White women and the schools

Being one myself, I often wonder about white women* and how we operate in community. While we are each unique, many of us follow similar patterns of behavior. Patterns shaped by being socialized in a society built on patriarchy and white supremacy. If we are to transcend the systems that limit and harm all of us in general, we must be rigorous in our inquiry about the ways they live inside us in particular.

*This post speaks to dominant culture tendencies and uses the word “women” to refer to cisgendered females.

White women and the schools

My writing today was sparked by recent discussions about the extreme racial disparities in the Asheville City Schools, as I discussed in “Answers for Asheville’s Black children.” In that piece, I expressed support for solutions coming from, and led by, the Black community. I also echoed leaders calling for a holistic approach which addresses the interconnected systems that impact the lives of Black children.

Because of this perspective, I have been surprised to see white people, mostly white women, adamantly advocating for specific changes to the schools that they have determined to be what’s needed to address the disparities. Ideas that as far as I can tell were not generated with significant Black input. This gives me pause.

Wouldn’t it be helpful for each politician to be required to live in a community at least a week before they make decisions that impact that community? – Jacquelyn Hallum

I appreciate passion for, and trying to catalyze, change. I feel that passion too. I appreciate a willingness to engage with complicated issues and to propose policy changes. I appreciate sincere efforts to try and create better outcomes for all students. At the same time, I encourage myself and other engaged white people to be on alert for symptoms of White Supremacy Culture as outlined by by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, such as “paternalism,” “either/or thinking,” “individualism,” “objectivity,” and “a sense of urgency.”

All of these I have practiced myself, for many years unconsciously. Even after years of intentional effort to identify and change my programmed tendencies, these symptoms (and others) still occur – sometimes unconsciously, sometimes I realize in the moment, and sometimes I realize later and may have to rectify a situation or at least process the lesson. I invite you on this journey of reflection with me. 

Paternalism is the perception (or appearance of the notion) that “I know best,” as in “I know/we know what is right or best for you/others,” and is the basis of many of the dynamics between white people and those without the advantage of white skin. Either/or thinking seems very much at hand, because, for example, debating whether the Asheville City school board should be appointed or elected assumes those are the only options. Individualism can look like promoting a platform that was not created by an inclusive collaborative. Objectivity is a myth. And while these are absolutely urgent issues, “a sense of urgency,” which I have heard called “urgency as a sense of importance,” becomes problematic when it “makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive.”

Another symptom of White Supremacy Culture is “power hoarding.” It’s described as “little, if any, value around sharing power,” and “those with power don’t see themselves as hoarding power or as feeling threatened.” In terms of white women, this resonates when it comes to the schools (and, I would add, nonprofit organizations). Why? Because, as Desiree Adaway pointed out to me the other day, patriarchy has designated the sociocultural domain of education as women’s domain, which, in a white supremacist system, means white women have a disproportionate and hugely influential amount of power over the lives of all children and our education system.

How does having a relative lack of power in society cause white women to act in relation to the the fields we do dominate? How does our position in those fields impact our identity? Where do we have blinders? In what ways does our proximity to white men influence our perspective? Does internalized sexism and/or white supremacy cause us to misdirect our critiques or only see part of the circumstances, contributing factors, options for change? What do we fear in terms of letting go of the roles we currently inhabit? What do we fear if we were to follow the leadership of women of color instead?

What paradigm shifts are needed to build the world we dream of?

Learning to listen

When I shared some of the concerns I’ve outlined above, questioning why Black voices are not being more centered in the search for solutions for the schools, Adaway stated that it could be because most white women still have not really learned to listen to Black women. That rang true to me.

black women
Women of color leaders at AB Tech, March 2019. Photo: LaVie Montgomery.

Because of racism, and the fact that white folks have been socialized not to talk about race, white women face countless internal and external barriers to cross-racial relationship building, such as implicit bias and segregation. Often we aren’t even aware these barriers exist, or of the ways they limit our access to spaces where we can deeply listen to people of color. That said, these barriers do not excuse us from the work of finding paths to transformative communication across race and other differences.

As inspiration for this work, I’ll share last week’s panel of women of color leaders at AB Tech, as videotaped by LaVie Montgomery.

Real cross-racial relationships lead us to understand that Black leaders are not a monolith, all agreeing on strategies or tactics. We live in a diverse ecosystem in every aspect of life. We can appreciate the varied overt and nuanced differences of perspective. No one person has the answers, the collective is key. Nor does there need to be a singular Black voice in order for us to support leaders exploring solutions and taking action.

Our focus is not on being “perfect” in this work – our focus is getting free. The illusion of perfection keeps you frozen and separated from community. – Desiree Adaway

Towards a holistic approach

That said, many Black leaders have been calling for a holistic approach to the issues facing Black students for years. Putting too strong a focus on the schools without addressing the greater context within which the schools are operating will not lead to significant change.

As the opportunity gap has increased, what else has been happening in our community that may be contributing to those disparities? Gentrification, lack of accessible job opportunities, police violence, the opioid epidemic, an affordable housing crisis, lack of seed money for entrepreneurship and small business development…

It behooves us to examine interrelated systems at play. As white women, we can seek to understand the ways that these systems are designed to work for us (and they ways they are not). We can leverage advantage where we have it, calling our families and friends to join in making significant changes that can help increase the chances that Black children in our community will thrive – in school and out, whether we have children in those same schools or not.

Economic system. Our cumulative history of exploitation and discrimination has led to enormous economic disparities. We cannot underestimate the lingering negative impact of the immense loss of homes and businesses suffered by Asheville’s Black community during urban renewal. Many Black parents of students in the city schools today can point to places where family homes or businesses once stood, places that are now a road or a city building or brewery or parking lot. There are booming white-owned businesses that fill spaces created by the theft of Black property. Businesses with awareness of this history and/or no reciprocity with that community. Businesses we may be connected to. If we care about disparities in the schools, we can advocate for economic reciprocity and justice.

I acknowledge that being white has given me access to generational wealth and economic safety. I practice economic equity through my rates in my business as well as how I choose to use my time talent, and treasure.

Criminal “justice” system. The police department budget is 1/3 of the City of Asheville’s overall budget. This is while that department has ongoing documented bias against Black people. Asheville’s school to prison pipeline has been funneling Black and brown people into incarceration for decades. A significant percent of Black students in the city schools today likely have or have had a family member in prison, and are at risk of being imprisoned themselves. As a white woman, I cannot fully conceive of what it would be like to deal with this kind of ongoing stress and complete disruption of life and possibility. If we care about disparities in the schools, we can challenge policing and the prison industrial complex.

Our liberation is tied up with that of others. There are many ways to be an abolitionist. (The SONG Black Mamas Bail Out is coming up soon.)

Now repeat this inquiry for healthcare, housing (and home ownership), culture, etc.


So much more

The opinions and questions and issues I share here are just slivers of these topics. May they spark introspection, conversation, and thoughtful action.

Whiteness is an intensely damaging force, and along with analyzing it, I am learning from others and myself how to heal from and transmute it. I invite you to do the same. I believe in the positive possibilities that lay beyond this pain. 



The NC House of Representatives just voted to make all sheriffs say “show me your papers” – a law that endangers the immigrant community and disrespects the local autonomy of our Sheriffs, who have taken a stance to protect us. Please sign and share this petition to tell Governor Roy Cooper to #StopHB370 & use his veto if it passes the Senate: tiny.cc/StopHB370


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*Thanks to Ashley Cooper for her edits on this post*