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Facing up to racism: Training program for educators focuses on straight talk

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 14, 2009 - When the voluntary school desegregation came to the Parkway School District in 1983, Sally Smith, a social studies teacher there, predicted that her colleagues would be clueless about how to tap into the incoming students' talent.

"We don't recognize it," she told researcher Amy Stuart Wells. "We're frightened by it. We did not invite the black children out here, and so there is an underlying hostility towards them that may not be recognized" by the teachers themselves.

Some districts apparently felt people like Smith were onto something. That may explain why some districts turned to St. Louis-based Educational Equity Consultants to help teachers and administrators understand the complexity of race and education. In addition to Parkway, school districts using the company have included University City, Kirkwood, Webster Groves, Brentwood, Pattonville, Hazelwood and Alton.

Coming to the table

The company's approach can be as intense as it is blunt. That was the case Wednesday night when two company associates -- Phil Hunsberger and Billie Mayo -- conducted training in the University City Board of Education's meeting room.

They argued that stakeholders in every school district and community must address racial issues. The two consultants drew a table top on a portable board and labeled it "racism." The table, they said, is propped up by four legs -- two labeled white privilege and white supremacy at one end and two symbolizing minorities internalizing racism at the other end. Mayo stressed that not all whites are racists and not all blacks have internalized racism; the tabletop and legs are simply symbolic devices, offering a way for people to understand the prevalence of racism.

Even so, the discussion seemed to make some of the 25 participants, about a third of them white, shift uncomfortably in their chairs. One or two even left early. In future sessions, Mayo said, the discussions would make clear how racism affects public education in the district.

Many of Educational Equity's seminars begin with training administrators in two-day retreats, says Peter Wilson, founder of Education Equity.

"What we try to get people to do is understand racism and how racism plays out in individual lives and is embedded in institutions, how it plays out in classrooms, in schools and in school districts."

Teaching to Different Learning Styles

The company's value to school districts began to increase once research pointed to the validity of concerns like those raised by Sally Smith, the teacher in the Parkway District.

Wilson points to studies by Ronald F. Ferguson of Harvard, showing how teachers can adapt to black and white students' different learning styles.

"The white students in the studies said a demanding teacher made them work hard, but black students said encouragement was the key," Wilson said. "They had to have demanding teachers as well, but without encouragement, black students didn't work as hard."

The message to teachers, Wilson said, is that they must first establish meaningful relationships with black students and learn to talk about race, too.

"You can't really effectively encourage someone unless you have some kind of relationship with them. We think that piece is fundamental."

As for talking about race, Wilson argues that many whites have been conditioned to avoid any discussion about race, even in a positive context.

He mentions a teacher reading a book to students and gets to a passage about "beautiful black skin." The teacher turned to a black student and said "just like your beautiful black skin."

Colorblind -- or blind to racial issues?

One teacher told Wilson she never would have had the courage to say that in a classroom in front of other students. The reason, Wilson says, is that have avoided talking about race to the point that they say they don't see color.

"If you don't see color, how can you look at institutions and see how racism works?" he asks. "When people say they don't see color, they think they are thinking the way (Martin Luther) King thought. But in fact they are distorting his message. When whites say they don't see color, that helps them" avoid addressing racial issues. "That's not what Dr. King meant," Wilson says.

His message is that school officials, from the superintendent on down, must learn to talk about race as a way to engage black students, parents and the community.

The district's superintendent, Joylynn Wilson, says the meetings on race were in response to residents wanting the district to have more conversations about race and education.

"This is laying the foundation," she says, "to bring people together. The hope is that people will cross over -- you heard the talk about the north-south divide -- and come together and talk about how the racial climate affects student achievement."

To Pablo Flinn, who recently moved away from University City, Wednesday night's dialogue suggested University City and other communities "want to have that conversation about race, and we need to extend it to our families and friends and others in the community." He suggested that apathy was a problem, noting that many people were quick to say they didn't want to talk about racial issues.

Where's the problem?

After listening, several participants seemed genuine in saying they had no idea of the racial problems in University City, which is generally known for its diversity and tolerance. Resident Joan Botwinick said that she lived in a mostly white neighborhood and knew that blacks lived in other sections of the city. But, she asked, "what is the race problem in University City? I have no knowledge of it, and I'm here to learn."

Even more baffling to some was the notion that racism carried with it certain privileges for whites. School Board member Trudy Moon offered an anecdote to help disbelievers understand white privilege.

She told of joining a friend, "a middle-aged white woman like myself," to buy art from a store in Clayton. When the friend couldn't decide which painting to buy, the clerk told her to take both pieces home, hang them on the wall and return the one she didn't want. The clerk told the woman she didn't have to leave a credit card.

"When you live in that world and you're a middle-aged woman, you can go anywhere and no one suspects you of anything," Moon said, implying that the outcome might have been different for two African-American women in a similar situation.

Teachers in the Educational Equity training include Susan Doering, an 18-year veteran who is literacy coach at Parkway Southwest Middle School.

She says the training has been "pretty intense," and she was put off at first by the white privilege issue.

"I was a bit uncomfortable with that. I feel like what I got in my life, I worked really hard for. You'd like to think that you are where you are because of that, you know.

"I now understand that the term isn't about someone telling me that I haven't worked hard, but that I should be aware that in certain situations and areas of life, I do have an advantage just because of who I am."

Still breaking down barriers

In all of its sessions, Wilson says Educational Equity wants to help participants make a "fundamental shift to understanding themselves and open up the possibility of more authentic relationships between people of color and whites, teacher and teacher, teacher and students, administrators and parents."

He adds, "With good relationships, there's greater potential for effective instruction in schools. There's very strong research on this."

Whether the company is breaking down barriers, it certainly can say teachers have learned to be more tolerant of people who don't look like themselves.

And this type of training is needed, judging from comments in Amy Stuart Wells' scholarly book, "Stepping Over the Color Line." She quotes a former Mehlville District teacher in charge of staff development and teacher evaluations saying the transfer students would face a hostile environment at Mehlville High School "as long as the administration allows people to say 'n-----' in the faculty room." The teacher said it was the administrator's responsibility to stand in front of the entire faculty and say that N-word would not be allowed in the building.

"He must say he will not tolerate that behavior," she was quoted as saying. "But then he would have to modify his own."

The Beacon tried without success to find this teacher as well as other teachers, cited in Wells' book, critical of racial relations. District officials say the critics, all women, may have changed their names through marriage or moved away from the districts. Some administrators say racial incidents are not nearly as prevalent as they once were.

One reason for the decline may be the policies like those in the Parkway District.

"We have had few incidents," says Charlotte Ijei, director of pupil services and diversity in the Parkway District, "but we react as soon as something happens whether the issue involves, race, gender, sexual preference or whatever."

That policy, she says, has discouraged the unseemly behavior among students.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.