Education

Witnessing ‘White Fragility’ while Renaming a School

white-fragility-racism

Courtesy of Rally Point


Op-Ed by Nehemiah D. Frank

When conversing over topics regarding race, people, in general, get uncomfortable. Most black educators are usually under the validated assumption that a vast majority of white teachers, and the American population at large, fear a possible black-lash when teaching or conversing over the sensitive subject matters of chattel slavery and the civil rights movement.

Perhaps, non-black educators picture in their minds a stereotypical black parent of their black student walking into a parent-teacher conference, casting hell-of shade, giving a debasing glare, and serving a platter of attitude. However, that’s not how it usually goes down. But that fear alone could cause for a teacher to pull a Black history drive-by in a diverse classroom. Whereby, the teacher delivers the sugar-coated and cookie cutter version of Black American History to prevent white students from having to feel uncomfortable. Thus they are spoon fed that Dr. King marched, Rosa Parks sat, and Barack Obama became the first black president. Thereby, avoiding the much-needed conversations and teachable moments that could possibly make non-black students more empathetic about the struggle continuum that black Americans live on and experience daily.

Consequently, not teaching the truth in the classroom, concerning how America negatively suppressed its black population, has come to a disadvantage for the entire society. Today, white Americans struggle to listen, empathize and advocate for black lives.

Robin DeAngelo’s theory on white fragility may be worth an intense examination when you take into account, it took Tulsa a year to rename one school that initially honored a Confederate soldier.

The New Yorker recently published an article on DeAngelo’s theory and sociological-coined phrase white fragility.’ Her theory argues “that our largely segregated society is set up to insulate whites from racial discomfort, so that they fall to pieces at the first application of stress—such as, for instance, when someone suggests that, ‘flesh-tone’ may not be an appropriate name for a beige crayon.” 

If only our actual problems were that simple, right?

Needless to say, the Tulsa Public School district literary watched a sociological project play in real time over the course of a year. Eurocentric-hybrid thoughts coupled with a double shot of American exceptionalism unwinded and exposed itself during the renaming process of Robert E. Lee Elementary. The lack of access and options to ensure equity for black voices to be heard at the table of the ad hoc committee was never advertised. The committee was selected, which points to DeAngelo’s white insulation theory. Choose white friendly and non-threatening minorities to give the appearance of diversity on the ad hoc. What’s unknowing is if the selected minorities are there to play to the social politics of the influencers in hopes of having doors opened to them that may lead to more career opportunities.

Nonetheless, one black token’s murmur remains unparalleled to the masses of black voices and allies who remain in opposition to any symbol that celebrates white supremacy.  And for the self-seeking, culturally unplugged, black intellectual, who may have a seat or an arm’s reach to the decision-making table for the purpose of voting in the interest of the wealthy influencers, their antagonistic actions seemingly prove to be more harmful to the movement of racial progress as their vote for Lee reveals their willingness to mingle with cognitive dissonance. Their black skin is thus used as a weapon in opposition of racial progress by the influencers on the ad hoc.

These influencers include teachers working at the school, who educate black children all while sympathizing with the name Robert E. Lee. Thus some black children, attending the school, internalize their teacher’s position on the controversial issue. As they naturally desire to please their teacher, they vote with those expectations in hopes of making their teachers happy. They thus succumb to the pressures of the systematicness and vastness of the dominant cultures’ pervasive aim to maintain a hateful archaic symbol of white cultural dominance over all others, choosing to revere the name Robert E. Lee.

People went so far as to threaten withdrawing their funding pledges to the school’s foundation and even planned to pull their children out of the school completely, should the name change. Their threats mirror Tulsa’s era of white flight to the suburbs upon the onset of racial integration in TPS schools.

In the resolve of what to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary, Tulsa missed the opportunity to extend its hand to the black community. The ad hoc committee chose a historical maker, Council Oaks, for the school’s new name. They decided against naming the school after a great personage when most TPS schools are named after honorable people. They had five names to choose from, two of the names being Clara Luper, a civil rights leader, and Abraham Lincoln — and the irony in purposely not choosing one of those two names exposes their racial fragility.

As opposed to reaching towards the light of inspiration and extending a hand across the line of demarcation, demonstrating that black lives and black voices are valued, they chose to fold, in part to their, own, racial discomfort. They decided to be the antithesis of boldness and courageousness, choosing that middle-gray area, a place of uncertainty — a social position of racial ambiguity, so that they could shield themselves from the possible fallout. Perchance, they walked the line of comfort so they wouldn’t upset the Robert E. Lee sympathizers. To be frank, as it appears through one’s black lens, they acted in the best interest of their racial clan.

Instead of rising to the challenge that invites reconciliation, they allowed white fragility to stagnate racial progress in a city that struggles to become one. Their collective decision reveals that they choose not to face their reflection in the mirror and deal with the city’s race issue, which is this nation’s long-lasting sociological thorn that keeps us from arriving at the mountaintop.

Replacing a school’s name, after a white supremacist, with Clara Luper — a civil rights activist who fought for racial integration, or even Abraham Lincoln, who by default freed millions of enslaved people — proved too difficult a task for the ad hoc committee and the city of Tulsa to commit. As a result of their white fragility, their decision further reveals a re-occurring, problematic theme, exemplifying that Tulsa doesn’t want to deal with the topic of race.

Seemingly, it is moments like this that we must pause and remember that thoughtful and timeless quote, vibrating through humankind’s history, admittedly declaring, “The wheels of justice turn slowly…”

Notably, and at the end of the day, for black Americans across the country, our story always measures life’s wins in small victories. And although Clara Luper and her family would be grateful to have a school named in her honor, as she was a brilliantly beloved educator, the removal of Robert E. Lee from any American public school unknowingly gives black Americans across the nation a little more dignity. The renaming indicates to all Americans, striving for a more inclusive and accepting society, that the needle continues to point towards righteousness. What we did, in changing this name, provides to us all the audacity to hope for brighter days — even if racial progress perceivably moves at a snail’s pace.


lip_9760Nehemiah D. Frank is the founder and executive editor of The Black Wall Street Times. He graduated from Harold Washington College in Chicago, IL, and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Oklahoma State University. A rising voice in America and an emerging leader in the education reform movement, Nehemiah frequently travels for speaking engagements across the country, is a blogger for Education Post, and has been featured on NBC, in Blavity Magazine, and Tulsa People. Nehemiah is also a teacher at Sankofa School of the Performing Arts in Tulsa, OK, a 2017 Terence Crutcher Foundation honoree, a recipient of the 2017 METCares Foundation Community Impact Award, and a 2018 Oluko Fellow. Frank is featured on TEDxTalk. 

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Categories: Education