me and I have to use my own wits and battle my own stereotypes and fears?
There’s no research to suggest that even if I believe in social justice, or I believe racism is wrong, I will act without a sense of threat in a racial encounter. We think of racial literacy as the ability to read a racially stressful moment accurately, to recast it from really high stress to moderate or low stress, and then to work to resolve it by making a healthy decision that isn’t an underreaction or an overreaction.
Racial literacy involves the ability to read, recast, and resolve a racially stressful encounter. Reading involves recognizing when a racial moment happens and noticing our stress reactions to it. Recasting involves taking mindfulness and reducing the tsunami interpretation of this moment and reducing it to a mountain-climbing experience, one that is -- from an impossible situation to one that is much more doable and challenging. Resolving a racially stressful encounter involves being able to make a healthy decision that is not an underreaction, where I pretend, "That didn't bother me," or an overreaction, where I exaggerate the moment (Stevenson, 2014).
Racial socialization is not just what parents teach their children. It's also how children respond to what their parents teach. Is my child prepared? Can they recognize when a racial elephant shows up in a room? Can they reduce their tsunami interpretation down to a mountain-climbing adventure in that they can engage and not run away? Can they make a healthy and just decision in 60 seconds? Can I? Can you?
Douglass H. S. (2014) ‘When Race Enters the Room: Improving Leadership and Learning Through Racial Literacy’, Theory into Practice, 53(2), pp. 123–130. doi: 10.1080/00405841.2014.885812.
Guinier, L. (2003). Lift every voice: Turning a civil rights setback into a new vision of social justice. Simon & Schuster.
Stevenson, H. C. (2014). Promoting racial literacy in schools: Differences that make a difference. Teachers College Press.