Podcast | The toll that ’normal’ school takes on students of color
For some students and educators, the school shutdowns offered a break from the racism they typically experienced at school.
When the pandemic hit and schools shut down, a broad spectrum of emotions followed. There was uncertainty and dread, along with a kind of naive giddiness that accompanies the potential of an unplanned, extended spring break. And then, according to a number of the students of color interviewed for this season of This Changes Everything, there was a sense of relief.
The relief, they said, came with the realization that they wouldn’t be subject to the microaggressions and macroaggressions that make day-to-day school a harrowing experience for students who are not white.
Racism in American schools is not new, but this forced departure from the physical classroom was. It shifted perspectives, revealed difficult truths and catalyzed some people to make major changes. The number of Black families who home-school their children, for instance, rose fivefold in the first year of the pandemic and, at 16%, is five points higher than the overall average of home-schooled students at the time.
For this episode, the first of two episodes focused on race, host Sara Bernard speaks with one mother who is considering pulling her daughters out of school and finds that there is a whole lot more going on than COVID-19.
Host/Producer: Sara Bernard
Editorial assistant: Brooklyn Jamerson-Flowers
Consulting editor: Donna Blankinship
Executive producer/story editor: Mark Baumgarten
Audio support: Jonah Cohen
Transcripts for This Changes Everything are the product of a third-party service. The audio stands as the official record for the reporting in this series.
[00:00:00] Anonymous speaker: This episode of This Changes Everything is presented by WGU Washington.
[00:00:06] Sara Bernard: In January 2020 Diya Kumar was 15 years old. She was gonna turn 16 that year and she was looking forward to it.
[00:00:13] Diya Kumar: So 2020, I remember going into it thinking like, oh yeah, this is gonna be my year.
[00:00:18] Sara Bernard: She was planning a couple of big trips with the Bothell High School choir, one them international. And she was taking a world history class.
[00:00:24] Diya Kumar: And I remember before I was looking forward to it, because I thought it would be my chance to learn about different countries than just America, because that's all I've ever learned about. And I wanted to learn about like my country for a change, because I have Indian heritage and I was like, oh maybe I can finally learn something about India.
But then I was feeling really disappointed because my history teacher kind of decided to cut all of the units that we were supposed to learn on Asia and Africa to teach us about Catholicism instead. So for the first two months, we went really in depth into Catholicism, and then it just went into a more like Eurocentric version of history where we're only learning about European countries.
I never was able to do anything about it. I'd, like, complained to my parents and they had also went and talked to the administrators, being like, "Hey, this is a problem." But then, after that, just nothing really ever changed and nothing ever really happened. So it was just like feelings of disappointment.
[00:01:28] Sara Bernard: And that kind of disappointment? It was pretty much always there at school. It would show up all the time in these insidious ways.
[00:01:35] Diya Kumar: It's always the really, really small things of people kind of assuming certain things about me and who I am, just based on my culture and my race, you know. Like, the whole stereotypes with Asians being super smart or, oh, you're definitely really good at math, when I am not in fact good at math, you know?
And it's just certain weird things that they might say that just kind of like put me off in the moment, like what they say about my food too sometimes, because my mom cooks my food, so I bring it to school every day and I eat it. And sometimes there will be some kids who would kind of be grossed out about it and would look really weirdly at it.
And I would always be trying to hide my food in the cafeteria while I'm eating it. So if my mom ever gives anything like curry or anything ethnic, then I would be trying to hide it and secretly eat it.
[00:02:33] Sara Bernard: So, Diya's experience, this not feeling able to be comfortable as herself at school or to seemingly ever get outside of Eurocentric perspectives, it's not unique. It came up over and over in the interviews we did for the series.
[00:02:46] Adar Abdi: I think it would be like a little thing, like a teacher would like be talking about something that I had, like, in-depth knowledge about, like experiences about.
