Why I Can’t Talk About Race in Schools with White “Friends”

Can’t Talk About Race: I live in a city that is getting “whiter” and “whiter” by the day, in a neighborhood that is mostly White and Asian.

Because we live in a “progressive” city, folks around me talk in code words to avoid sounding racist but it is still very visible. People explain their reasons for not placing their kids in neighborhood public schools because there are “too many ‘project’ kids” read: too many poor black kids) or they “didn’t win the lottery to a ‘good school’ (read: they are not comfortable being a in a racial minority; there are not enough white kids/families). All this, and yet our schools in San Francisco continue to be blamed for being more segregated than ever. (#WellActually it’s the LOTTERY’s fault!)

I continue to bring up these conversations about race as it pertains to school choice and equitable access to high quality schooling. Nonetheless, I am growing more and more frustrated with attempts to address these issues with non-black folks who I consider to be my friends.

This article, titled I, Racist by John Metta captures my sentiments exactly:

“Living every single day with institutionalized racism and then having to argue its very existence, is tiring, and saddening, and angering. Yet if we express any emotion while talking about it, we’re tone policed, told we’re being angry. In fact, a key element in any racial argument in America is the Angry Black person, and racial discussions shut down when that person speaks. The Angry Black person invalidates any arguments about racism because they are “just being overly sensitive,” or “too emotional,” or– playing the race card. Or even worse, we’re told that we are being racist (Does any intelligent person actually believe a systematically oppressed demographic has the ability to oppress those in power?)

But here is the irony, here’s the thing that all the angry Black people know, and no calmly debating White people want to admit: The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings.

Ask any Black person and they’ll tell you the same thing. The reality of thousands of innocent people raped, shot, imprisoned, and systematically disenfranchised are less important than the suggestion that a single White person might be complicit in a racist system.”

Can’t Talk About Race:Read the whole article here.


It’s not black folks’ job to fix racism. If it was, we’d have done fixed it already. (Don’t you think?) It’s up to all of us. Not talking about white supremacy, and white privilege … heck, not even being able to name the fact folks are white, is a HUGE problem in our schools, our city and our country.

Unfortunately, I am coming to feel like I can’t fix this problem. The fact that I am NOT-WHITE makes it impossible for me to say or do anything, because white fear and guilt is just too strong. (No one is listening.) It shouldn’t be my job to “talk in a nuanced way” or lighten things up with humor, or be patient. (That’s abdicating responsibility, making it my problem.) Kids, dads, mothers, father are literally DYING, children are being cheated out of an education, folks are being denied jobs and people want me and every other vocal black person to moderate our message???

Does any of this make sense to you? If you are White, (or Asian) how are you advancing the cause of social justice in your community or school? If you are Black, how do you deal with the Catch-22 of being either an “Angry Black” vs. staying silent?

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10 thoughts on “Why I Can’t Talk About Race in Schools with White “Friends”

  1. While I do agree some parents aren’t comfortable with race, I don’t think that’s the main reason for school segregation.

    I’ve talked to many parents of all races, some in mixed and some in non-mixed families. Many parents look at acadmic performance ie API, test results, high school placement, and college placement way before diversity. I think a district survey proved this recently. Many fear sending their kids with schools with high ESL because they fear other subjects will suffer. Many teachers I have talked to say that because of budget cuts, math, science, and social studies often suffer at high Esl schools because that’s where all the money goes and parents know it.

    Getting to your closing question about social justice, my friend (a lawyer) always has trouble getting Asians to “join the movement” in education. I think many just don’t buy that poverty and language differences can affect acadmic performance because the Chinese community, despite having so many who qualify for free lunch, are still high achieving. In Britain, there is almost no achievement gap between rich and poor Chinese. When ever I talk with my Chinese friends and their families (even the low income ones), the response is that being poor or living in poverty are incentives to work harder and should not be excuses for performing badly. While living in low income neighborhoods and having parents who don’t speak English is hard, many of my public school Chinese friends in these situations know that if they don’t work hard, life will never get better. In fact, they are often more hard working/higher achieving than those in the middle class.

    Anyway, you are right to say we have a lot of work to do in terms of race. I personally think it will be hard as the demographics of SF change. The new ethnic studies class is a start. Though I think it’s worthless to have it in high school. It should be in middle school. Kids can see race, class, and ethnicity way before high school age.

    On other note. Have you heard of Geoffrey Canada. I’ve always thought he doesn’t get the attention he deserves. There are so many issues in minority communities who’s leaders don’t get any time in the spot light.

  2. I think it’s pretty tough Ali. I’m Asian, my kids are mixed Asian-Latino, and they go to public school. I applied for schools we weren’t zoned for (one was language immersion and the other was just another neighborhood school) because they got better scores and opportunities than the one we were zoned for. I didn’t consider race at all, or look up who was enrolled in the schools (though personally I’d like it if the schools they attended had diversity instead of a majority of any one race). I applied to those schools because I want the best opportunities for them, regardless of the students going there.

    The best way to advance social justice in schools for us? Be involved in your child’s life. Do homework with them. Read all the time. It’s not even about volunteering or fundraising 24/7 anymore (though that might be fun or helpful). It’s prioritizing education and learning in the home so that kids love learning.

    1. I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts. As an “inner-city” educator, for over 20 years, working in both “good” and “bad” schools, I’ve seen first hand that there are strong and weak teachers at all schools.

