On Monday, Jan. 4, as students savored the final day of winter break, St. Stephen’s faculty and staff attended in-service meetings and special programming. As part of the school’s ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work, guest speaker Ali Michael, Ph.D., engaged employees in a two-hour interactive discussion on Zoom about racism in American schools.
Co-founder and co-director of the Race Institute for K-12 Educators, Michael teaches in the Diversity and Inclusion Program at Princeton University and is author of several books, including “Raising Race Questions: Whiteness, Inquiry and Education.”
Michael told program participants that as a white girl growing up in a predominately white, affluent suburb of Pittsburgh, she was unaware of the different worlds that white people and people of color can live in. “I didn't grow up talking about race or even realizing that racism impacted my life,” she said. “I grew up, as many white children do today, thinking that racism had nothing to do with me.”
However, thanks to her undergraduate studies in political science and African culture at Williams College, she came to a startling realization: “I learned that racism in America is a white problem, not a black problem,” she said. “It’s built into our systems and institutions in ways that are invisible to white people but that benefit white people immensely. Change must start with this understanding and self-awareness.”
In her subsequent graduate studies in anthropology and education at Columbia University and University of Pennsylvania, Michael gained greater insights into the entrenched racism in American school systems. “Eighty-five percent of the K-12 teachers in America are white, and the educational system is largely designed for white, middle-class and upper-class students. If we don’t change it, we are complicit in its perpetuation.”
Today, she conducts research aimed at helping teachers mitigate the unintentional, pervasive effects of institutional racism in their classrooms. “Contrary to what I once believed, I have found that racial competence can be learned,” she noted. “I believe everyone, including white people, can get better at talking about race and addressing the radicalized inequality we have in education.”
During the Zoom presentation, Michael fielded questions from St. Stephen’s faculty and staff and offered strategies for addressing racism. She noted that students’ personal relationships with teachers and peers — in which students feel valued and seen — are a primary factor in their success in school. As such, she advised teachers to practice deep empathetic listening, both inside and outside of class, and to create safe spaces for them to voice their opinions and feelings. Michael also noted that reading group and inquiry group exercises can help students learn to reflect critically on their own attitudes and behaviors.
— David E. Perryman, Ph.D., chief marketing and communications officer