I remember my history teacher would talk about Islam, and I'm, like, Muslim. And he would like say something incorrect that he found in a textbook.
[00:02:57] Sara Bernard: This is Adar Abdi again, the high school student in White Center who you met in an earlier episode. Adar is both Black and Muslim and wears a hijab.
[00:03:04] Adar Abdi: I would try to be like, "Hey, actually, like that's incorrect." And he'd kinda just be like, but it's in the textbook. Well, dude, the textbook was written about like with 30 white men that don't, they're not even Muslim.
[00:03:14] Sara Bernard: This kind of thing, to Adar, it felt like a microaggression. It was frustrating, it was patronizing and it was constant.
[00:03:22] Adar Abdi: So I remember like sitting in my history class, it was history class, and one of my friends were like, they were talking about something and they're like, "Oh my God, like, you're like a terrorist."
And I sat there and I was like, and mind you, my table specifically was really close to my teachers; I wanna say, not more than like three, four feet away. Like it was very close. He was just on his computer. And I knew for a fact he heard me, but then the minute he turned his head, he just told the student, "Knock it off."
And I was like, "Wow. I feel so, so, so happy." Like, obviously she's gonna knock it off now. Like, "Thank you so much."
[00:03:55] Sara Bernard: You can't see Adar's face right now, but just in case it's not clear, this is sarcasm.
It wasn't like he like said, "Oh, you're correct. Like, she is a terrorist." Like, he never said that, but it was kinda like, he also didn't stand up for me, which I think was even more worse than that student saying something.
Cause, like, I felt more offended that he didn't stand up for me or he didn't like say anything and it's kinda like, okay, well, if you can't stand up for me, then why should I believe that any other educator is willing to stand up for me or willing to care enough for me, I guess.
Sadly, and perhaps not surprisingly, this is what school is like for lots of students and none of this is new. But here's what is: When all the schools shut down in spring 2020, that part of school did too. And so for some students and teachers, the shutdowns weren't so horrible, they were a relief.
[00:04:46] Diya Kumar: But then when I was at home, I could just eat the food openly. I didn't have to worry about that anymore. So it did kind of feel nice, but it also just made me realize, like, this shouldn't be normal and people shouldn't have been making all of these kind of comments and stuff. And I didn't wanna be ashamed of the food that I eat. And then, yeah, certain microaggressions that I've like faced in school suddenly I was away from all that. And as people were online, they were starting to use social media more and soon there was all of this coverage on all of these different things that were happening at the time.
So being engaged with social media more and learning about different people's experiences and things that they've gone through, it kind of also made me realize, like, what happened at school to me was not okay. And I've been putting up with it for so long thinking, that's just the way it is. So, it definitely gave me a time to just kind of disconnect away from that and just reflect about what I wanted from people around me and what I needed for myself.
[00:06:00] Sara Bernard: So, it's not like racism doesn't exist absolutely everywhere, online, in person, in every institution and in all kinds of places outside of school. And it's not like being at home worked for everyone either, not even close. But what the school shutdowns did do was create a collective shift in perspective.
It's so much easier to see something that you're steeped in once you're out of it. And so called normal school, the normal way of doing things, some students and parents and teachers absolutely refuse to go back to that, because to them, normal is not okay, it's not preferable. It's harmful.
[00:06:39] Student 1: I can go back to school when I'm able to walk down the hallway and not have monkey noises be made about me because as a black woman, I have big lips and the principal can actually do their job and punish these people for being racist and protect me.
[00:06:54] Fernell Miller: I could tell you the same stories of racial attacks, racial abuse, racial isolation that are happening right now, today, that were happening 40, 50 years ago when I was in elementary school.
[00:07:10] Tara: It's like this kind of abusive relationship that like, you don't realize it's abuse until you're out of it. And I think that's what a lot of kids realize that, like, we were in this environment that we were used to, that we like thought we had to be in for years and years and years. And then when we were five out of it, we were like, wait a minute. That was not right. You shouldn't have had to deal with that.
