Why Every Principal Should Write a Racial Autobiography - ASCD
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April 1, 2021

Why Every Principal Should Write a Racial Autobiography

Examining your own racial history is an empowering exercise of antiracist leadership.

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After giving talks or workshops about leadership, I have frequently been asked why I would bring race into an otherwise very good presentation. Wasn't that promoting divisiveness and negativity? Such questions seem to assume that antiracist leadership is inherently contentious, and that any deep exploration of race is misplaced in a talk about leadership. In response to these leaders, I usually explain that I did not create race, but I was born into a culture where race has meaning in my life, in American society, and in the principalship. That said, I acknowledge that there are destructive approaches to antiracist work that fail to build up principals.

But discussing school leadership in the absence of race is like building a house absent a foundation. While that house may stay upright for some time, it will be ill-prepared to withstand the strong winds of change. This is why I fervently recommend that every school principal, no matter their color or background, write a racial autobiography. The racial autobiography helps principals surface unexamined meanings of race personally and its impact on school leadership and America. 1 To paraphrase a quote from anthropologist Audrey Smedley's book, it is not objective physical differences between groups that create races, but the entrenchment of such differences as socially significant. As Smedley explains, race in America has evolved historically from a troubling "folk classification" or fiction into a powerful and unsettling worldview that impacts so many aspects of daily life. 2 So, I get how some skeptics would want to avoid confronting this (racial) history. However, as Faulkner reminded us, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Because race and racism are part of the past and present, both are deeply embedded in our school systems—from how they were established to how they are run every day. Because of the obscure yet powerful ways inequities appear in areas such as curriculum access, school climate, and discipline, principals can be easily lulled into thinking race is a part of the past. For example, school leaders may clearly see how (racial) history impacts social climate when white students pose with a Confederate flag in front of a school trophy case and post it on Snapchat. But they may not detect how (racial) history impacts Black students being discouraged from taking AP courses and tracked into systematically lower classes.

So, rather than settle into a colorblind avoidance of race, I encourage leaders to see how a racial autobiography can empower them—and by proxy, their staff—to address the blind spots where biases otherwise live undisturbed until someone errs, or someone proactively disrupts them.

What Is a Racial Autobiography?

A racial autobiography is an empowering tool of antiracist leadership. I have worked with many truly curious and committed leaders over the years. While they have wanted to engage in antiracist leadership, they have often found themselves at a loss for how to begin and worried about the harsh punishment that could result from making a racial gaffe. These are valid concerns. So, principals need to be sure they have a clear "why"—as Simon Sinek reminds us—for doing equity work, especially antiracist leadership work.

The "why" of leadership inspires us to act. Why would a principal engage in antiracist leadership? How could this process inspire his or her staff to want to follow suit? How would principals tap into their own humanity and that of others to morally embrace this difficult work? It turns out that the tragic events of last year, including the televised murder of George Floyd, found many of us in difficult emotional spaces where we felt an intense need to act. Yet many principals also felt powerless to take meaningful action, even as a number of antiracist books hit the New York Times best sellers list.

A racial autobiography—a narrative written to explore how race has manifested in one's life—can support a leader's goal of becoming antiracist. Good leaders understand the importance of reckoning with racial injustice so they seek to become more racially aware to unearth hidden assumptions and biases. They also read relevant articles and books about race, especially its historical aspects.

The racial autobiography can take many forms. For example, in our new book Five Practices for Equity-Focused School Leadership (ASCD, 2021), my coauthors and I recommend that leaders identify key realizations—multiple points, times, and moments—across their lives and write their personal story around race.3 They should look for points where race came up and explore whether they addressed it and how, and if not, why not? This timeline approach asks principals to organize these points along a spectrum, from their earliest learning experiences all the way to the present.

This exercise deepens the "why" by locating the principal in the context of our country's racial history. It also tends to create more empathy. Thus, conscientious principals who have followed a clear set of affirming steps to engage in antiracist work are better prepared to address misguided accusations, like those from teachers or parents who may be uncomfortable acknowledging and discussing racism.

From Reflection to Action

As noted earlier, race is a complicated construct: It has no biological meaning when it comes to categorizing people. However, because as a social construct it has so much meaning in our history and in how Americans engage with each other, consciously and subconsciously, it carries strong cultural significance and impacts the work of leaders.

