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November 1, 2020

The Leadership Journey from Color-Blind to Color-Brave

If we don't investigate our own lens, then we walk into schools with biases that will show up in our work.
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I began teaching in 1993, when the idea of being "color-blind" was very popular (and in some places, it still is). A color-blind racial ideology claims that the United States is a big melting pot where we're all just human beings and skin color doesn't affect us. But I knew, growing up as a Latina and an immigrant, and now as an educator working with students of color, that race does matter and that people do see skin color, often in a negative way.
When we try to have a color-blind mindset, we not only fail to see the assets our students bring to our schools, we also fail to acknowledge the systemic inequities that hurt children of color. If you say you don't see color, then you don't see me or my experiences, and you don't see the need to create change in the system.

Investigate Your Lens

The term "color-brave" comes from a TED Talk by Mellody Hobson. A color-brave mindset encourages us to embrace the notion that race impacts experiences, and it pushes us to investigate our own biases and assumptions about race. As educators and education leaders, one of the first things we can do to begin cultivating a color-brave mindset is to acknowledge our biases. We need to have what I call a "mirror check," where we look at how we are contributing to systems that don't support students of color.
As we acknowledge where we are in our journey to awareness, we are also educating ourselves on the history of racial disparity and inequity (the works of Gloria Ladson-Billings and Lisa Delpit are a good place to start) and working with our colleagues in education to understand, learn, and demonstrate that we value students of color and language learners in the methods and materials we use in our teaching.
Leadership plays a monumental role in this work. We need to continue pushing conversations about race and equity, get comfortable with discomfort, acknowledge that we may be part of the problem, and believe that we can take steps to change.
As a principal, I used data as a tool to help our school analyze behavior concerns across grade levels. We logged office referrals and disciplinary practices. I shared that data with teachers, and we began to see patterns in who was being sent out of the classroom and suspended. Those students were predominantly boys of color. Teachers were surprised and saddened as they came to terms with this inequity. We loved and cared for our students, but sometimes we just don't know what we don't know as a result of our own, and often very different, personal lived experiences. That's especially true in education, where the majority of teachers are white and don't look like or share the same experiences as children of color.
If we don't investigate our own lens and make an effort to get to know our students and their families, then we walk into our schools with biases that are going to show up in our work and hinder our ability to truly connect with students.

Start and Sustain the Conversation

My advice to principals would be to start building your own capacity and the capacity of your teachers to be color-brave. I've had book studies with my colleagues. We've done social-emotional learning for our students and staff and held educator workshops on how bias affects our teaching, learning, curriculum, assessments, and relationships. Start learning together, get the conversation going, and sustain it—whether that's by conducting a book study, analyzing data, or teaming up to address a problem of practice.
One low-stakes way to learn more about racial equity in education is through Twitter chats. When I joined Twitter nine years ago, I remember feeling like no one was talking about social justice and inequity in education. Most conversations and chats I joined took a butterflies and unicorns approach to engaging educators. It felt like a romanticized version of what I experienced as a teacher and school leader.
I decided to start my own chat, #WeLeadEd, focusing on leadership through an equity and social justice lens. Five years later, I'm still learning so much. Another option is Valerie Brown's #ClearTheAir chat. I, like many others, call these chats courageous conversations. But they should just be conversations. It's what we need to do to create equitable change in education, even when it feels uncomfortable.
This pandemic has shone a light on inequity, injustice, and racism and has created an immense sense of urgency. We can't simply talk anymore. What are we waiting for?

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