[00:07:31] Phia: I can't think of a single time where a student that I know brought up an incident that was racist or homophobic or transphobic or ableist or anything of the sort, either from a teacher or from another student or from the institution itself, where something actually got solved.
[00:08:15] Sara Bernard: I'm Sara Bernard. And this is This Changes Everything, a podcast from Crosscut about the new normal. So yeah, it's not like racism in all its forms at school is a new thing. Or even speaking up about inequities at school and trying to change them. What is new is the experience of schools shutting down completely and students and teachers of color not having to be in it every day that shifts perspectives.
It reveals things, it catalyzes. And then the whole country exploded in protests after the murder of George Floyd. For some students and parents and educators, all of that combined, it just blew everything wide open.
[00:08:51] Adar Abdi: Okay. What is normal? And like the normal never served us. So therefore we should create a new normal that's gonna serve all of us.
[00:08:57] Sara Bernard: For the next couple of episodes, we're gonna take a look at what that perspective shift was like for some people in Washington and how it impacted them, or at least how it gave them the opportunity to see something they already knew a little more clearly. Some families are choosing not to go back to school and some students are throwing their whole selves into the fight to make sure we never go back to normal.
Stay with us.
[00:09:20] Whitney King: Say hi. And you're supposed to be in class.
[00:09:35] Sara Bernard: This is Whitney King. She lives in Washington and has two kids. One's in seventh grade now, the other is in second grade and that's the one who, as you can hear, kind of zoom bombed our interview a few months back.
[00:09:47] Whitney King: You need to gimme 10 minutes, baby.
Okay. My name is Whitney, and I like to refer to all of us as the Trio Girls, because it is the three of us. I have two daughters and with us being the Trio Girls, I feel as if we're able to bring our own things that we love to do and created into this family force that, you know, we're working on outside, just handling, dealing with school, but also all the other many things that I try to make sure that they're experiencing.
[00:10:23] Sara Bernard: And for Whitney handling dealing with school in Washington state has been a constant slog for year after painful year. She's one of a number of people who, when I asked, said that the school shutdowns in 2020 were a relief.
[00:10:36] Whitney King: Yeah, for sure. Yeah. I mean, it felt good to me for the most part, you know, it's like, all right, we're here together. And we really, they know, I think I remind them enough where all we got, we have each other.
You know, we definitely had, I actually have it right by my side, but we, we were able to really do some hands-on things with each other. And we had put these letters on our wall, which represented, it said "Quarantine Quarters."
So we were really having fun with it.
[00:11:12] Sara Bernard: It was a nourishing time, a safe time because school, regular in-person school, it never felt all that safe or nourishing. For example, Whitney says the best part, maybe the only good part about the 2019-2020 school year, before the pandemic, was just that both girls were in the same school, so at least they would have each other as a support system.
[00:11:34] Whitney King: That year, I had a kindergartner and a fifth grader, which was exciting for me to know that they were gonna be in the same school, see each other, still, you know, be able to create their own peership, but also know that they had the sister squad in the same building.
So I think that was really the only thing, the only thing exciting during that time. Because previously, the year before, yeah, I was like, all right, we have some issues here we need to address. And I was really hesitant with going back to that actual school and sending my kindergartner at the time there because of what we had experienced.
So that was really, I felt comfortable knowing that, hey, all right, you got big sister, little sister. Y'all got each other's back, right, when you get in here.
[00:12:35] Sara Bernard: So when your older daughter was in fourth grade, she just, she had some really negative experiences with the school.
[00:12:42] Whitney King: Yeah. Yeah. She had been called the N-word by peer. We had issues with the teacher who I didn't quite, you know, they just arose during the times that I would go in and volunteer, which I wanna say I'm a pretty active parent.
[00:12:59] Sara Bernard: You'll notice Whitney isn't going into that much detail here. And that I'm not using identifying information about the teachers or the schools that she's making these allegations against.