I recently invited four reflective principals to share their experiences completing a racial autobiography, a requirement of a graduate course I taught several years ago on antiracist leadership. These former students of mine worked in diverse districts: a suburban district and three urban districts, all of which have had challenges with race. Three of the principals led schools in Texas and one led a school in New York City. The participants were Brenda, a Black female principal; Lara, a non-Latino white female principal; Elena, a white female principal; and Jabari, an African American male principal.

I asked the principals to complete an online questionnaire about whether the racial autobiography supported their work, what concerns they had about starting it, and any advice they might offer to other principals. After that, I set up an interview with each principal via Zoom to gather more context about the answers they provided.

In her racial autobiography, Brenda identified as a Black woman as opposed to African American because she hailed from a multicultural family. Lara described herself as a "non-Latino" white, noting that because of her married surname, ability to speak Spanish, and her neighborhood's culture, she had been told she could identify as Latina, which she rejected. Jabari's family instilled in him a deep understanding of African American history and culture, which led him to choose African American as his racial identity. Elena, meanwhile, identified as white but also Jewish (setting her apart in the majority-Christian state of Texas).

Writing a racial autobiography can be a daunting task, especially if a principal has never reflected on race. Principals of color often, though not always, report having an easier time accessing racial experiences, whereas white principals have to dig a little deeper to get started. Not surprisingly, the principals in this group had concerns from the outset, including whether they were doing the racial autobiography assignment correctly. In a written reflection, Lara questioned how her "experiences might be perceived by others." Jabari worried about whether he would be able to capture all of the rich racial experiences that defined him as a human being. Elena excitedly looked forward to the journey before grasping the full enormity of the assignment: It challenged her to acknowledge race in a way she hadn't before as a white woman.

Three big themes emerged from their work on the racial autobiographies (and were captured in the interviews): increased awareness of race, increased drive to build community with staff and the local neighborhood, and a renewed focus on creating structures that promote equity.

1. Increasing Awareness of Race

Awareness of race requires an examination of personal assumptions, beliefs, and actions. One way that principals can ease into the process is to initially write a brief statement describing their own basic racial identity. This development of a racial identity statement can be coupled with a slideshow of personal and family pictures that can be shared with colleagues. The purpose is to scaffold learning with racial reflections leading to the racial autobiography. The quote "We see and understand things not as they are, but as we are" is very appropriate here because it reminds us that just as the country has a (racial) history, we have a (racial) autobiography, and it's grounded in culture. That means when principals interpret situations and make dozens of decisions daily, they are being influenced by a cultural lens that incorporates biases. The principal who is more self-aware reflects on how to unearth those racial biases, put them in check, and engage in leadership more consistent with their goals of building and maintaining an equitable school.

The principals I spoke with agreed that there was a gradual rise in their racial awareness as they worked on their racial autobiographies. Brenda reported that the process revealed through a new lens how "the decisions my family made to immerse me in my culture and identity impacted me as a person, a mother, and a school leader." Jabari resolved his initial anxiety about leaving something out as he "looked through family photo albums; old journals; previous report cards; music, magazine, movie, and book libraries; work samples; and anything else from my K–16 learning experiences." Lara stated that writing the autobiography helped her reflect deeply on the "experiences and biases that shape my perspective and privilege as an individual and as a school leader."

Similarly, this racial awareness opened up an exploration of the principals' personal assumptions and beliefs about leadership and learning—and how those beliefs shaped their present behaviors. Once principals shared their racial autobiographies with their school staff, the staff remarked they felt more connected to these leaders and saw them as "more human."

Although all four principals had been apprehensive at the beginning, it was not long before they were feeling more in control of their thinking on race and more empowered in their understanding of how intimidating racial dynamics intersected with their leadership. Though several years had passed since the principals completed their racial autobiographies, this sentiment remained true.

Developing critical consciousness means questioning assumptions, beliefs, behaviors, and systems. I sometimes refer to racial awareness as critical consciousness because it nudges the leader to resist status-quo thinking and reframe issues to become curious about inequities. It can support thinking about reflective questions like: How has my race and racial history impacted my leadership journey? Where have I used my privilege to introduce dialogue about race in school practices? How might engaging in racial reflections raise awareness about school inequities and make me feel more empowered in these difficult conversations?

2. Building Community Within and Beyond the School

Building affinity with staff and the school community at-large is a way to share power of position and to empower others. The racial autobiography itself was a springboard to community building: putting what they learned into practice, these principals spent time truly listening to students, staff, and parents around issues of race and they became more empathetic as a result. In general, by keeping awareness of identity in mind, principals can offer more sincere support to people who have been and remain historically marginalized. They can build their staff's capacity to support them in the work and may even consider developing equity teams to help lead the charge.

