The challenge of being a black principal in today’s racial and political climate

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LeeAndra Khan, principal of Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park.

LeeAndra Khan, principal of Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park.

I am the proud daughter of a retired Chicago police officer who served for more than 25 years in Chicago’s housing projects. I have heard stories of violence, gangs and drugs. I have always had a strong respect for law enforcement, and I understand the dynamics of police-community relations from the lens of my father’s life experience.  I am also the mother of a black boy, and we are currently in a state of tense police relations as it pertains to black boys.

Speaking up about this tension is challenging. It’s one of the most difficult parts about being a black leader in the current racial and political climate. This difficulty is magnified when you are a school leader, and grows exponentially in a racially diverse environment.

I currently serve as the leader of an integrated middle school in a diverse community. The achievement gap between black and white students is nothing new in this community and others like it. Racial disparities in school discipline are also nothing new. In fact, schools will be forced to directly confront the problem this fall because of the passage of Senate Bill 100, a law that aims to stop the school-to-prison pipeline by reforming discipline policies that disproportionately target black youth.

Our current school climate is personal to me for several reasons, including the fact that my son, who attends one of Chicago’s best schools and isn’t an achievement gap statistic, is one of many black boys who have been suspended from school as early as 3rd grade.

I have been a participant in suspending and expelling black students. I was conditioned to think that this was the only way to handle misbehavior. But I made drastic changes in how I approach such behavior in order to keep students of color in school and provide them with support to deal with their underlying trauma. I see equity through a personal lens, as a woman of color who is raising a black son.

From 11-year-old boy to “criminal suspect”

To illustrate this, I want to tell a story. It took place on a normal school day—actually, it was Trayvon Martin’s birthday, February 5th. Two black boys at our school were caught with “bang-snaps” in the hallway. You know the items I’m talking about–maybe you had a few as a kid during a 4th of July weekend. They make a popping sound when you throw them to the ground.

Of course, I then had a restorative and reflective conversation about how having any kind of fireworks in the building was a violation of school policy. I told the boys about the potential dangers and the threat to safety that throwing these fireworks could cause. They assured me that they had no intention of using them in the building. However, they planned to let them loose on their walk home from school.

Then, a surge of emotion and a rush of sadness came over me as I thought further ahead. One of the boys is easily 5’9,” at the tender age of just 11. He was wearing joggers and a hoodie. The scenario in my head went like this: As he walks down the street in his hoodie and with his “Beats by Dre” headphones, listening to his favorite rapper, he decides to throw the bang-snaps to the ground as planned and keeps moving. Unfortunately, some stay-at-home mom or dad, or retiree, hears the three “pops,” looks out the window. And instead of seeing a 6th– grade boy, they see a black man wearing a hoodie, who may have let three gun shots ring in the air.

So they call the police and give that description of a “suspect.” The 11-year-old boy, walking home from middle school and listening to his music, turns the corner and to his surprise, he is greeted by officers with their guns drawn. He has no idea why.

This is what flashed through my mind as I decided on my next intervention for these young boys. How awful that I have to process this. And do I share this story with them?

While deciding whether to suspend them or not, I also have to wrestle with the idea that teachers will want to know “what happened” and parents will ask if the school they send their student to is safe and how I am dealing with “assailants,” implying that 11-year-old boys are criminals.

Leading schools while black requires skill, courage

Making these decisions isn’t easy. In doing so, I have found that Leading (schools) While Black has the following challenges:

Speaking up for your race is often viewed as exclusionary and you can even be accused of being a racist. A case in point: I was having a conversation with my staff about the discipline disparities in our school, mainly about the number of school referrals (cases of student misbehavior in which a teacher has asked a school disciplinarian for help) for black students. In the interest of full transparency, I made the statement that I wasn’t comfortable subjecting my own black son to such an environment. This statement was met with anger, accusations of racism and many complaint letters to the board.

Trying to hold the students who look like you accountable for social standards that may marginalize the very essence of who they are feels wretched. You may be forced to rob the students of their innocence with constant redirection to social norms because black girls look “different” in the same length shorts as other girls, or black boys look like they are fighting while other boys are just horsing around.

You must be careful about who you are seen with. You can’t spend too much time with the other black employees, because you don’t want to appear to favor them because of their race. Conversely, you have to consider how the black population views your time spent with others. I was once accused of not being “black enough” by a local school council because of my close relationship to the white population in the school.

Engaging in conversations about race and natural biases makes people uncomfortable. White people may become defensive, as if you are accusing them of starting slavery. Then they become the victim very quickly and feel the need to defend and explain their actions–when all you are trying to do is change how we as educators see and treat children.

You have to carefully craft the way you have these courageous conversations. Talking about race and equity, and about the documented mistreatment of specific groups of people, requires skill so that you don’t offend people and their efforts to change.