It's not our aim with the series to make or prove specific allegations. I will say that Whitney's daughter's experience is just one example of similar stories we heard while reporting. And anyway, Whitney clearly didn't want to give any identifying information or actually go into any real detail about any of it.
What became clear over the course of our conversation, though, is that these issues and situations were frequent. Most of her daughter's peers and teachers were white.
[00:13:38] Whitney King: I think maybe she's the only African American, maybe there was two in her class at the time, but I know that's just how it is being in Washington as well.
I know that's a part of being in Washington when it comes to thinking of staff, too, where there's not a lot of representation as far as teachers go or staff in itself.
[00:13:58] Sara Bernard: There was actually only one teacher Whitney's daughter ever had who was Black. And that was because Whitney switched schools specifically for her.
[00:14:05] Whitney King: Which, actually, my daughter did have her first experience with an African American woman teacher in third grade. So that was really good. I actually moved her out of the school where we were having issues with. It was still kind of local to us. I was able to get her in that class, because I got word that she was there. So that was, that was really good.
[00:14:27] Sara Bernard: In other words, Whitney says she pulled her daughter out of one school where she hadn't felt good or safe or supported in order to move her to another school where she could have a Black teacher and maybe feel okay at school.
So third grade was much better, but then...
... and then fourth grade in that same school, it was sort of like back to these experiences of being treated poorly?
[00:14:49] Whitney King: It was exactly worse going back, worse than what it was before. It was like, okay, we got some things going on here. We're gonna move outta here. You know, we know that the proof is in the pudding as far as how we're treated in this space
[00:15:05] Sara Bernard: So, when the pandemic hit and all the schools suddenly shut down and everyone went online, Whitney already had the withdrawal papers in her hand. She was already thinking about having her girls do school at home, online.
[00:15:17] Whitney King: When everything went online, I was looking at one company I knew of someone whose kid was already going to online school. So I was already kind of exploring that thought. So it's just wild how it affect the whole world. because I'm like, Ooh, right on time, you know, I was already thinking this. So, trying to find on the positives in that.
[00:15:42] Sara Bernard: Still, because the shutdowns happened, she didn't pull her girls out right away. The shutdowns gave her more time to look around for a good alternative. So far, they still have the choice to learn online at home. It's still an option in their district, and that seems better than being at school. But as soon as they're required to go back in person, Whitney says that'll likely be the end of that.
[00:16:04] Whitney King: And I think if I had to send them, that would probably be my. tIpping point to say, all right, it's time.
[00:16:12] Sara Bernard: It's still a big question for Whitney, whether or not she, as a single mom, will be able to work full-time and homeschool her daughters full-time too.
[00:16:19] Whitney King: Because, of course, I'm also trying to figure out is being the breadmaker and the main source, just how our schedule and how things will be.
[00:16:32] Sara Bernard: So, we'll see. But the wind is still blowing in that direction. She hopes to be able to pull them out of the traditional public school system for good.
[00:16:41] Whitney King: It's like, you know what, it's good to realize this now. And I want them to realize this and know that we don't necessarily have to go that route, especially when you are trying to do some great things in the world.
[00:17:04] Sara Bernard: As a Black parent considering homeschool, Whitney is not alone. The number of Black families deciding to homeschool their children has risen steadily over the past few decades. But never so sharply as in the first year of the pandemic.
According to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau in spring 2020, about 3% of Black families were homeschooling their children. By the fall of that year, that number had more than quintupled to roughly 16%.
That's more than any other group and more than the total percentage of homeschooled children at the time, which was about 11%. Those numbers might not reflect the present or the future as 2020 was a strange time when everyone was learning at home in one way or another, but it's still a huge and unprecedented leap.
And while the data isn't comprehensive on why Black parents made that choice, every source I found reflects that as with Whitney, there was a whole lot more going on than COVID 19.
