If you have worked in education for any amount of time you are familiar with the terms “achievement gap” or, if you work in a more conscious organization, the “opportunity gap”, as well as the school-to-prison pipeline. In fact, I would bet that most people, whether they work in education or not, are familiar with these terms. They are real things, with real life consequences. Young people across the country go to schools where they are not expected to produce anything resembling the production of knowledge and are instead being supervised until they age out, drop out or are pushed out of public education. These cycles persist because we fail to hold students to high expectations in schools with the biggest “opportunity gaps.”
But how can this persist under the care of brilliant and hard working educators across the country? Is it a lack of funding, lack of understanding & skills, lack of quality teacher preparation, lack of lobbying to remove legislative roadblocks. Maybe. One potential factor, rarely discussed, is setting the bar of expectations at white mediocrity.
We often conflate accountability with oppression and collude with the very system we purport to be struggling against. We dismiss holding working class students of color to higher expectations than we hold wealthy white kids too. When confronted with doing so we will be quick to pull out the “white kids at (insert wealthy white suburban school here) don’t have to (insert high expectation here)” and this ends the conversation, and we act like it should. But should it? When we do this we are centering whiteness in one of its most insidious and complex forms: white mediocrity.
I want to take a second and really consider what we are asking when we ask, “Are wealthy white kids held to blank expectation?” What we are saying is that if it doesn’t happen in a mostly white, mostly wealthy, population then it shouldn’t happen. We are literally making those places the goal. We are orienting towards them, ironically, in the name of racial justice. This seems like the antithesis of what we should be about. We can’t on one hand point out the sheer magnitude of white mediocrity and privilege that facilitate the upper echelons of our society and then turn around and orient our young people to that standard, especially not young working-class people of color. The fact is no matter how radical or revolutionary our rhetoric if young people don’t have the skills to survive the system they cannot contribute to its dismantling. There is plenty of room to discuss what those skills may or may not be but what we know is that they are not developed by simply orienting towards wealthy white spaces. In fact, orienting towards those spaces, like all orientations towards the white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, is a violence. Those are the spaces that gave us the opportunity gaps and school to prison pipeline. We can and must do better than that.
What does that mean for us as educators? It means that we have a responsibility to keep the bar high first and foremost for ourselves. We must be vigilant of the ways in which the violence of racialized and gendered capitalism plays out in society, our buildings, and our classrooms. Literally any system can be used to perpetuate oppression and reproduce inequity. It is not oppressive to have an expectation in the classroom and hold accountability for that expectation, our Grandma’s did that. It is oppressive if that expectation and accountability is delivered disproportionately and in a bias manner. It is not oppressive to have a discipline system or to talk about character. There are codes of behavior in every culture, in every tradition, and in every community. It is oppressive if that discipline and character building is aimed at facilitating assimilation to whiteness rather than community and if those building character lack it themselves. It is the people executing the system that dictate the outcomes. High expectations and high support are the ingredients necessary to build the skills and humanity necessary to combat the systemic violence lodged in America’s core. Any claims of orienting towards what is happening in white wealthy spaces for no other reason than they are white wealthy spaces should be met with extreme push back and a close examination of how whiteness is at play.
Ryan Williams-Virden, Ian McLaughlin