I took a little time recently, got a little angry, and answered a North Seattle parent’s passive-aggressive question about why skin color matters.
The question had originally been emailed to an administrator at Laurelhurst Elementary, and was then reported by Isolde Raftery in her excellent article for KUOW.
Why do we have to talk about race? Why do we have to ask whether or not Black Lives Matter?
The answer boils down to a hard truth: whether or not skin color matters depends on whether or not you want things to change. If you’re comfortable with the status quo, then I guess you do not have to talk about this. You do not have to ask these questions. Skin color, I suppose, does not have to matter to you if you feel fine with the way you and everyone else are being treated.
I can tell you, though, that it matters to a lot of other people who don’t have the privilege of opting out. Skin color is made an unavoidable issue every single day for the majority of people in this country, and it will continue to be a plague until enough people who can afford to look the other way decide not to.
Anyway, on to the next question. This week I’ll take on another tricky word trap from North Seattle as highlighted in Raftery’s article, this time from the parent of an Eckstein Middle School student in Wedgwood:
“What about red and black or yellow and white and black? How does supporting Black Lives Matter help that gap?”
Do you mind if I call you Ashley? I once hardly knew a person named Ashley Eckstein, and since you're an Eckstein parent it seems to fit.
Your question is a bit strangely worded, so I’ll try to tackle it from a few different angles and see if I can’t find my way to some truth.
First off, this sounds a lot like nitpicking from the sidelines. It’s all too easy and all too common for folks to stand by, knowing something is unjust -- such as the unjustified and unpunished murders of Black men and women by police officers, or the violent danger that comes with branding Black teenagers as criminals, or the unfair treatment Black kids are receiving in our schools and courtrooms -- and then judge the particulars of the people who chose to take action.
Supporting Black Lives Matter helps all gaps because it acknowledges injustice and seeks to change it. Nitpicking Black Lives Matter supports injustice by taking the side of the oppressor.
Remember, there is nothing violent hidden in the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” There is nothing inherently threatening about it. It doesn’t suggest that Black Lives Matter more than any other lives, or that they matter at anyone’s expense.
It’s just an inarguable truth: Black Lives Matter. It’s only needed to be said this loudly and often -- and has only been so controversial -- because our society is showing by its actions that it doesn’t value Black lives the same way it values white lives. We needed a reminder that, hey, Black Lives Matter, too, dammit. And those kinds of reminders can be uncomfortable.
As such, our reactions are all too often based in fear and criticism. We push back from our place of discomfort against an earnest plea for equity when it’s our own projection and reflection we’re really afraid of.
When it comes to actually closing the opportunity and achievement gaps you hinted at, Ashley, it can be easier to understand how focusing on Black students in this case can actually help all students, regardless of race, through the theory of targeted universalism.
Targeted universalism suggests acknowledging the needs of all groups, but focusing particularly on the needs and situation of the most marginalized. In education, this would mean designing strategies based on the needs of the student group with the largest gaps, knowing that this philosophy almost always creates greater success for all involved.
Read this article about the Curb-Cut Effect for a detailed example of targeted universalism in action.
But having said all this, I want to answer your question with a question of my own. How does your email help the gap? You can’t solve every problem at once. If you have ideas for closing the gaps you mentioned, then I hope you’re putting them into action. Otherwise, this email amounts to gossip, and is actively working against the students at your kid’s school who aren’t getting a fair shake.