[00:18:17] Newscaster: Instead they will continue to be educated at home. And in many cases, this is to protect them from institutional racism and stereotyping.
[00:18:59] Sara Bernard: We'll be right back.
[00:19:18] Anonymous speaker: Good teachers need good teachers and class is in session at Western Governors University. Online and competency-based, WGU Washington offers respected bachelor's and master's degree programs in teaching for aspiring and veteran teachers who want a high quality affordable education on their schedule, at their pace. Learn more at wgu.edu.
[00:19:45] Sharonne Navas: I think that's what we need to really understand is that normal isn't healthy for a lot of folks, right? Normal in this country is healthy for a specific subset of folks.
This is Sharonne Navas, executive director of the Equity and Education Coalition who you heard from in a previous episode. She founded the group in 2012 just after the Washington State Supreme Court handed down the infamous McCleary decision, which ruled that the state had violated students' constitutional rights by not fully funding public education.
[00:20:14] Newscaster: So it ordered the legislature to come up with a solution.
[00:20:17] Sara Bernard: Sharonne says she didn't want children of color to be left behind in the reform process. So she's been talking with tons of students and parents and teachers across Washington about all of this stuff for years.
[00:20:27] Sharonne Navas: Whether you're Black, Indigenous, a person of color, LGBTQ, neuro-divergent, disabled, all of that means that we have to sort of figure out a way to be normal. And that creates a sort of internalized trauma of not being able to be a hundred percent authentic to who you are a hundred percent of the time.
And as a child, as a student, that is really hard to do when you're trying to figure out who you are, and then suddenly you can't be who you are for eight hours a day.
[00:21:02] Sara Bernard: There are stories and more stories of students and teachers feeling this way. And we'll tell a few, but there's also data out there that reflects these feeling. In Washington state, for instance, where roughly 50% of the student population is white, almost 90% of K12 teachers are white. Research shows that Black and Latino students are significantly underrepresented in advanced classes, in part due to placement systems that rely on educators and their potential biases.
And despite widespread recognition of the problem of disproportionate discipline at school, Black students are still more than twice as likely to be suspended or expelled than white students in Washington. In some districts, like Seattle, suspension or expulsion is, at least according to data from a few years ago, four times as likely.
These kinds of data points don't tell the whole story, not even close, but they're part of it. And that's part of why people like Sharonne say things like this:
[00:21:59] Sharonne Navas: For a lot of our students, there was a sense of relief when they didn't have to go to school because there are, unfortunately, there are teachers, there are adults in the school system, that don't love Black and brown students. And that's the reality.
[00:22:15] Fernell Miller: Lots of the kids are thriving in an online situation because we're not having to sit in that attack of a classroom. We're not having to watch our peers be racialized. We're not having to be racialized by our teachers in, in their silence.
[00:22:27] Sara Bernard: This is Fernell Miller. She's been a physical education teacher and coach in the Northshore School District for 40 years. The same district where she was once one of a very small handful of Black students.
She's the founder and CEO of the Root of Us, a DEI consultancy she launched in 2020. We'll hear more from her in the next episode.
[00:22:45] Fernell Miller: And so I started racial healing circles. I started talking with the youth in the pandemic because that's exactly what they needed to do because getting out of that culture of whiteness, that culture of stalking and tracking and attacking and being looked at and being, having to show up assimilated every day in the school setting, the pandemic wiped that out in an instance. And all of a sudden Black students, brown students were like, oh, this is what it feels like to have my own mind not have to be taken over and hijacked by everything, white bombardment every minute of the day, every day in class, all the time about everything.
This is what it feels like to get to lay that down and pick up my own identity, to figure out who I am, use my own thoughts, my own emotions, my own mind, instead of being told what I should think, what I should feel, how I should look, how I should show up, how I can't show up, how I should sound, how I shouldn't sound.
That's exhausting. And so kids are awake to that now. It's like this was going on before the pandemic and the pandemic just got to reveal to the rest of the world that this is a reality.
