What White Educators Can Learn From Pittsburgh's Police Chief

When I first saw the picture on my Twitter feed a week or so ago, I did a double-take: A smiling, uniformed, white police officer holding up a sign that read, "I resolve to challenge racism @ work #EndWhiteSilence."

Amid the stark divide in recent months between police and those protesting police killings of unarmed African Americans, the sight of a white law enforcement officer speaking out publicly against racism was somewhat jarring. I couldn't help wondering if it had been Photoshopped.

But it turned out the photo was legit. Pittsburgh police chief Cameron McLay had stopped at a coffee shop during his city's New Year's Eve celebration and, after chatting with members of an activist group about issues of racial bias, agreed to hold up one of their signs.

The photograph quickly made the rounds on social media. When asked about it, Howard McQuillan, the president of Pittsburgh's police union, was quick to condemn McLay. "The chief is calling us racists," he said. "He believes the Pittsburgh Police Department is racist. This has angered a lot of officers."

McQuillan's defensiveness wasn't surprising, but it made little sense. If a middle school principal told her students that their school had a bullying problem and she was prepared to address it, would students go home and tell their parents the principal said they were all bullies?

Acknowledging that racism or racist attitudes exist within a police department -- which is essentially what Chief McLay did by holding up the sign -- isn't a radical notion. And suggesting that white police chiefs -- or government administrators, or business executives, or school principals -- have the responsibility to confront racism in their workplaces shouldn't be controversial.

McLay said as much in an email responding to the pushback he received about the photo. "To me, the term 'white silence' simply means that we must be willing to speak up to address issues of racial injustice, poverty, etc.," he wrote. "[R]ace impacts how we view one another, and unconscious bias applies to how [police] deal with the public. It can also impact how we judge one another; I intend we will confront both through training."

McLay's words were intended mainly for the officers under his command. But they could just as well have been addressed to educators in our nation's schools.

I've spent time in dozens of K-8 schools over the past 25 years, and I've seen few that dedicate sustained or purposeful attention to the racial and cultural competence of their teachers. These days, professional development tends to focus narrowly on instruction, assessment, and the latest Common Core-approved "shifts" in literacy and math. Rarely are teachers asked to examine their own racial and cultural identities, discuss how issues of bias may play out in their classrooms, or even look at how inclusive their lessons and bookshelves are. Teachers are expected to dive deeply into test score data, but not even dip their toes in the water when in comes to difficult conversations about race.

For white educators, the lack of attention to racial and cultural awareness can lead to unexamined biases and lowered expectations for students of color. This can take many forms, but it's exemplified by a comment I once heard a white teacher make about his Mexican American students: "These kids aren't going to grow up to be doctors." In addition, white educators looking through the lens of white privilege may fail to notice important inequities, such as the stark underrepresentation of people of color in the curriculum. How many white teachers will check out the recent list of the 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time, compiled by Time magazine, and realize that only seven of the authors are people of color?

Still, some white educators might ask, "Do we really need to talk about race? I don't see racism in my school." But as New York City teacher and author Jose Vilson pointed out on Twitter recently, racism in education isn't only found in blatant actions like a substitute teacher using a racist slur toward a student or an assistant principal passing along a racist Tweet. It's also about more insidious policies and practices that add up to help create negative outcomes for many black and brown students.

A reminder of this came last month with the release of a briefing paper from the Discipline Disparities Research to Practice Collaborative. The paper examines research showing long-standing racial disparities in school suspensions and expulsions -- the kind of disparities that make students of color more likely to drop out and eventually spend time in prison. The authors' focus, however, is on what can be done to change this reality. They conclude that such efforts must be propelled by teachers and school administrators talking honestly and critically about racial inequality. More specifically, educators need to examine the ways "school processes... and adult interactions with students may contribute to [inequitable] disciplinary outcomes."

Entering such conversations can be difficult for white educators, who make up 82 percent of public school teachers and 80 percent of principals. Some may fear that dialoguing about race will end up making them feel they've been labeled racists -- and who wants that? But the reality is that every white person who grows up in the U.S. internalizes racist stereotypes about people of color from an early age. We all carry around racist baggage of varying weights. Beverly Daniel Tatum's famous metaphor compares the continuing cycle of racism in the U.S. to an airport's moving walkway. Even if people stand still on the walkway, Tatum says, they are still being pulled in the direction of a society marked by racist beliefs and actions. The only way to break free from it, even partially, is to actively walk in the other direction.

So, how do white teachers do this? The first step, it seems to me, is to break the "white silence," to begin, if we haven't already, to engage in frank conversations about race. This can happen informally among small groups of teachers, but it also needs to be formalized -- part of the professional development all school staff members do together. PD sessions featuring another reading by Grant Wiggins or Robert Marzano are fine as far as they go, but we have to remember that good teaching is about far more than instructional strategies, lesson design, and technique.

How about a professional development where teachers do a "close read" of Ta-Nehisi Coates' essay about reparations, or Chimamanda Adichie's TEDTalk on the danger of a single story? Or maybe a screening and discussion of Precious Knowledge, the documentary film about Tucson teachers' and students' fight to save their Mexican American Studies program?

Then again, perhaps we need to begin by asking even more basic questions: How does white privilege operate? What does it mean for a teacher to harbor unacknowledged racial biases? How do our racial and cultural identities shape our expectations of our students? How do we begin to make changes?

In a country where black people continue to suffer mistreatment and brutality at the hands of law enforcement, white police officers have a responsibility to challenge racism in their ranks, to confront biases, and to work toward more just relationships with communities of color.

And in a country where too many black and brown children continue to have school experiences that don't fully value or validate who they are, white educators have the responsibility to do the same.