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Three local moms talk about racism in the classroom

School Colors: Racism in Education—and How to Stop It

an honest conversation about racism in the classroom

If the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t treat racism like a distant memory. White parents may believe that racism doesn’t exist in schools today, but if you ask a Black or Latino parent, you’ll hear a different story. While said racism might not be as blatant as Jim Crow, it’s evident in white-washed reading materials and the assumptions made about students of color—and according to moms, it’s taking a toll on their kids.

Three moms of color gathered with us (via Zoom, of course) to shed light on the difficulties they and their kids have experienced in the classroom, and what they say all moms can do to make school a welcoming place.

Frances Cudjoe Waters, who is African American, lives in Dallas with her three teenage sons and her husband of 24 years. The Stanford and Harvard Law alum is now the CEO and founder of The Dallas Renaissance, whose goal is to celebrate African American culture and change the narrative for Black children.

Shonn Brown, also African American, lives in Dallas with her three children and her husband. She attended Southern Methodist University, where she now serves on the executive board for the Dedman School of Law. She is also vice president and deputy general counsel at Kimberly-Clark.

Suleyka Scribner, who is Latina, lives in Fort Worth with her 11-year-old son and her husband Kent Scribner, the superintendent of Fort Worth Independent School District. Education is a family affair—Suleyka, a Northern Arizona University grad, is an instructional coach for Castleberry ISD in Fort Worth.

Could you tell me a situation that sticks out in your mind when race affected your education? Frances Cudjoe Waters: My parents are both first-generation college students, and we moved to Massachusetts when I was about 6, from New York. There were three Black children in a white suburban school, and they assumed all three of us should be in special ed. They didn’t test us or anything—just put us in the special education class. Fortunately, my parents knew how to be advocates. They said, “Well, just test her. Let’s just be sure.” They found I could skip second and third grade. So the bias was just there from the beginning.

I learned at the age of 6 [or] 7 years old we have to learn how to be an advocate in education for yourself. My parents modeled that for me. Had they not done that for me, my life would’ve been very different. Instead of ending up at Stanford and Harvard Law School, I would’ve gotten bored, and I loved to talk, so it would have been a behavior problem, right? I might’ve ended up in a very different place.

How did your experience affect the way that you molded your kids’ education? Frances Cudjoe Waters: My husband and I have been very deliberate about making sure that we monitor our children’s education. We don’t just have to think about, What’s the best place academically? We have to think about, Where’s my son or daughter going to be treated fairly? Do they have diversity in their staff, and do they embrace diversity? Even if they have it in their statement, will my child be comfortable here?

The journey for finding the right school as a Black mother has been much more complicated. I certainly have had situations where our children have had great experiences, but others where we knew there were some issues around race that came up. Our [non-Black] friends have no idea what we as African American moms are dealing with. I was petrified about my boys starting to drive because I know what’s happening. One of them already has had a situation where he’s been profiled. It shaped my education as a child, and it certainly has shaped my experience as a mom.

How do you feel like racism in schools affects your children? Shonn Brown: It’s not just them being treated a certain way in a particular environment. It’s the mental toll that environments take on these kids because the curriculum and the experience are not really set up for a diverse educational environment. They don’t see people who look like them. They don’t read about people who are successful who look like them.

Every example that they have, in many instances, are of white people, and so it kind of creates this vision in your head as a Black child that the successful person is white, and everybody else who looks like me is not successful.

As a Latina, did you experience racism or implicit bias growing up? Are you still seeing it today as an educator? Suleyka Scribner: I grew up in a border town as a Latina girl, but one thing that I knew growing up was that there are different classes of Latinos. We have all the social classes, and so that was basically all I saw growing up. Then, when [I went] into urban cities such as Phoenix, Arizona, or even coming here to Fort Worth, I was taken aback to think that when you’re Latino, it equates [to] poverty. “Oh, you’re Latino. You’re really good at making tacos. That’s great that you might be bilingual, but you probably mostly speak Spanish, poor child.”

As an educator, when I come into a classroom, I do see that a lot of our teachers have these implicit biases of our Latino students and our African American students. They really have not addressed it, even though they are thinking, We’re having Cinco de Mayo, or We’re celebrating African American monththat checks the box off to say that they are culturally relevant in our schools. Those things are important, but it is not the full picture, by any means, of what it means for educators to really step into the shoes or really understand their students.

Shonn Brown: I feel like a lot of that is rooted in the fact that a lot of our teachers don’t have a diverse experience themselves. The only Latino people that they know and the only Black people that they really think they know are tangential, because they maybe have worked with them, or they see them on TV. They assume that the people that they meet that are Latino or African American are like the folks they see on TV or like the images that are portrayed on the news, and they haven’t taken time to develop true relationship with anybody who’s not like them.

My kids go to private school. They assume my son plays football or basketball when he walks through the door. They don’t assume he’s there because of his educational ability. They don’t assume that his parents are paying full freight for him to be there. They are very pleased to say, “Look at the diversity of our school. We’ve got these Black people here and we’ve set aside one month to talk about their history. Aren’t we doing a good job?” Absolutely not, but they’ve been sort of ingrained to think that I’m not a racist because I’m a good person, and they haven’t really done the deep work to actually create relationship with people that aren’t like them.