[00:24:05] Sara Bernard: It's a reality for some students. And it's a reality for some teachers too.
[00:24:10] Erin Jones: One of my favorite Black teachers, who I met 20 years ago, my first day of substitute teaching, he taught in the class next door to me and we've stayed friends for 20 years. He called me one day almost in tears and said, Erin, I did not realize how angry I was by the ways I was being treated as the one Black male on my staff util I was away from school and not surrounded by it.
[00:24:31] Sara Bernard: This is Erin Jones. She's an educator consultant, speaker and advocate who ran for state Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2016. But she lost to our current superintendent, Chris Reykdahl.
[00:24:42] Erin Jones: I remember listening to the press conference with Chris Reykdahl and the governor shutting schools down and thinking I'm so glad I did not win that election.
[00:24:57] Sara Bernard: She almost did, actually. The final vote tally had her trailing Chris Reykdahl by one percentage point. Anyway, her campaign platform at the time, like most of her career in education, had a strong focus on racial equity in schools.
[00:25:10] Erin Jones: Zip code, race and home language are the three greatest predictors today of the kind of experience a child will have in their public school. And I that to be absolutely criminal.
[00:25:21] Sara Bernard: Since then, Erin has essentially taken that platform to her consultancy, Erin Jones, LLC, where she leads workshops and trainings and teachings and conferences for students, teachers, education leaders, and nonprofits. Like Fernell Miller. Erin Jones is incredibly busy.
The first time I caught her, it was on a cell phone as she was hurrying from one meeting to the next.
[00:25:41] Erin Jones: I have another meeting I need to dump into.
[00:25:43] Sara Bernard: Oh, yes, no worries.
Next time, it was on Zoom right before a teaching gig and a slew of other things.
[00:25:49] Erin Jones: Last story, and then I have to actually go teach a class, but ...
Yeah, no worries.
[00:25:52] Sara Bernard: But that time she did say a little bit more about that Black teacher friend of hers.
[00:25:56] Erin Jones: Like, I know him to be a really kind person. And the one thing he did say is I'm really angry and I didn't realize how angry I was and I bet, you know, all those paper cuts. He is the kind of person that probably just went to school and smiled all the time and worked really hard to be kind when he wasn't feeling kind. And now it's feeling like, oh my, all of it's coming up. Right? All those years of that being kind while you're being punched, while you're being cut, suddenly is manifesting. And I bet that was overwhelming. But because I've been through it myself, I knew exactly what he was describing.
Like, oh, I know that, I've been that person too. Yeah. Because we're trained to just be kind and just smile and be the good little Negro, like go, go, you know, just keep doing good work and you know, and don't talk back and don't correct people, but eventually that took a toll. I get it. I have totally been there.
[00:27:00] Sara Bernard: According to Erin, that teacher left his school and didn't go back.
So, Erin told me she had had a lot of work planned in 2020, but as with many plans that year, it all went kaput, as soon as the shutdown happened. In early March, she'd been in South Bend, Indiana visiting a school where one of her first students now teaches.
[00:27:31] Erin Jones: She's a Black girl who shared with me she became a teacher because I was her first Black teacher. And she actually went into a different career and had a different career for about 15 years. And then just remembered what I had given her and said, I wanna do that for other students. And so I got to go see that student.
So this is all happening before the pandemic. It's like so exciting and just seeing all this opportunity. And then I literally flew back from South Bend and, bam, lost everything. Like, none of my work happened, like nothing from March to June, everything was canceled.
And then I remember thinking, what can I do to help? Because immediately on Facebook, like parents are panicked, whatare we gonna do with our children. And so that was when I decided within 24 hours, I'm just gonna start teaching online and just provide some free content for people with small children, people with middle and high school children and then for adults around equity stuff.
[00:28:34] Sara Bernard: Essentially, she took a lot of the materials she'd been providing in person online and she kept it up every single day of the week. For months.
