This AND That: Disrupting Oppression and Supporting Students at the Same Time
Sharla Horton-Williams, Ed.D.
School Leadership for Social Justice | SLSJ.us | September 2020
In 2018, Sippin the EquiTEA, a blog by Equity in Education Coalition, produced a fascinating article about this image. And they did something absolutely mind-blowing. They equated equity work with supremacy. But, wait. Equity is about overturning supremacy, right? Take a minute and read the original article here then come back and finish reading.
If you’ve been on the internet at least once this year, you’ve probably seen this image or at least some iteration of it. If you’re like me, when you saw it you thought, “YES! EQUITY IS THE GOAL!” Then I read this article, and it shook me.
Equity work = white supremacy at work? How is that even possible?
The authors of the article are clear: a focus on equity is important. But, they are also clear about this: the need for equity is not because there’s something wrong with Black and brown students. To this I add: When equity is your sole goal, it is easy to ignore the real problem of oppressive, racist systems and instead work around these systems, seemingly for the good of those you are working for. But when we do this, we actually ignore the ideal goal of eliminating and overturning the systems that make the pursuit of equity necessary in the first place.
Think about it:
What if instead of providing boxes for access, what if the fence was actually removed?
What if the education system itself allowed unobstructed access to high-quality learning for everyone? What if instead of doling out the boxes to make up for the inequity that our systems inherently create and perpetuate, we focused on restructuring the systems and tearing down the barriers that have historically been in place to provide access to some and lock others out?
Even further, what if there were no standards of normal by which we measured everyone else? Here’s where we diverge, though. The original author posited that all people are the same size, but the ground is unequally sloped beneath us. While I get that point, the truth is students come from diverse backgrounds, have diverse interests, and have diverse needs. Homogeneity is not reality; we are not a monolithic society.
We can probably all agree that all students don’t need equal supports. We can all agree that equality is not the goal. But looking deeper, it’s clear that a fence has been erected that only meets the needs of one. Why should one student’s size or need or lived experience be the measure by which we create and maintain systems and structures that affect all students? This is not equity.
Equity > equality. BUT liberation > equity.
Tear down. Dismantle. Disband. Abolish. These are words that provoke anxiety and fear and even anger in some people. That is largely because we can’t imagine doing things differently than we have done them. But, we’ve always had academic intervention. We’ve always had tutoring. We’ve always had mentoring programs. We have. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t continue to have these supports in place. But while we are developing reading interventions, we must also be strategically improving access to early childhood. While we are providing free meals, we must also address economic inequity and poverty and address the wealth gap. While we are supporting and intervening, we must also actively resist and disrupt - at the same time. (Click here to see SLSJ’s 10 Questions for Ensuring Equity in School Discipline)
Educators and community members are altruistically doing all the things that they know to do to help kids. They volunteer. They tutor. They donate. They are constantly finding ways to dole out boxes. The question, though, can’t keep being “how do we find more boxes?” or “what boxes can we use now?” The question has to be “Why do we need the boxes in the first place?” This is why the concept of racism as structural and systemic is so important. Structural racism means that even in the absence of racist PEOPLE, the systems keep racism thriving. Therefore, our emphasis can’t just be on good people doing noble work. The emphasis has to shift to the ugly words that make people uncomfortable: Tear down. Dismantle. Disband. Abolish. Yes, teachers and community members should keep volunteering and helping kids. But even with this noble work, the fence is still there. The fence that represents systemic and structural racism and oppression. The fence that keeps the very students we are working so hard to help from reaching what others can reach with ease. There are essentially two problems: (1) the fact that the fence exists in the first place, and (2) the fact that the fence was built according to the needs of only one person. Fences = structural racism = white supremacy. By building and passing out boxes, we are allowing structural racism and white supremacy to persist and thrive in our schools.
I was asked by a local teacher friend: So what do we do? How do we effectively address inequity, supremacy, and racism? Do we stop tutoring and volunteering and helping kids? No, we don’t stop. But we don’t stop there. We have to fight systems through systems.
And how do we do that? We identify and accept the real problems. As the original authors point out, the shortest boy in this picture is not the problem. There is no pathology with him. The problem is that a 6-foot fence was erected that only one person can see over. That’s the real problem. That is the oppression. The fence favors one, while oppressing two.
Think about your state’s standardized test. If it’s anything like the ones I’ve seen, it is designed for and written based on middle class, average ability, white norms and cultural standards. Meanwhile, across the country thousands of students who don’t fall into these categories are retained, identified for special education or referred to remedial courses based on their performance on a test that isn’t in their language and doesn’t reflect their lived experiences. This is inequity. This is oppression. And it’s rooted in supremacy.
After identifying oppressive systems, we can’t just work around the systems. We cannot continue to just engage in activities and behaviors that perpetuate the systems. While we work to help our students thrive within the system, we must also work to disrupt the system itself. We provide supports and interventions. And we also challenge and overturn laws, policies, and structures that contribute to disproportionate outcomes. We advocate against policies in our classrooms, schools and communities that favor one demographic group and harm others. We hold lawmakers and policy makers accountable for how resources are allocated and who they benefit and more importantly, who they oppress. We vote people out of office. We run for office in their place. We say no. We disrupt. We resist. We tear down fences.
What are some programs, activities, interventions that are present in your school or district that are designed to "level the playing field" for historically marginalized student groups?
What is the root of the inequity? Why is this intervention necessary in the first place?
What shifts can you make in your classroom, school, or district to address the root cause? In other words, what fences can YOU tear down?
THE SLSJ DOMAIN TRIANGLE
What beliefs did this information challenge? How were your beliefs shifted?
What new knowledge did you acquire?
What leadership behaviors will change as a result of this shift in beliefs and new knowledge?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR - Dr. Sharla Horton-Williams has a 20-year career in early childhood and PK-8 education and is committed to achieving educational excellence and equity for all students - especially Black and Hispanic students who have historically been underserved in education. She has served as a teacher, assistant principal, and principal in private, public charter, and traditional public schools. Sharla earned her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Texas A&M University, where her research focused on the role of the school leadership in closing the opportunity-achievement gap.