We've Been Post-Raced

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An examination of negotiations between race, agency, and school structures Black families experience within post-racial schools.
  National Society for the Study of Education,  Volume 114, Issue 2, pp. 148–170Copyright © by Teachers College, Columbia University   We’ve Been Post-Raced: An Examination of Negotiations Between Race, Agency, and School Structures Black Families Experience Within “Post-Racial” Schools REMA E. REYNOLDS University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign This chapter draws from empirical research on middle-class African Ameri- can families to examine the ways middle-class African American parents and students make meaning of their experiences within public schools. In light of the current mainstream contention that the United States has entered a post-racial epoch with the election of the first African American  president, this work posits that post-racial rhetoric obfuscates the continued racialized experiences of Black families regardless of class status. In par- ticular, this work examines how middle-class African American families navigate conversations about race, agency, and structure as they relate to access and opportunities in education and society as a whole. One aspect of my multilayered identity locates me as a Black middle-class 1   woman coparenting children who attended public schools. Though we are both educators, my partner and I have oftentimes found ourselves frustrated and, at times, at a loss for effective strategies to employ when interfacing with those charged with teaching our children. In an effort to better understand our experiences as Black middle-class parents interact-ing with public schools and to discover whether or not we are unique (or alone) in regard to them, I have chosen to focus much of my research on families like mine—Black middle-class families who are the minori-ties within their communities; specifically, parents who are trying to navi-gate the educational process for the benefit of their children. This study focuses on parent involvement and engagement  2  and overall persistent parent–school relationships that Black middle-class parents experience in communities or schools in which Black students are a small population of the district. I undergo this endeavor for both professional and personal  Negotiations Between Race, Agency, and School Structures Black Families Experience   149  purposes: as a parent, as an educator, and as a researcher. As a parent, I am concerned about the most useful means of developing meaningful  working relationships with school personnel at my child’s school in an effort to maximize her educational experiences. As an educator, I search for strategies and steps that schools can take to develop more authen-tic relationships with Black middle-class parents (Howard & Reynolds, 2008; Reynolds & Howard, 2013). As a researcher, I would like to add the voices of Black middle-class parents to the scholarly literature on parents, parent involvement, and parent engagement because they are currently grossly underrepresented (Reynolds, 2010, 2014; Reynolds, Howard, & Jones, 2015). When commiserating with friends about the latest exchange with school officials in reference to my daughter, I find myself consistently commenting toward the end of the conversation that it should not be this difficult—especially for me. Measuring all the prerequisites of the “American dream,” I have earned the right to a quality public educa-tion for my children (Ferguson, 2002; Fine, 1993; Lareau, 1989). I have acquired the social capital (Bourdieu, 1986) necessary to ensure it. Not only do I hold advanced degrees and credentials, but I also have worked as an educator in public schools for over two decades. I know from a practitioner’s lens the common behind-the-scenes practices of the aver-age educator—how districts typically respond to federal and state man-dates, how principals and teachers typically feel about the district dic-tates, how all of these most often regard the students they serve, and, most germane to this study, how they perceive  parents   and the roles they should assume within schools. Judging by my experiences in schools, many of the feelings and subsequent decisions made by educators are laced with resentment for all involved: parents, educators, and students. I know; I have shared that resentment at times. Educators can tire of consistent reform efforts that never seem to work (Tyack & Cuban, 1995), and they often wonder what fix-all is coming next. For example, as an English teacher, at the start of the thrust to imple-ment California’s state standards (which at the time seemed to standard-ize and thus stifle my ability to creatively teach and reach my students), I  vehemently resented the edict from on high and the surveillance by ad-ministrators to ensure fidelity to the edict. Quickly, I exited teaching and  went on to school counseling and administration, thinking I might have more freedom and autonomy to make a difference in the lives of young people. The same constricting, restrictive standards followed me, though not as stringently, and there was far less oversight by higher-ups. I was freer to help students and their families in ways and capacities I saw fit. It was in these latter roles that I fully realized the resentment that I, as  150 National Society for the Study of Education  an educator, had harbored toward parents and the policies pertaining to them. I also found that other school officials shared my resentment (Ep-stein, 1995). In those rare instances when parents entered my classroom, I safely authored the space and allowed   the involvement with established parameters. I was like most educators in many ways when it came to family engagement. What I did not share with my colleagues was the privilege  Whiteness affords, nor the deficit views of parents rooted in race and rac-ism (Delpit, 1995; Edwards, Pleasants, & Franklin, 1999; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Noguera, 2001; Yan, 2000). As a Black parent and K–12 educator, I am privy to a bifurcated gaze of the relationships school officials and minoritized parents experience.  