My son sees segregation…what does that mean for a race conscious parent?

Guest Blogger Julie Roberts-Phung writing for Raising Race Conscious Childrenby guest blogger Julie Roberts-Phung

This post is part of a week-long series highlighting supporters of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), both in their parenting of race-conscious children and their activist work for racial justice. SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice. For more resources and information check out SURJ’s website.

“Black. Momma you know what I notice? The kids here are Black and the kids at my school are White.”

My five year old said this as we pulled up to the public school to which we had applied.

I grew up thinking that segregation was something that happened in the South, in long ago history. Recently, Nikole Hannah-Jones’ “This American Life – The Problem We All Life With” has raised awareness about school segregation.

Schools in the United States are as segregated now as they were in 1968. In 1971, San Francisco tried to integrate our schools and 40% of families refused to get on the bus.

How do we raise race conscious children in the context of our education system? As a parent, this experience caused me to reflect on several questions:

Why didn’t I know how segregated our schools are? How are my choices regarding my children’s education influenced by systems of racism (and how do my choices shape systems of racism)? How can I talk with my children about these dynamics?

Research tells us that if we don’t talk about segregation and racism, children assume that White children are better than other children. It tells us that we can do a lot by reading and talking…and that our children learn the most from the diversity of their parents’ relationships with others.

This makes me ask myself: “Do my children actually see me in equitable relationships with people who are Black and other people of color? Do they see me celebrating that difference?”

They learn from what we do.

My son’s observation was exactly the reason we were looking at this school. I’ve written a lot about how I went to a school where I was one of a few White kids at a mostly Latino school, and got a great education in many ways, including witnessing the privileges I got based on my race, that most kids at the school didn’t get.

I decided I’d come back to “Black” and “White” as we read together. His school now is overwhelmingly light skinned kids, but most are Asian. The school we visited was overwhelmingly darker skinned kids, but a mix of Black, Arab, Asian, and Latino kids.

I decided to focus on segregation today:

“That’s an important thing to notice,” I told him. “What do you think about that?”

He said “I just noticed it.”

“I like it better when there are kids from different races going to school together. I think we all learn more and better that way. That’s a part of why we’re at this school. What do you think?”

He shrugged. No big conversation to happen today, I guessed.

What I wish I would have said, and will later (but not all in one breath!) is:

“You noticed an interesting pattern! You like to notice and make patterns with shapes and colors—there are patterns with people, too. Some schools and neighborhoods are mostly White, and others are mostly Black, Latino, or new Asian immigrants. The White schools usually have more money and the children get more support there. In the schools with Black, Latino, and new Asian immigrants, kids might come to school hungry or scared and their schools may not have enough money to support them. Black, Latino, and new Asian immigrants are also smart and sometimes people assume they aren’t. These are patterns that people make with where we live, go to school and put our money. It’s not fair, is it? Our job is to make things more fair, what do you think we should do?”

At the same time, I’ve been working with adults on creating more equitable patterns. I don’t believe in judging parent choices—at the same time, I am angry about how invisible we make systems of racism and how much work it takes to break out of our place in the pattern and actually be a part of a diverse, equitable, and race conscious community.

I want parents to have full information about how race plays out in our educational system so we can make better choices for our children and all the families in our community. It comes down to this: Are we actually in this together? Teacher of the Year Nate Bowling points out that right now, we’re not.

Here’s a cliff notes of what I have learned about system dynamics related to race and public schools, I’d encourage you to explore on your own what this looks like in your community:

Charters and “Choice”: When southern districts resisted integration, they proposed systems based on “choice.” They bet that more resourced White families would navigate systems and get the most resourced schools for their children, that few Black families would run the gauntlet to get access, and that few (no) White families would run the gauntlet to go to overwhelmingly Black schools. This “choice” strategy is being deployed by charter school supporters to undermine our public education system. There are currently no public schools in New Orleans—only charters, a fact that is celebrated by the WalMart Foundation and other funders of the charter movement. These funders are using the charter school movement to privatize and undermine the public schools that serve most children of color in America. While there are occasional charter schools led by progressive people of color with diverse student bodies, as a sector, charter schools are problematic , and policies that support the growth of charter schools have led to “the most segregated sector of schools for Black students.”

Test Scores & Racism: Families are rebelling against high stakes testing. We see how damaging it is to teach narrowly to standardized Math and English tests. At the same time, we use test scores to eliminate schools we wouldn’t go to. Test scores are highly correlated with socioeconomic status (race and class), so much so that academics joke that test scores tell you more about the parents than the children who take a test. Challenge sites like “GreatSchools” who rely heavily on test scores and are basically agents of educational (& actual real estate) redlining. Seriously consider a public school where you are in the numeric minority, and work to make sure you are joining a school community, understanding dynamics of race and class, not gentrifying it.

White Flight, Remixed: These two dynamics play into a remix of White flight. In the past, White flight looked like families leaving for the suburbs. With gentrification, it looks like White families choosing private/independent or charter schools or public schools where there are few Black children. At most, we might get ‘diversity on our terms.’ Half of White kids in cities like San Francisco and NYC don’t go to public schools. Inner city schools which serve Black and Latino kids are being shut down, the teachers and community scattered and being re-opened, just in time for gentrification.

Keep doing your personal work & get organized. If you’re reading Raising Race Conscious Children, you’re already doing some work as an individual or as a family around race and racism. Make sure your children are learning about race and structural racism in their schools. Be an advocate for equity and integration in your region. Challenge your PTA and school to ensure people of color are represented in leadership and have a say in how funds are spent. Join your local SURJ chapter, our SURJ Families Facebook group, or look for people of color led groups who are organizing for world class public schools in your community and support their efforts.

When we choose our children’s schools, we are really choosing their worlds. Research tells us that there are benefits to diverse schools, including creativity, critical thinking and self knowledge that we get being in the numeric minority.

I think about the families in San Francisco in 1971 and wonder what I would have done. Would I have put my children on the bus? In 2016, how am I a part of segregation, or how am I resisting it?

I look forward to many amazing conversations about race and difference as my family embraces a public school where our family adds to the diversity of the school.


Julie Roberts-Phung is a long time community organizer turned consultant and coach, and a member of SURJ. Through her business, Empower Together, she coaches change-makers on a variety of topics, including leadership and career issues. Julie is mom to two children, a four-year-old and a one-year-old.

Click here for additional posts by Julie Roberts-Phung.

Click here for an additional post related to segregation and schools.

If you would like to find out more about joining parent activists through SURJ, please join the Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) Families Facebook group or become a SURJ member.

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