Systemic oppression demands a systemic exodus

Our traditional public schools are systemically inequitable — in Seattle, in Washington State, and everywhere else in the United States. Put another way, our schools are consistently producing inequitable outcomes based on race and family income, and it’s a form of systemic oppression.

We know this, most of us. But for most of us, that’s all we do. We know it. It’s mostly an intellectual idea.

So instead of idle knowledge, let’s consider for a moment what that really means — systemic oppression — and what it means for us as human beings.

First off, it means recognizing that our society runs on systems that were designed to treat people differently. We are familiar with these systems as massive, mostly-public institutions, and they allow different people different access to opportunity on a systematic basis.

Our healthcare system, for instance, and our banking, finance and housing systems are all inequitable systems — systems of oppression, in other words. Our criminal justice system is another hugely oppressive system. So is our public school system.

Now, before you balk at considering our hallowed public schools to be a severely and intentionally oppressive institution, we have to remember that we don’t get to pick and choose where we find systemic inequity and where we don’t. It’s baked into every aspect of our society, and it’s part of every stitch of the tapestry. It’s especially a part of every major public system and every public institution. All of them.

For what it’s worth, I grew up going to public school. So did my siblings and parents and just about everyone I know. My mother has been a Head Start preschool teacher or a public elementary school teacher for nearly 40 years, and I have undying respect for her and her lifetime of service.

I’m trying to say that it’s not an easy truth for me to digest, either, this idea that our schools are a primary means by which systemic oppression is created and maintained. It happens through and in spite of good people and good intentions. But it’s real, and we know it.

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We know, for example, that the school-to-prison pipeline exists. We know it’s real, and we know it’s a particularly pressing reality for Black boys. And if any other public institution were sorting, tracking and funneling kids into our prison system, well… would you voluntarily drop your kids off there every day?

Unfortunately, if our society is built on systems of oppression, our public school system is one of those systems of oppression. And it means all of our traditional public schools are systemically racist. Not just sporadically racist, or racist here and there, but fundamentally racist. Systemically ableist. Systemically heteronormative. Systemically patriarchal.

Every day that goes by, we’re allowing the system to churn through more beloved children. Every day that we continue to participate, we’re complicit in this churn. Complicit in our own oppression.

No exceptions. If we’re part of the system, we’re part of it. No matter how “good” our school is, or how “good” we are. No matter how “active” we are. No matter how righteous.


In an oppressive society, there is no neutral. Our schools are either a vehicle for liberation, or they are a system of oppression. Our schools are either acknowledging and actively fighting all systems of oppression at all times, or they are active participants in the oppression. It’s either/or. No gray area.

That’s a lot to overcome. And it’s important that it becomes something we know with our hearts and not just something we’ve intellectualized and compartmentalized. It can be difficult to remember on a moment-to-moment basis that the individual inequities we see playing out before us are a statistically inevitable outcome of a racially violent system, and that the inspiring success stories we love so dearly are, in fact, statistical anomalies.

But it’s even more important to remember that all these statistical anomalies are vulnerable little kids who are as beautiful and deserving of the very best as my own kids. Every kid who “slips through the cracks,” as we say offhandedly, is the center of someone’s universe.

There’s an old saying that you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it, and there’s a particular truth to be found along those lines with our schools. We can’t expect to “fix” our broken system of public schools by tweaking the corners. We can’t expect to “fix” our patriarchal, heternonormative, ableist, racist, ass-backward society by schooling our kids in the same way we were schooled. By socializing our kids in the same way we were socialized. By conditioning our kids in the same way we were conditioned. We can’t realistically hope to create the new world by educating our kids in the old world.

We also can’t expect to change — upend? revolutionize? defeat? — the system when we keep on buying the empty promises and willingly handing over our most precious resources day after day.

I believe that the first answer to systemic oppression is a systemic exodus. We must, as individuals and families, fully withdraw our participation in all the systems that oppress us and those around us.

Otherwise we are undermined by our own hypocrisy before we’ve even begun to fight or advocate or legislate for the greater good.

It will be difficult. It will be strange. And it will require us to confront some difficult truths.

But when has a difficult road ever stood in the way of people reaching for freedom?

Better, I think, to have tried with my whole heart and to have seemed a little crazy to some folks than to look back in 20 years and wish I’d had the guts to think big when my kids needed me most.

So, this is the road I’m on. I hope you’ll join me.

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