Dissecting The Racialized Lens Of The American School System

4min read

When Forbes Magazine released its list of America's 100 Most Innovative leaders in September, it included only one female without even a photo. The resulting firestorm mostly centered around a lack of gender equality. A cursory look at the list also showed a lack of racial diversity.

Yes, Forbes "blew it" as its editor acknowledged on Twitter. It is important to understand such a flawed ranking in the context of who leads our American education systems. We as a society have evolved through legislation such as the 13th,14th, and 15th Amendments, as well as Title IX, to legally bind racist, biased and sexist practices in education. Yet, our school and system leaders do not reflect the majority of students. Leaders of color, and particularly women of color, are experiencing the repercussions of the corporate models even in the education space.

Women of color in the 21st century still find not only a concrete reinforced ceiling but a systematic mindset that their roles are typecasted to a classroom teacher, principal and an allotted few in district and CMO positions. In fact, in the 2019 AASA The School Superintendents Association Salary and Benefits Study based on 1,433 respondents, 90 percent of superintendents were white and overwhelmingly male. Thus making women of color in education endangered, not only in the classroom but at the tables where decisions made can impact the next generation. Our young people, the majority of whom are also of color, are essential to the reorganization of our education system that was built with racist policies and foundations. It's time for change.

To better understand where we are now and the lengths to which we as women of color must go to ensure our voices are heard in this complex system, we must understand the historical role played by women of color in education centuries before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case came about. Shortly after the inception of public schools in the United States, white women outnumbered males in the teaching workforce. But even then, it was only because the women were seen as "cheaper." After slavery was outlawed, women of color, primarily Black women teaching in the segregated schools of the South, were meant to groom their students for a life of domestic servitude and limited opportunities post-graduation where Black codes that grew into Jim Crow laws confined Blacks to jobs with low wages. The decision of Brown v. Board of Education, while eradicating segregation of public schools on paper if not in total practice, also triggered the decline of educators of color. Decades following the Supreme Court case, 38,000 Black teachers and 2,000 Black principals lost their jobs. The more schools integrated, the less white-lead school boards and faculty hired educators of color as part of their staff. This is just one of many examples of institutional racism which is the systematic distribution of resources, power, and opportunity in our society and its legacy continues to regenerate at this moment.

Today, our system still lacks inclusive representation. Only 20% of the teaching workforce is non-white compared to the 51% of non-white students we serve and we are collectively doing those students an injustice. Research shows that when a student of color has a teacher who shares their same race and ethnic background, their learning grows exponentially and they look beyond to their career aspirations. Yet when I became a new teacher, I was a part of only 6.7% of Black women, and when I became a principal in 2009, I counted as part of the 20% non-white principals in this country. The likelihood of us having colleagues with shared experiences is low and comes with its own implications such as unconsciously enacting internalized racism on students and peers who look just like us if we are not aware.

This lack of inclusive representation continues to permeate when nearly three-quarters of executives in a survey released by the Center for Talent Innovation in 2019 stated their protégés were the same race or gender as them. Leadership takes sponsorship, no matter the industry, private or public. Sponsorship needs to be more inclusive in order to bring more talents, skills and thinking into our systems.

It is essential that we equip women of color in education, like my colleagues at UnboundEd, our partner organizations and those in our cohorts serving schools across the country with leadership tools to navigate the system. This system must also be modernized and re-built equitably. The original system was built to educate the most privileged of white male students. Almost 20 years into the 21st century, we strive to construct a system that educates ALL students with the rigor and equity to lead our country forward as our next professionals, voters, and civic leaders.

So, what's our responsibility as women of color educators and where do we begin to dismantle a system that was designed to not include us at all? We start by acknowledging the need to do the intentional work of undoing years of internalized racism. We must be honest about our own journey as educators, one filled with assimilationist ideas and incentives that so often dilute the beauty of our true intellectual selves. Whether we realize it or not, we see our students and colleagues through racialized lenses, and if we aren't mindful about our actions, we can actually perpetuate these segregationist structures. We must reflect on how our daily behaviors create cycles of inequity in our schools and organizations.

We also become students again. We learn about our collective histories. We learn about ourselves. We learn about people who are different from us and how much we are alike inside. We learn to understand that race is a power construct that must be countered with anti-racist teaching, ideas and policies, as argued by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi in How to be an Antiracist. We must be bold in the face of complacency and the "that's not how we do things here" mindset. We grow in our learning and in our boldness to hold courageous conversations with our white and non-white peers. We must all see our students as creative, resourceful and whole no matter their race, ethnicity, zip code, language or other power constructs.

We model this learning for our students and advocate for changes in our systems. When American history's default is the white experience, we must demand inclusion. Why should the rich histories and American legacies of our students of color be remanded to elective selections? We should all experience the beauty of seeing ourselves as leaders, presidents, trailblazers, scientists, inventors, writers, and any other aspect encompassed in leadership.

All of this work takes work. It takes time. And, it will be worth it. What more of us will understand is that equity benefits us all. It is the true—if not originally intended—meaning of the words found in our Declaration of Independence that "All men are created equal." This has never been the case but it can be the future we--all genders and identities--co-design. We declare our independence of the old race construct that dis-serves and under-serves students and adults of color in our education system. We declare that we are the system now and the system is for everyone, every leader, every student, every family. That's what equity brings. It includes the participation and leadership of the marginalized so everyone contributes to the success of the whole. That's what America's schools can be about. Let's get to work. Let's move forward together.

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Going Makeupless To The Office May Be Costing You More Than Just Money

Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.

Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.

Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.

As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.

Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.

So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.

Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.

For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."