Finally, it’s not the message that makes them uncomfortable. It’s the package that the messenger comes in: unapologetically black, with dreadlocks, full lips, a full figure, a proud resident of a black community with a son named Ausar Kemet Khan, completely devoted to making black lives matter and always fighting for equity for ALL students, especially those who have been underserved.

The struggle is real, but this is leadership on the ground and we must actively look for solutions to problems. To start, leaders can’t be afraid to have tough conversations about race and inequality. Districts need to invest time and money in developing school leaders and teacher-leaders on how to facilitate these conversations.  And leaders are best supported with data and with narratives from and about children.

Second, it does take a village. Support from organizations with professionals who specialize in dealing with trauma should be a staple in most schools. This support is not just for the children who experience trauma in their communities, but also for the adults, so they can understand the effects of inter-generational trauma and how larger forces affect us all. It is our job as educators to make students feel valued and give them the sense that they belong in the academic community.

Lastly, I believe that an acknowledgement of white privilege and societal bias against people of color helps to bridge the communication gap between groups—because mistaken beliefs about students of color are at the root of the achievement gap, the disparities in discipline and the problems of race, lack of access and inequity in schools.

LeeAndra Khan is a former Chicago school principal. She is now principal of Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in west suburban Oak Park. 

 

  • Northside

    I appreciate this Principal talking about both sides of the issue! However, I thought this would be a good Forum to discuss the Group that is advertised on the Website called “Surge Institute” . Their website says that they accept only Latinos and African American candidates. I just wonder how this is helping us to open up our doors to all educators at CPS. When they base a person’s willingness and effectiveness solely based on skin color, not economic, or any other criteria….I think they are creating a divisive and hurtful environment. Just doesn’t seem like an organization that CPS should work with since they quite literally base their decisions on race.

    • Concerned Parent

      This may explain why a friend who offered gratis expertise to surge was not contacted.

    • Sarah Duncan

      As a (white) supporter of the Surge Institute, I’d like to point you to the “Who We Are” page on their website, which explains,

      “The most glaring disparity between past social justice movements and the current education reform movement is that the most visible and active leadership in education reform typically is not representative of the socioeconomic or racial diversity of the populations it seeks to serve.” Surge seeks to build the leadership capacity of African-American and Latino/a leaders in education to address that disparity. This is a very important goal.

      I believe LeeAndra Khan’s excellent point, “Speaking up for your race is often viewed as exclusionary and you can even be accused of being a racist” is also relevant to your comment.

      It’s important for white people to understand the advantages we’ve been afforded. I highly recommend Debby Irving’s excellent book, Waking Up White, for a thorough explanation of this and suggestions for becoming a white ally to people of color.

      • Northside

        My issue is not with the principal and I don’t think we can speak for her. She spoke in an inclusive tone…not exclusive. However, why am I not allow to defend my culture too. All I asked is why can they be excluded from an organization that has a relationship with CPS. Perhaps I am being accused of not understanding “white privilege” because I am defending white culture and equal rights for them. I understand white privilege.I know this one issue is nothing compared to what African Americans, Hispanics, etc have endured at the hands of white people now and especially in the past. However, there are MANY white teachers who are trying to overcome their past. I would think they would be very upset by an organization that won’t even consider them because of their skin color. Furthermore, they would be shocked that such an organization is training Principals who hire teachers and must follow laws concerning equal access to all.
        dedicating your life to helping others (no matter your color) should not be diminished simply because of our skin color and our parents.To quote the Bible, can we blame the sins of the father on the child? is this just? I understand the concept of white privilege. However, is it correct to exclude a white person from helping other’s? Well I am speaking up for my race…but I would never exclude another race..never. Infact, many whites are Polish and Ukraine children and Asians come for Cambodia and China who have be exploited in their own countries of origin? Are they not important too?

        I am sorry but didn’t MLK Say “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.” Yet our children (our young people and their teachers) are being divided by color again?

        I am sorry as a white person who has a “white” child, who is actually 1/4 native Mexican….I would be very upset that people would label him as “white” simply because of his skin tone. there is a history behind us all.white people and minorities helped frame our current civil rights laws. was there a clause that said that white’s are not protected ? I’m sorry it just hurts me. I understand their intentions…but it is hurtful that a white guy like me who spent years learning Spanish and helping many Hispanics is somehow looked upon by this organization as ineligible to lead urban reform simply because I am white…???

