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School Culture

7 Steps Toward Building an Equitable School Culture

When schools are mindful and deliberate about creating an equitable culture, they are better prepared to support everyone in the building.

January 28, 2021
Teachers and administrators meet
Allison Shelley for the Alliance for Excellent Education

The term microaggression was first coined by Dr. Chester Pierce of Harvard University in the 1970s when describing the everyday slights that non-Black Americans inflicted on Black Americans.

The term was amplified by Dr. Derald Wing Sue, now a professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University, and his coauthor, Lisa Beth Spanierman, in their book Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation; microaggressions, they wrote, are “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to individuals because of their group membership. The persons making the comments may be otherwise well-intentioned and unaware of the potential impact of their words.”

Because microaggressions repeat or affirm stereotypes about a group or subtly demean its members without being outright confrontational, such comments also position the dominant culture (Euro-American) as normal and the marginalized group as aberrant.

According to Sue and Spanierman, there are three main types of microaggressions: microinsults (e.g., a girl is told she is pretty, “for a Black girl”), microinvalidations (e.g., asking someone of Asian, Middle Eastern, or Latin descent where they are “really from”), and microassaults (e.g., a teacher making homophobic comments in class). You can find additional examples of different forms of microaggressions here.

What Antiracism Means

Antiracism is not a concept that negates racism or asks people to be perfect. We are born of the biases that exist all around us—biases that are so attached to the fabric of our world that they seemingly go unnoticed by many people. Antiracism is the process of unlearning these biases and observing ourselves to see where and when these biases surface. As Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, wrote on Twitter, “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.”

For White people, that means taking time to examine and unlearn internalized dominance of White supremacy. For people of color, that means taking steps to uproot our internalized oppression—the belief that the stereotypes about us are true.

Steps Toward Building an Antiracist Culture

Education leaders at any school, including international schools like the one where I work, can take these steps to build an antiracist culture.

1. Build the culture of your school on an institutional level: Think of yourself as an agent for a healthy, antiracist culture, not as the sole creator of it. Leaders in schools should not be responsible for managing or mediating every single aggression (micro- or macro-), but they should be explicit about expectations and values. Make sure that the norms of communication around microaggressions (indeed, around any racist behavior) are clear, including to new staff members.

2. Ritualize meeting spaces: Develop humanizing ways to begin and close meetings. Check-in questions (e.g., checking in on highs and lows), sharing across differences (e.g., “From the skin I am in…”), and mindful practices at the beginning of a meeting help to bring folks into a shared space. Closing rituals such as process checks, which surface patterns of participation and facilitator moves, bring a reflective and purposeful closing tone. Developing consistent meeting structures and roles helps to flatten positional hierarchy, especially in cultures that put a strong emphasis on titles and positions.

3. Prioritize a shared vision and language: Make sure the adults in the building are employing the same language and concepts when it comes to antiracism work. This allows for individuals to access shared values and concepts when attempting to have brave conversations with their students and colleagues. Terms such as implicit bias, structural racism, White supremacy, and microaggressions should be explicitly taught, discussed, and defined within the context of the local school community and history.

4. Establish norms that create brave spaces: While they have merit in certain contexts, safe spaces are sometimes too safe and enable some folks to lean on their “right to comfort,” a symptom of White supremacy culture that aims to smooth over conflict without getting to the root of the issues. Instead, norms should reflect a culture of curiosity, listening, and vulnerability: bravery. In brave spaces, adults can work in their optimal zone of development.

5. Practice a culture of microaffirmations: In one study, conducted by SF Build, an organization founded to mentor students of color in the sciences, microaffirmations are described as “affirmations that people of your culture and ethnicity are important contributors to advancing knowledge in this field.” SF Build’s research found that the practice of microaffirmations directly correlates with a student’s intention to persist in a field.

If microaffirmations have a strong impact on the persistence of college freshmen in the sciences, they can also actively contribute to the sense of belonging of students and faculty of color in an international environment. To me, microaffirmations can include explicit recognition of a person’s contributions and skills and images of excellence of women and the contributions of people of color to any field of study.

6. Hire and retain a diverse faculty and staff: Your faculty and staff should reflect the majority of the young people they are working with; if you work in an international school like I do, then they should reflect the global majority of students. The world is increasingly interconnected, and issues of colonization, oppression, and social justice are being valued by government agencies, Fortune 500 businesses, and universities. Schools need to hire and retain faculty and staff of color to reflect the diversity that students will experience when they enter higher education and the workforce.

Moreover, a diverse faculty will naturally bring a wider range of viewpoints and experiences to share with students and the community. Value this diversity of viewpoints, and use these perspectives to build shared understanding and expectations with students and families about what school values stand for.

7. Engage in storytelling: Storytelling helps to build intentional personal and professional relationships around shared values and identity. As an ancient tradition, storytelling activates emotions, helps people build connections, and supports the storyteller in anchoring their identity within their own context. It is a powerful way to build community within a classroom or a staff meeting. (See “Building Community With Restorative Circles.”)

Balancing Patience With Urgency

Educators dedicated to equity need to channel their energy toward their own regenerative process so that they may have the courage to start the real work of justice. This means making a commitment—while slowing down. It may take longer for a school or institution to start this work, but once it does, issues ranging from student discipline to staff culture that once seem isolated will begin to improve. Most of the time, a challenge within a school system is a symptom of an inequity in the process, structure, or people in the organization. When equity initiatives are thoughtfully planned, they can have far-reaching impacts in an institution.

As social justice educators, we need to bring awareness of these challenges to the forefront of the education community. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What role do you play in justice work, and how does that relate to your current relationships with students and other faculty?
  • Have you thought about your students and faculty of color through the lens of these stereotypes?
  • If you are an educator of color, are you ready to engage with your whole self, including the parts of you that institutions are asking you to leave at the door?

For more information and learning on microaggressions, explore this list of common microaggressions and the assumptions that they presume, and this short reading on how to respond to microaggressions as the receiver, a bystander, or the perpetrator.

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