Frances Cudjoe Waters: We have to, as moms, do that deep work. We work hard to make sure our children don’t judge people based on their color, right? We teach them to engage and to not stereotype. I know as a boy mom, I spend a lot of time making sure there are no gender stereotypes here. We do that work, and our friends, our white mom friends—we need you to do that work.

When all three of my boys got into Greenhill the same year, I had some white friends that were like, “Wow, how’d that happen?” I wanted to say, “Well, top scores, top grades.” But there’s an assumption. The kids get it from hearing it from their parents oftentimes. We really have a chance to model behavior that’s different.

I remember when there was a horrible experience with a fraternity a few years ago where they were caught on videos with that very racist language talking about possibly stringing up Black people. I remember being here in Dallas at the Town North Y and hearing white mom friends saying that, “Yes, I told my kid, ‘Be really careful because things get caught on camera.’” I remember thinking, No, no, no. It’s not, “Be careful because you might get caught on camera.” The parent message has to be, “These are not our values. We don’t believe this as your parents, and we don’t expect you to believe this about Latinos, about African Americans or any other group.”

When you mentioned the deep work that’s being done, we’re doing it every day to help our children with the daily trauma that they’re going through to make sure they still treat people well. And we just need all to be doing that deep work, so that you’re not assuming that everyone who’s Latina is from a certain background, or Black, and that we all start to see each other as human beings. That’s work that parents can and need to do.

Suleyka Scribner: I agree with you, Frances. I think that one of the main things we should do is remove the stigma from having an implicit bias. We all have them. I have them. We’ve been taught to make assumptions that way, and we need to allow all of us to have those brave and safe spaces to say, “This is what I have believed all along,” but through education, through connecting with others, just like Shonn mentioned earlier, it starts to change your mind.

Biases aren’t with you forever. It’s not part of your genetics. You can change a bias, and so how do you do that? You begin with yourself. From there, we make those connections, and it isn’t until then that we can start to change systems.

Some people think, Oh, well, I’m not racist. And then they shut the doors [on further change] because they don’t want that label slapped on them. But it’s not enough. Like I said, no shame, and then we need to commit to continuing to do anti-racism work.

How can we make our schools more conducive to unbiased learning for all races? Is it training our teachers? Is it training our staff? Is it retraining our society? Suleyka Scribner: We can’t re-create our society, but we can create equity and opportunity for every single child. I mean just now, with COVID-19, we see the racial disparities—that there is no equity with even just hotspots. There are pockets in the city where they have no internet. So how do we get on board with bringing those issues to light and making sure that it is equitable across our cities? We begin with that.

We have to be very intentional about instructional practices, as well, even looking at the material, our curriculum. What are they looking at? Who are the authors of the materials that we are teaching? We always talk about this “text connection”: Connect with your text, connect with the author—those are some of our reading standards.

As a Latino or Black child, how are you going to connect with the blond, blue-eyed little children in your storybook that don’t share the same story? Maybe they don’t have an abuela at home, or whatever it is. We need to start to think what is culturally and linguistically relevant for our students. We have students that have family members from Puerto Rico, or Argentina, or Spain. We just need to be truly multicultural.

Frances Cudjoe Waters: The curriculum piece is key. I realized there was not one Black author on the reading list in my children’s middle school, so we actually moved our two older children to public school situations for high school. In [the middle school] curriculum, they actually did every other culture except African Americans for the entire middle school. Four years is a long time to have no African American input.

One of the other things that I’m doing—I created an organization called The Dallas Renaissance. In January, before COVID, we had an African American STEM excellence night at the Perot Museum. One of the things I think you can do is try to engage the cultural and other resources in the community and ask them to help highlight our culture in ways that the schools or curriculum may not be. We highlighted African Americans in STEM because they weren’t seeing African Americans in STEM anywhere in the curriculum or in their schools. If you don’t see yourself anywhere, then it’s hard for you to imagine how you can overcome that.

I think we have to also push our educational institutions to be inclusive and to realize there is brilliance in every culture. There are worthwhile works of literature in every culture. There’s something that we can all gain by learning about each other.

Shonn Brown: It’s just as important for the white kids to see that there are [non-white] scientists and doctors and people of great influence on our country, because they too need to see that they don’t own the patent for success, and that people that don’t look like them have contributed to the fabric of this country—not just as slaves who built buildings, but as inventors, as people who built business, who created economy. And that’s not being taught.

As adults, [we need a] sort of retraining. If you took babies and children, they are unencumbered and they get it right. There is no judgment. It is not until we, as adults, start teaching them, and putting these images before them, and giving them things to read, or programs—it’s not until we start layering that on that they start creating these discriminatory beliefs. If we could—and it’s idyllic, I get it—but if we would approach the educational system with the blankness that a child comes to it, so we’re not preconceived.

There are things that we need to teach, but we don’t have to pull them from the same resources. We don’t have to pull them from the same place, but everybody has a place in that particular conversation.

Illustration courtesy of Mary Dunn.