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Some Students Are More Magic Than Others

January 7, 2020, 8:08 PM UTC

This is the web version of raceAhead, Fortune’s daily newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.

Kelly Wickham Hurst is the founder and executive director of Being Black at School, a data-driven policy and advocacy group that also works with teachers and administrators to develop more inclusive curriculums and classrooms. She had previously worked in public schools in a variety of teaching and administrative capacities for 23 years.

Hurst recently wrote a popular Twitter thread on some of the common hurdles white teachers face when talking about race and equity. Today, raceAhead has adapted that thread into a Gif essay, with Hurst’s permission.

“I get a lot of the same questions,” she tells raceAhead. At the heart of the matter, she finds, is an issue that all inclusion professionals must grapple with: Majority-culture people either forget or don’t know that the world is designed for them. “When thinking of systems in the United States that have persisted, it seems that many people fail to recall that they were all built for white people and that all other people of color groups have fought, even up to the Supreme Court level, for ways to be included,” she says.

This is a different way of thinking about equity work. “At what point are we going to be accountable to people of color in ways that systems are solely accountable to whiteness?”

Read on for Hurst’s thoughts, in Gif essay form.

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Some Students Are More Magic Than Others

Much of the content I use is standard in each school, and I often ask the same questions to get my finger on the pulse of an American school. It’s pretty much the same: Talking about racism is hard. We don’t do a very good job of it. In fact, schools have avoided it.

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One thing I have to mention to teachers: We all got into a system that was originally created for white children AND we all read theorists and the pedagogy of white men who studied white children. These are facts. So, if you got to read any theorist in undergrad who wasn’t white…

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Then, I move into developmentally appropriate behaviors of middle schoolers. Quick sidebar: Middle school kids are my JAM. They process aloud, have no filter, and they’re figuring things out. In front of us. They say the funniest things.

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They also tell us heartbreaking things. They’re tender AND brutal. They’re learning AND a bunch of know-it-alls. When we explore a little bit of our knowledge around what we know to be true of this age, we agree those kids are MAGIC.

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And yet… Schools and the adults in them rarely allow this magic for any child who isn’t white. They label, disenfranchise, and negate the development of our students of color. They prescribe a remedy and look to “manage” that behavior. The same behaviors white kids GET to have!

*

What’s been really getting to me is the incredulity of these facts. The ways I have to work SO HARD to get teachers who should already know developmental stages of the kids they serve. I see light bulbs go off when I say it as if they forgot that students of color are also… kids.

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I’m not sure what to do with this. It’s just a constant response. People talk to me during breaks or after a workshop. Some have thanked me for reminding them. 

Which means, perhaps, that we need to make this a part of DAILY LIFE in education.

*

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to me but it does. When I ask—“What do you recall about adolescent development from your learning?”—it is as if no one has asked them or reminded them of it in years. 

When I ask what theorists of color they’ve read…

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This isn’t to shame them. I’m reporting on a continuous phenomenon I witness everywhere. 

And that is so depressing to me. That what I’m asking is such an anomaly. That collectively we don’t talk about pedagogy and application more often.

— Kelly Wickham Hurst

***

Ellen here, again. In addition to making inclusive leadership development “part of DAILY LIFE,” says Hurst, one answer is to find ways to give people the information they need in a way they can take it in, early and often. “Create space for your teachers [or in this case, leaders],” she says.

In her most recent training, “I spoke for an hour and then they had the next hour to learn on their own.” Over 100 people were scattered all over the building watching videos, listening to podcasts, or reading. “It was information they were ready for, and they were able to process it in multiple ways. It leveled the way to enter the antiracism work.”

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

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On Background

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New York Times

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Quote

“Even seasoned educators can be confounded when confronted with student’s reactions to racial justice content, resistance to learning, microaggressions towards others, and/or aggressive comments or behaviors. Some instructors report freezing up in the face of emotionally charged moments in the classroom. Others, wary to ‘shut down’ dissenting views, are hesitant to challenge flawed logics embedded in student’s claims. Still other instructors adopt a paternalistic approach to teaching racial justice. In a thought-provoking essay considering teaching white students who are resistant to learning about racial in/justice, one instructor noted she had ‘retreated into didactic, inactive, unengaged pedagogy…’ and another confessed to ‘sarcastic needling as pedagogy.’”

—AmieThurber, M. Brielle Harbin, and Joe Bandy, "Teaching Race: Pedagogy and Practice"