[00:28:42] Erin Jones: And I started doing that on March 16th. So right away that first Monday after schools were shut down. And then of course, really quickly Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor happened.
[00:28:51] Newscaster: The 26-year-old Louisville first responder shot eight times and killed by police.
We report again tonight on the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. This case is perhaps a sign of the times because so much was caught on tape, including the killing itself.
[00:29:05] Erin Jones: And then you have George Floyd.
[00:29:07] Newscaster: Officials in Minneapolis hoping for calm tonight after a former police officer was charged with murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd.
[00:29:17] Erin Jones: And I'm from Minneapolis originally. So I think it stuck me in an even more personal way because it is where I would've grown up had my parent stayed in Minnesota. And so I'm watching people scream on social media about, you know, how dare they riot.
[00:29:35] Newscaster: The third night of protests had been the most violent by far. For hours, anarchy. Rioters breached and burned this evacuated police precinct.
[00:29:43] Erin Jones: And I'm thinking, because no one's listened to them for all this time. Nobody's listening. That's why they're riot. Because nobody has listened. And they've tried to say things nicely and nobody's listening. So guess what? This is what happens. They're just trying to be heard. I can't even begin to describe or tell you the amount of times I've been racially profiled.
It just was really personal, but what was really amazing was this community that I had built online and on Facebook. And then on Zoom rallied together, they rallied and they brought more people into the fold. And what started as this really little thing became this really big thing. And, and people were, you know, I'd get 200, 300 views of our daily sessions every day. People were really eager to know how to respond.
And so what happened is people who were Black and brown were pushed to certain neighborhoods. And guess what the best awards weren't there, the best schools weren't there.
And looking back now, I think what happened is for so many, we have avoided conversations about race. And so when all of that stuff went down and they're watching Black people grieving and lamenting, a lot of white folks didn't understand it and didn't know where to go, but I was online. And so they were able to tune in without exposing themselves so they could watch a Facebook live without anyone knowing they were watching
[00:31:12] Sara Bernard: Of course, this was a very politically charged time. The racial reckoning of 2020 was explosive. There was the movement to defund police. There were conversations about race that felt productive. And some that definitely did not. In the fall and winter of 2020, we saw the fights start to brew in schools and school board meetings.
We saw the beginnings of the now red hot cultural warfare around critical race theory. Critical race theory, or CRT, is a legal analysis that originated in the 1970s and typically does not appear in any K12 curriculum, but as you're probably aware, politicians and others have weaponized the term, often using it as shorthand from almost any conversations about race or anti-racism in schools.
[00:32:11] Newscaster: At least 25 states introduced legislation to limit how public school teachers can talk about issues of race and sexism in the classroom.
[00:32:20] Sara Bernard: We're not gonna get too deep into that for this series. It's worth its own series, really. For now I'll just note that it's clearly a political debate with political motivations. And yeah, it can be pretty hard to separate politics from public education, because, at the end of the day, it's a government run system shaped and guided by elected officials. But here's Erin Jones' take: A child is not political.
[00:32:43] Erin Jones: I had families calling me who were saying, "You know, our children are, our Black children are going to school and trying to talk about Black Lives Matter and they're getting shut down in their classrooms." You know, "We don't talk politics here." And for those Black students, this was not political. This is about their own identity, right? And so, their identities were on the line. And this failure to engage with sending a really clear message that they did not matter.
[00:33:08] Sharonne Navas: I did a speech a couple of weeks ago around the study around kindergarten teachers and how they see 5 year olds of color much more violent and older than their white 5-year-old counterparts.
[00:33:19] Sara Bernard: Again, Sharonne Navas, executive director of the Equity and Education Coalition.