        We need people OF ALL RACES for urban reform. I despise Trump and his racist views more than anyone else. However, it is this exclusion of whites, no matter how well intentioned, that is feeding their racists views. Please I am not some small minded white supremacist. I am just a white guy, who voted for Obama who tries to be inclusive. I am just trying to defend ALL RACES. You can’t be a little racists (excluding whites) ; You just can’t
        Furthermore, I don’t even know if it is legal for CPS to accept an organization that doesn’t follow the basic requirements of Equal Rights? Churches and Fraternal/Sororities or completely private schools can exclude whomever they like. However, Public education is protected by strict rules concerning equal rights and civil rights. I don’ think they would allow a group that excludes African Americans any more than they can support an organization that excludes White’s and Asians.I also didn’t mention that Asians are excluded from this organization too. Asians suffered greatly in the American Past (simply look at WWII and the building of railroads) . Asians and Whites are actually a minority within CPS(some just as poor as any group), strange as it may seem. Are we to say that they don’t deserve equal access?
        I am sorry if people think I am naive, or unaware of white privilege. I have travaled the world and I have heard stories of racism within Asian, African and Hispanic countries and races. I can’t deny White’s probably have been the worst example of racists and colonialists. But aren’t we trying to start a new color blind america?

        Ill stop. All I ask is that organizations like Surge consider a “white” guy like me to prove they are interested in ALL CHILDREN.

      • DeeGriff

        Thank u for this response. Your explanation was very clear and concise. I was not familiar with Surge but now I’ll become familiar.

      • Northside

        Somehow my reply didn’t post?

        How can you become an ally of an organization that excludes you? Explain how they are in the right? And you quote “Speaking up for your race is often viewed as exclusionary and you can even be accused of being a racist” ..well I am doing the same. So please don’t make your assumptions.
        My issue is not with the principal and I don’t think we can speak for her. She spoke in an inclusive tone…not exclusive. However, why am I not allow to defend my culture too. All I asked is why can they be excluded from an organization that has a relationship with CPS. Perhaps I am being accused of not understanding “white privilege” because I am defending white culture and equal rights for them. I understand white privilege.I know this one issue is nothing compared to what African Americans, Hispanics, etc have endured at the hands of white people now and especially in the past. However, there are MANY white teachers who are trying to overcome their past. I would think they would be very upset by an organization that won’t even consider them because of their skin color. Furthermore, they would be shocked that such an organization is training Principals who hire teachers and must follow laws concerning equal access to all.
        dedicating your life to helping others (no matter your color) should not be diminished simply because of our skin color and our parents.To quote the Bible, can we blame the sins of the father on the child? is this just? I understand the concept of white privilege. However, is it correct to exclude a white person from helping other’s? Well I am speaking up for my race…but I would never exclude another race..never. Infact, many whites are Polish and Ukraine children and Asians come from Cambodia and China who have be exploited in their own countries of origin? Are they not important too?
        I am sorry but didn’t MLK Say “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.” Yet our children (our young people and their teachers) are being divided by color again?
        I am sorry as a white person who has a “white” child, who is actually 1/4 native Mexican….I would be very upset that people would label him as “white” simply because of his skin tone. there is a history behind us all.white people and minorities helped frame our current civil rights laws. was there a clause that said that white’s are not protected ? I’m sorry it just hurts me. I understand their intentions…but it is hurtful that a white guy like me who spent years learning Spanish and helping many Hispanics is somehow looked upon by this organization as ineligible to lead urban reform simply because I am white…???
        We need people OF ALL RACES for urban reform. I despise Trump and his racist views more than anyone else. However, it is this exclusion of whites, no matter how well intentioned, that is feeding their racists views. Please I am not some small minded white supremacist. I am just a white guy, who voted for Obama who tries to be inclusive. I am just trying to defend ALL RACES. You can’t be a little racists (excluding whites) ; You just can’t
        Furthermore, I don’t even know if it is legal for CPS to accept an organization that doesn’t follow the basic requirements of Equal Rights? Churches and Fraternal/Sororities or completely private schools can exclude whomever they like. However, Public education is protected by strict rules concerning equal rights and civil rights. I don’ think they would allow a group that excludes African Americans any more than they can support an organization that excludes White’s and Asians.I also didn’t mention that Asians are excluded from this organization too. Asians suffered greatly in the American Past (simply look at WWII and the building of railroads) . Asians and White Children are actually a minority within CPS(some just as poor as any group), strange as it may seem. Are we to say that they don’t deserve equal access?
        I am sorry if people think I am naive, or unaware of white privilege. I have travaled the world and I have heard stories of racism within Asian, African and Hispanic countries and races. I can’t deny White’s probably have been the worst example of racists and colonialists. But aren’t we trying to start a new color blind america?
        Ill stop. All I ask is that organizations like Surge consider a “white” guy like me to prove they are interested in ALL CHILDREN. I also wonder if it is legal? Exactly ho w do you overcome the exclusion of on group by excluding another. at what point do we stop? I have an idea…base your decision on Character …you will win every time!!!

  • Michael Washington

    Ms. Khan, I appreciate your careful way of telling these stories. It underlines the tricky steps and always thoughtful steps you and sister and brother principals with darkened skin must take. It cannot be an easy path. Thank you for your leadership over there and for your past leadership in CPS. We need you. We need your colleagues. May you have every blessing you need to do your good work, even when you don’t have every other thing you need to do it. When our children don’t say thank you, I’m one parent who wants to say so.