When White parents believe in diversity and deficit

This guest post is written by Alexandra Freidus, an educational ethnographer, writer, and professor of educational leadership at the University of Connecticut.  Alex uses sociocultural and critical race theory to explore how educators, policymakers, families, and young people sustain and interrupt racialized inequality in public schools. Alex’s writing and teaching are deeply informed by more than fifteen years of professional experience in K-12 schools. 

I first met Nancy when she was picking up her daughter, Hazel, at the end of the first day of Kindergarten. A White woman with pale skin, gray eyes, and brown hair pulled into a low ponytail, Nancy wore jeans, had a quick, nervous smile, and carried a purple Patagonia backpack. Her work as an adjunct art instructor allowed her to spend a great deal of time volunteering in Hazel’s school. I spent several days each week that year in Hazel’s class, as part of a broader research study of diversifying schools in gentrifying areas of New York City, and I spoke with Nancy often.

Nancy’s family had recently taken advantage of an affordable housing initiative to move into an expensive apartment complex a few blocks away from her new school. Nancy told me that, like many advantaged New York City parents, she had spent the year before Hazel entered Kindergarten carefully researching her educational options. P.S. 411, an elementary school that served almost exclusively Black and Latinx students who lived in nearby public housing, was not her first choice. However, Nancy felt “gung-ho” about the school after she spoke with teachers and administration. 

In a series of conversations, Nancy told me that she considered Hazel’s first year at P.S. 411 “incredible” in many ways. She was deeply grateful that the Kindergarten classroom had only 18 students—well below the citywide maximum of 25—and a caring teacher with a great deal of experience in the primary grades. When Hazel had a very difficult transition to Kindergarten, marked by extreme separation anxiety, the school offered enormous support. Nancy told me later: “I literally don’t think there would be any place that was as supportive… I feel like they just forgot about everybody else and zoomed in on her. As much as we got, that’s what it felt like at least.” P.S. 411 offered Hazel many of the resources that advantaged families consider markers of quality early childhood education: a low student-teacher ratio; personalized attention; and a child-centered environment. However, by the end of the year Nancy felt that the school lacked an additional crucial resource: a significant number of White students. 

As much as Nancy deeply valued all that P.S. 411 had done for Hazel, she also worried that it might not be a good school. She told me with evident anxiety: “I just feel like things can get out of control really fast. These moms that I’ve talked to are saying that, ‘the early grades are so good, they’re so good and [families] were so happy. Now, I almost feel like it’s the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my entire life.’” These moms were from families like Nancy’s own: White, professional, and well-informed about their educational options. Her peers’ concerns were contagious. Immediately after she had told me about all the ways in which school staff had labored to ensure that Hazel felt safe and comfortable, Nancy anxiously anticipated her own future regret: “I don’t want to get to this point where I’m like, ‘It’s such a big mistake.’” 

Sometimes, Nancy told herself to “stop talking to people, because they’re the ones making me scared about things.” But not all of her concerns were based on others’ perceptions: “it’s also some of the stuff I see too.” She was worried about the “really aggressive parenting” that she saw among other families in the class. She was surprised by her own responses to the differences she noticed among the families, and she tried to explain: 

The thing is, my husband and I, it’s funny, our circles – because we both went to all Black schools growing up in Alabama but everybody was the same economic status. We just lived in the same neighborhoods and that happened to be the case. It gradually got that way by junior high it was mostly Black, and in high school it was all Black. There wasn’t that [housing] project mentality, or that way of parenting wasn’t this common. So, it feels like this is different. . . . I feel like there’s particular things that I’m worried about. And how that’s going to affect those kids later on. 

Nancy could not shake her fear that P.S. 411— which she had only minutes before told me was a “really really supportive community”—would end up damaging Hazel, just as the culture of public housing projects damaged Hazel’s classmates. And Nancy worried that this damage could be irrevocable: “I’m scared of that issue affecting Hazel enough for me to not be able to take it back. Once it’s done, it’s done.” She was concerned about the harm that segregated public housing did to families and kids. She hesitated as she talked about “project behavior,” looking worried and saying, “I’m going to sound racist.” Still, she reluctantly concluded, the children would be affected “because of what they’ve been taught by their parents and their parents don’t know.” 

Nancy’s comments simultaneously indexed discourses of pathology and common-sense views of diversity. She told me that she loved Hazel “being around different people, and you know, being open-minded. I feel like you can be put in any situation after being the odd man out and feel comfortable, you know, so there’s something to that.” Still, Nancy told me that Hazel’s transition might have been easier if there had been “more White kids, just more diversity. I wondered if that unconsciously played some kind of role in her not feeling comfortable.” Like many White parents, Nancy wanted Hazel to be exposed to the just right amount of difference – a phenomenon that years of research has documented

Like many of these parents, Nancy lost sleep over the fear that Hazel, like her classmates, would be wounded by exposure to the pathology of segregated schools and communities. Her concerns were steeped in the discourse of pathology. According to this logic, low-income Black and Latinx families are damaged by segregation, which is ostensibly socioeconomic (when Nancy herself was a student in a majority Black school, “everybody was the same economic status”), but inevitably associated with race (thus Nancy’s concerns about “sounding racist”). Students and parents alike suffered social and emotional consequences as a result of their lack of proximity to whiteness. 

Ultimately, Nancy worried that P.S. 411 could not counter the racialized pathology that plagued its students and families. She was convinced that despite its many strengths, P.S. 411 could not be a good school without the presence of a critical mass of families like her own. Nancy was desperate for more diversity, by which she meant more White and middle-class families; she feared that without their presence, only the pathology of segregation would remain. 

I have heard many examples of these opinions in conversations with families like Nancy’s, observations of schools like P.S. 411, and articles by experts on school diversity and segregation. Some advocates might dismiss such concerns as unfounded. Others might validate them, arguing that the harm segregation does is the best rationale for racial and/or socioeconomic school integration. What I’d like us all to consider – and reconsider – is the ways in which presumed deficits are woven into advocacy for school diversity; that is to say, the implicit logic of school integration can often be summarized as “let’s make schools better by bringing White people to them.” 

In my research, I have seen the braided discourses of pathology and diversity take many forms, from arguments about the importance of school marketing to policies that prioritize shifting school demographics over providing them with the resources they need to succeed. Like many advocates, I believe that integration can offer schools and students important benefits. However, I have also noted that these conversations often center whiteness. For example, they emphasize the benefits of integration in terms of cultural flexibility, which may have collective benefits but is often approached as an individual advantage that White children can acquire. The attempt to redistribute advantaged families among schools often distracts from efforts to redistribute material resources. I am constantly reminding myself that integration is a strategy, not the goal; the goal is educational justice. And the only way to work towards that goal, as elusive as it may be, is to decenter whiteness.

Of course, diversity advocacy is only one part of a broader policy landscape. My portrait of Nancy is one small part of a paper I wrote for a special issue of Educational Policy, which I co-edited with Eve L. Ewing. In the introduction to that issue, we argue that race plays a powerful role in more than the individual decisions of parents who navigate school choice systems. Race shapes how multiple constituencies understand, negotiate, and shape educational policies. It is part of how we conceptualize the purposes schools can and should serve. Other articles in this issue explore the role race plays in how school facilities are designed and constructed; how charter management organizations respond to increased public awareness of racial injustice; how urban school districts respond and contribute to gentrification; and how school demographics influence families’ perceptions of whether they will belong in school communities. Each of these papers is illuminating. I invite you to read them and join our effort to critically re-examine what a “good” school looks like, reach beyond the current constraints of choice-based systems, and reimagine the role that schools can play in creating a more just future.

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