The Plague of Performative Anti-Racism in Education
Acronym-istrivia should be the next popular board game or game show specifically for educators, especially those of us who’ve worked across many different school districts. Educators LOVE acronyms! Much like the way teens use LOL, BRB, and SMH as to not waste precious thumb taps on text messages, educators rattle off ILT, IEP, DRT, CRC to preserve our daily allotment of words and syllables.
With all of the acronyms floating around in education, I’d like to introduce a new one, “PAR”, Performative Anti-Racism.
Performance Anti-Racism (verb): When a person, group of people, or organization intentionally performs an action to signal their desire to “be seen as” anti-racist (I.e. — Publishing a BLM statement, forming an “anti-racist reading group”, convening racial affinity groups to talk about racism) with no connection to how these actions will address the racial oppression of people of color.
Example (individual): “What has Julie done since she posted her solidarity with Black communities on Facebook after the murder of George Floyd?” “Nothing, but I’m sure her performative anti-racism made her feel better.”
Example (group): “Isn’t it great that our English department incorporated two books into our curriculum written by authors of color?!” “We don’t know how our pedagogy should change or how these new readings will impact the learning of students of color, but we feel like we’ve done our part for anti-racism!”
Example (organization): “Our previously all-white organization has hired 6 Black and 3 Latinx employees over the past year! Our leadership structure is still majority white. We value their brown skin around the organization just as long as they don’t challenge the racism they see in our business model or organizational structure.” “We are anti-racist because we have brown friends, oops, I mean colleagues!”
The example are endless. The crux of the matter is Performative Anti-racism (PAR) is just another iteration of white supremacy.
White Supremacy: The belief that white people are superior to those of other races and thus should dominate them.
PAR subscribes to the belief that “good whiteness” is enough. If white people know better they will do better. If white educators read Ibram Kendi’s, How to Be an Anti-Racist, join a white affinity group, and attend a workshop or two facilitated by a brown person who makes them feel slightly guilt but not too uncomfortable, then, magically, they earn their anti-racist diploma and can go on perpetuating normative racism.
Normative Racism: Racism so normal that individuals, groups, organizations, society rarely openly question it.
Example (individual): “I should ask Shannon all of my questions about racism because she’s Black and must know the answer and wants to help us white people with our racial ignorance.” “Actually, I EXPECT her to answer my questions pleasantly without pointing out the problem with me asking her without Googling it first. But, if she does point this out to me I’ll just cry or express my remorse and expect her to coddle my hurt white feelings.”
Example (groups): “We have all joined the ‘anti-racist teachers group’, but we expect our teachers of color to lead the work, while white members get to participate up to their level of comfort.”
Example (organizations): “We continue to struggle to retain Black employees. Instead of focusing on and razing the embedded racism in our organization, let’s individualize each case where a Black person left and justify why they were not a ‘good fit’ or had ‘personal struggles’.” “Let’s now look for ‘Good Brown People’ who will not rock the boat, look good on our website and brochures, and will not push back against our racism.”
Example (society): “It is not okay to call anybody racist, especially since most white people’s racism is implicit or unconscious. White people definitely decide where to live, work, and send their kids to school based, in large part, on race, but that doesn’t count.”
PAR acts as an excuse for all types of racism (passive, normative, interpersonal, etc.). “I think I am an anti-racist, therefore I am…and anyone who says otherwise must not have seen my performance. But, if they did see the performance and persist in challenging my white innocence I will weaponize my whiteness by dismissing, disengaging, and seeking out means of retaliation (I.e. — seeking out other white colleagues to confront the offending person of color, starting a smear campaign, convincing supervisors “I was attacked” (this is especially popular among white women towards Black colleagues), attempting to publicly humiliate, over-scrutinizing the work of the offending person of color, etc.).
The answer to PAR in education is two simple questions, 1) What is in it for Black and Brown students/teacher/faculty?, and 2) How will we know? Answering these two simple, yet complex, questions at the start of any anti-racist action will significantly decreased the likelihood of falling into the trap of PAR. Every book read should be tied to a follow-up, purposeful action that specifically links to DOING something that will alleviate racial oppression on Black and Brown students/teachers/faculty. PAR goes only as far to alleviate the guilt and shame of white people, stopping short of how the supposed anti-racist action will benefit the targets of racism, Black and Brown people.
The plague of PAR has been around for a long time but has recently exploded and swept across the education space since our 2020 National Racial Awakening. It’s an epidemic. Let’s start the long road to recovery by refocusing our time, money, energy, and resources specifically on actions directly tied to alleviating the oppression on Black and Brown students, teachers, faculty, and communities.
Want to get out of the PAR loop but don’t know how? Join my Anti-Racist Leadership Institute: https://traceyabenson.com/services/
We will figure it out together.