      There are definitely some schools I wouldn’t want my kids to go to. Nonetheless, it’s important to challenge ourselves about what we think of as “good” or “bad” schools. My girls school will never perform as well based on test scores as compared to a school with higher income and white kids. That’s not a function of the instruction they are getting, it’s a function of kids taking tests in a different language than their primary language as well as kids dealing with poverty. My girls are going into the 5th grade and have had an EXCELLENTLY education, are consistently challenged and are reading well beyond grade level. Some of my friends have also had negative experiences at schools that are “good”. These schools still enjoy a positive reputation and high enrollment because they are populated by more white and non-immigrant Asian students. We need to talk about how race plays a part in school choice. It’s not the ONLY factor, but it IS a factor that few seem willing to talk about.

      1. I think we need to talk more about culture when talking about the achievement gap whether in SF or all of America…SFUSD officials think it’s all about poverty but many researchers say poverty is only small reason. Unfortunately, a lot of this discussion died down after Amy Chua stopped being talked about.

        1. When you talk about “culture” you are really espousing “cultural racism”. Cultural Racism is “A variation of structural racism that occurs when the assumption of the inferiority of one or more races is embraced by the culture of a given society.”* Talking about the idea that black children are doing poorly in school as a result of a failure of black culture is just another version of playing the blame game–blaming the victim of structural racism. I appreciate your comments because they highlight just how ingrained racist ideologies are in this country. Even in a progressive city like SF, folks like you want to continue to perpetuate racist stereotypes that “Black folks don’t care about education” or “If they weren’t lazy, they would succeed like hard-working Asians.” These ideas are simply untrue.

          Blacks and Asian immigrants are treated different in our society for many reasons: stereotype threat, implicit bias of teachers, socioeconomic barriers. To discount the very fact that Asian immigrants in MOST CASES chose to be here, and arrived in the U.S. to intact family units who are able to share and consolidate wealth, is just ONE HUGE DIFFERENCE affecting African-American outcomes as opposed to Asian-American outcomes. Add to this issues of redlining, racial profiling, economic discrimination, are just a few of the barriers that blacks face disproportionately to Asians.

          *Source: Boundless. “Racism.” Boundless Sociology. Boundless, 14 Jul. 2015. Retrieved 14 Jul. 2015 from

          1. Actually, I was talking about “culture” in the sense that people think they know about other people but don’t. Ie people think stereotypes are true. The only way to better integrate our city is to understand each other on a deep level. Something that is hard. Angela Merkel once said “multiculturalism is not efficient.” In a racially divided city as SF, it will be even harder.

            And Chinese people do not share wealth. We rarely give to charity or even give back to our own communities. While many of us are rich, San Francisco Chinese are nothing like San Mateo/Vancouver Chinese. San Francisco Chinese are dirt poor compared to others in our diaspora (hence why so many have to go to public schools). My first comment was an honest observation that myself and many of my American Born Chinese (ABC) friends have noticed from talking to ur elders/looking at our community.

        2. I agree with Ali’s reply below — can’t make a blanket comparison between Chinese and Black circumstances in America. But to counter your point that poverty is a small factor, consider the following article about how money made a huge difference to another historically oppressed group — American Indians. Money isn’t everything, but the stability it brings is very meaningful.

  3. I would love to see SFUSD desegregated but it seems to me like the dialogue around it is always of the nature of “We need to get affluent/white/asian students” to choose to go to schools that are perceived as “bad” (I realize that label is probably unfair but it exists none the less). This has gotten us nowhere as segregation has gotten worse despite these efforts. I honestly wonder why can’t we instead get the racially isolated children at these “bad” schools to choose to go to schools that are perceived as “good” (again using quotes to signify that I’m not saying any school is actually better or worse then any other). The lottery is by design racially blind so it seems to me that children of all races have the ability to fight segregation through school choice (Poor kids might have even more power to do so if you factor in CTIP). And yet it isn’t happening. “Why is that and what can we do to change it?” is the question we should be asking…

    1. Thanks for your comments. They help further the conversation and help me clarify my thinking… which is truly appreciated!

      Poor kids are locked out of “good” schools because they are segregated geographically in low-income neighborhoods. Having to drive your kid across town or get on a bus an hour earlier is not an option for many families. (I have enough trouble getting my kids out the door.)

      To clarify, I’m not saying “we need to get affluent/white/asian students” to choose to go to schools that are perceived as “bad”. I’m saying we need to reflect upon why affluent/white/asian families assign the label “bad” to schools that are predominantly non-white.

      And I guess I’m also saying indirectly that the collective BELIEFS of this group (which has political power in our society) has ended up being REALIZED. Sherman ES is a great example of a school that “no one” wanted to go to when my girls were little. Once a large number of white and affluent Asians went there the neighborhood perception changed. This change happened in less than five years time and I’m sure they didn’t do a complete overhaul of the staff. The only MAJOR change was demographics. Thus, perceptions become reality.

      It seems like we are asking the same question which is based on the same premise: That parents (of all races) who care about desegregating our schools can create more integrated schools through school choice. If we believe this, what is our personal role as parents in desegregating our schools? What are the factors that make it difficult for low-income Black and Latino families to go to “good” schools? What factors make middle income families think schools are “bad” when they are actually very high-performing? And on an even bigger scale, how are we perpetuating segregation in our own choices of friends, neighbors, co-workers and media we consume?

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