Lara shared that her updated racial autobiography was a starting point for reflecting on how to support staff learning. "The process provided a grounding experience for discussing race and privilege with school staff," she said, and it improved her capacity to listen, reflect, and validate others' experiences. Both Lara and Elena, as white women, led their schools' charge to focus on equity. They each built the capacity of their assistant principals to support them, but ultimately, they felt empowered to guide this work.

After completing her racial autobiography, Brenda noted, "I prioritize our student, staff, and families' identities [by] allowing them to engage in the process as well with support and celebration." Significantly, she led her faculty through completing their own racial autobiographies. Brenda explained, "We have [created] a visual form of the autobiography along with our racial identity statements as a staff and also engaged our students and their families."

Jabari said he connected more deeply with his staff and with the surrounding community by leading neighborhood walks together at the start of the school year. Staff members "walked in the shoes" of their students and learned more about the neighborhood beyond stereotyping. This was a powerful way to invite members of the community to meet the staff and to learn how they could participate directly in the great work of the school. Jabari remarked that the walks were especially helpful as the neighborhood and school demographics had shifted in his seven years as principal, with an increase in students of color.

Building community is a viable way to be more inclusive of diverse perspectives and to build others' capacity to lead for equity. Principals should consider reflective questions like: How have I inspired my staff to share their (racial) autobiographies and the work? How do we work as a team to support each other in building capacity to do this work?

3. Taking Antiracist Action to Change Structures

Antiracism seeks to dismantle a racist system; antiracist principals must envision a new, more equitable school and create new structures to support that vision. Reconstruction follows, and the new system must support the learning of all students, especially those who have been minoritized. Equity work is change work, and it is especially hard to do in light of barriers like resistant staff or legacy policies. It requires that principals acknowledge structures and set out to change them through carefully coordinated actions.

In improving climate to develop better systems of learning, Lara said,

I have a commitment to ensuring that our students are immersed in positive images and concepts of people of color, and also hold an expectation for my staff to practice cultural responsiveness in their lessons with the children. It is a strong part of our school culture, and after doing my own racial autobiography, it helped me to understand why [taking antiracist action] is such a strong component of my leadership.

Similarly, Brenda talked of promoting equity in practice when she added, "After sharing my own autobiography, I was able to create [a sense of] safety through my own vulnerability that encouraged my staff to engage and then share their autobiographies with others. After modeling that with my staff, they were able to share their visual racial autobiographies [slides with pictures] with their students before having them create their own." Brenda and Lara's student populations are majority African American and Latinx, respectively. Having students create their own racial autobiographies sent the clear message that your story matters here.

Taking antiracist action to change structures brings all the pieces together. Principals should consider reflective questions like: How have I inspired my staff to lead and create systems that support and promote equity? What can I point to that ensures I have empowered my team to collaboratively create an equitable school? How have I provided them opportunities to interrogate race to make the school more equitable?

Vigilant, Curious, and Courageous

Writing a racial autobiography is an intimidating but revelatory process. The four principals I interviewed agreed that it sheds light on privilege, bias, and the vulnerability that comes with being a lead learner. Patience, Jabari explained, is crucial. These deeply embedded racial inequities did not develop overnight, and thus the solutions will not spring up by morning. But through humble engagement and a commitment to remaining vigilant, curious, and courageous, principals will enhance their ability to lead, empower their staff, and transform their schools.

A Warm-Up Activity

In Five Practices for Equity-Focused School Leadership (ASCD, 2021), Mark Anthony Gooden and his coauthors provide preliminary steps to completing a racial autobiography. They encourage leaders to identify—and jot down—multiple times/points/moments in their lives when race was foregrounded. These could be significant moments, powerful lessons, or formative experiences involving race, especially those occurring in a school, family, or professional setting. The idea is to simply travel backwards in this exercise: When writing their racial autobiographies, leaders will learn to make connections between early understandings of race and current beliefs and practices. For more information, visit shop.ascd.org.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Are you ready to commit to writing a racial autobiography? Outline the steps required to get started.

➛ Why do you think educators are often apprehensive about writing racial autobiographies?

End Notes

1 Gooden, M. A., & O'Doherty, A. (2015). Do you see what I see? Fostering aspiring leaders' racial awareness. Urban Education, 50(2), 225–255.

3 Radd, S., Generett, G. G., Gooden, M. A., & Theoharis, G. (2021). Five practices for equity-focused school leadership. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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