Again, as an educator, I can relate to the frustrations a teacher or admin-istrator can experience when working with parents, particularly those who are culturally different and may not share the same values and protocols for exchange. As a parent, a Black parent, I know intimately how challeng-ing the parent–school relationship can be to negotiate. Implications of race and racism can serve to vex parents of color when they interface with school officials. The effects of race and racism within a rhetorical post-racial context further exacerbate the experiences and frustrations parents of color may have in schools where they are a small minority. I struggled to make sense of some of the situations I found myself in when advocating for my daughter.Raniyah was going into sixth grade, into her final year as an el-ementary school student. Up to that point in her schooling, she had never had a Black teacher. The most coveted teacher of her school, who also doubled as the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Coordinator and was one of the most senior educators  within the district, happened to be a regal Black woman. We  wanted her. Like most Black parents, we trusted the school to as-sign Rani to her classroom. After all, Rani was a GATE student, and surely the principal, who seemed more thoughtful than oth-ers we had encountered, would see the value in providing her not only the best teacher, but also her only opportunity to have a Black teacher during her critical formative elementary years. The trust was misplaced. A week before school started, we found that Rani had been placed in a class with another teacher. We immediately scheduled an appointment with the principal to get what we deemed a problem corrected. He looked absolutely flummoxed, flustered, and extremely uncomfortable when we de-scribed our desire for a Black teacher for our Black daughter. The  word “Black” seemed to make him flinch. We did not anticipate  Negotiations Between Race, Agency, and School Structures Black Families Experience   151 his response, didn’t expect his fear. Unexpectedly, his discomfort had him abdicate his leadership role. He asked us to meet with Rani’s teacher—his staff—and make the request for a change di-rectly to her! Her father and I, both school leaders, knew that this process was highly unusual and disrupted the chain of command to which we attempted to adhere by going through him. Never-theless, determined to make sure Rani had a highly skilled educa-tor who resembled her phenotypically and culturally, we met with the teacher to whom she was assigned. What followed speaks to the sign of the post-racial times. We produced literature speaking to the influence of teachers of color on minoritized students. Re-search has shown that even with educated parents, Black children start to disassociate from school as early as elementary school. The opportunity to have an African American master teacher  was a way to help keep Raniyah’s attitudes toward academic ex-cellence and her self-concept as an academician positive because of the modeling of an experienced professional who looks like her. The opportunity to see a Black person of authority through direct interaction is critical in the child’s ability to envision her-self in a similar role. With an African American teacher, there is a greater chance that the child will see school as an extension of home, and the norms and values that parents model will be rein-forced at school. We gingerly explained these reasons for why we  wanted to make a switch and assured her that our request was no disparagement of her teaching. She listened with a beet red face.  We appealed to no avail. Flabbergasted, appalled, and personally threatened, Raniyah’s teacher vehemently opposed our request, refuting our literature with an emphatic declaration, “Raniyah has the best Black role model there is. For goodness sake, Barack Obama is the president!”She was sincere. That we would request an African American teacher mainly because she was African American confounded this teacher. The principal, whom we considered marginally conscious of and responsive to issues of racism, ableism, and gender in his school, was also befuddled by our desire. This request, these exchanges without race at the center,  would undoubtedly take time and energy for any parent because of the po-litical dynamics involved. As a former administrator, I respected the reluc-tance of the principal to abruptly remove a child from one teacher’s room to another’s, especially given that the African American teacher was the more coveted of the two. I understood why he ran interference, thwarted my efforts, and finally abdicated his power and handed the battle to me.
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