Of all the metaphors I have heard attempting to describe institutional racism, there is one that has always stuck out in my mind: Racism is like riding a bike on the highway. It is not necessarily that the cars are out to get you, or actively trying to push you off the road. It is simply that the infrastructure was not designed for bicycles. It was designed for cars- and just by using the roads as they were meant to be used, the cars impose on the bike riders and make it very difficult (not to mention incredibly stressful) to arrive safely at their destination.
The main idea here is that not all whites or other majorities are pro-actively racist. Very few actually are, and these are the ones that are easiest to notice and dismiss. It is the mass majority driving unassumingly down the road of privilege that is most dangerous. They do not feel racist, and often they even embrace diversity, but just by being born with the keys in their hand and taking their right of way they perpetuate racial and ethnic inequality.
The solution requires an active donation of privilege. Driving slower (maybe even below the speed limit) or waiting before passing a bike to make sure there is enough room on the shoulder are merely modest beginnings. Maybe you could drive a little less and make use of other modes of transportation. Better yet- give your car to your poorest neighbor and get a bicycle. See what the ride is like from the other side.
This is what Christine Labuski is getting at with the “gender studies perspective” she asks her classes to take and her “Universal Precautions” (UPs) approach. Developing sincere empathy for another person or group’s experience/condition, and assuming that everyone you talk to could be a member of that group, is crucial. While some conditions (like sexual orientation or infection) are not immediately obvious, race nearly always is. As Shankar Vedantam argues in “The Hidden Brain”, we must be more aware of the subconscious judgments we associate with race, all the stereotypes and preconditioned behaviors instilled in us through constant societal cues. We must work even harder to combat our racist “autopilot” reactions by treating everyone with a level of open and equal respect.
Our schools, just like our roads and our society, are designed for the majority. It is not that you cannot make it through the educational system as a minority, but it is often much more difficult to do so. The odds are stacked against you. While children from racial majorities coast through with the support and the resources they need to succeed always readily accessible- minorities can often struggle. The minority student has to significantly outperform his or her majority competition even to be considered. I have friends who have changed their ethnic sounding names and noticed significantly higher rates of acceptance for interviews and applications. The difficulties of cultural and linguistic fluency compound these challenges, especially for immigrant children.
At the end of the day it will be on us as educators to design our classrooms as havens of equal opportunity. But in order to do so we must proactively seek to see through our own prejudices and preconceptions as well as those imposed upon us by the institutions we are a part of. We must proactively strive to provide any curious, motivated student an opportunity to thrive and to learn. It will ultimately be our duty as teachers to make sure the road to educational success is designed for all types of students, regardless of race or background or the vehicle they use to get to class. (I leave it to the civil engineer majority of our class to make sure our roads are more bike friendly for those who wish to commute by bike).