[00:33:24] Sharonne Navas: Half of the teachers were shocked. They're like, But we don't see color. I'm like, That's the point? This is that you don't, you don't see color, you don't see me. It's sort of like seeing, I don't see gender. Like, that's a part of who I am. It's part of my culture. It's part of who I am. It's part of who we all are. And if you don't see that, you're missing a huge part of the asset that I bring to the table. And I think for a really long time, whether you're conservative, progressive or centrist, like there's been this lack of conversation around race.
[00:33:56] Erin Jones: I see a lot of people railing and, you know, "We don't want our white children to feel bad, so we don't wanna talk about race." And I'm like, you know what, first of all, your white children already are hurting, right? And so let's just call the thing what it is and let's get healthier. Period. Let's do things in a healthy way. Period. Let's stop. Like I could give a rip about grades right now. I give a rip about test scores right now. Like, what does it mean to center the humanity of our children? And the adults serving them? How could we get to that?
[00:34:28] Sara Bernard: That is the work that some teachers and students and leaders are trying to do right now. That is the question that we're able to ask in a new way, a more urgent way, maybe, because of all the tumult of the past couple of years.
One silver lining to have come out of this, Erin says, is the new lasting communities that have formed. Because a lot of people were confused and hurting and asking big questions about racism in schools and because everything had to be online.
[00:34:52] Erin Jones: You know the pandemic and not being able to be physically together and having to find other ways to connect has also connected people across time and space who may not have otherwise gotten to find each other.
I facilitate a gathering of educators every Monday night.
[00:35:09] Sara Bernard: This one is called the Equity Fishbowl, by the way, and is still ongoing. It's one of many things that Erin began doing on the regular at the start of the pandemic.
[00:35:17] Erin Jones: It's educators from wherever they wanna come. I have a superintendent that joins from Wisconsin. I have an administrator who joins us from Southern California. And then a bunch of people from all across the state of Washington who join every week and we just talk through equity issues and troubleshoot for each other.
[00:35:35] Sara Bernard: And Erin says among the teachers, administrators, college students and parents who attend these weekly meetings, they often come for the same reason.
[00:35:43] Erin Jones: He said, you guys this week has been so hard for me already. And I just needed to know that I'm not crazy. I needed to be in a space with people that I didn't have to explain myself to. And so thank you all for showing up for me tonight. And that's those kinds of spaces didn't exist before.
[00:36:05] Sara Bernard: And maybe that has to do with the cultural moment we're in, maybe that has to do with the school shutdowns or how we all had to find community in a different way. Or maybe it's both. Before the shutdowns, before all this began, we all were in a pretty different mental space. Again, Fernell Miller.
[00:36:21] Fernell Miller: You're probably just going through the motions of here's my, you know, what shows on TV and I gotta do the game and send my kids off here and there and do my work. You're just surviving. You're just doing the, you're on the merry-go-round and the wheel and the pandemic helped us all look at our wheel and merry-go-round and go, hmm, is this all we want? Is this all we're about? So, you know, people who are ready to do something different are doing that.
[00:36:47] Sara Bernard: And that is exactly what one group of students in Washington state is doing right now, something different.
[00:36:53] Student 1: I was like, "Hey, there's a thing happening. And I think as teachers in our district, you should know what's going on and you should support our cause."
[00:37:01] Student 2: And I got in the Zoom call and it was like incredible. I was teaching my teachers for once. It was like an amount of cathartic that I can't put into words that are appropriate.
That's next time on This Changes Everything.
Thanks for listening to This Changes everything. This episode was reported and produced by me, Sara Bernard, with editorial assistance from Venice Buhain. Additional editorial help from Claudia Rowe and Brooklyn Jamerson Flowers. Donna Blankinship is our consulting editor. And our story editor and executive producer is Mark Baumgarten. Audio support from Jonah Cohen.
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This Changes Everything is a product of Cascade Public Media.
I'm Sara Bernard. And as I mentioned, this episode is part one of two. Next time we'll hear about how the events of 2020 spurred one group of students to not only see racism at school differently, but to do something about it.
That's next on This Changes Everything.