Racism and Education: Voices from the Field

Dr. Christine Mason interviewed CEI Board Trustee Dr. Kevin Green & Kevin Simpson, a member of our Advisory Board and faculty, to learn more about their views on racism in education.

As educators field questions from staff members and parents about how to talk to their children about the racial injustice that America can no longer ignore, CEI has been having discussions on how best to support school leaders in having these critical conversations. We’ve turned especially to our colleagues of color to gain wisdom from their lived experience as educators and students of color. We offer their insights, gleaned from two recent interviews, which we hope inform the discussions you are having about racial equity in education in your communities.

Dr. Kevin Green: Change Mindsets and Policies to Increase Equity

Kevin Green is a lead scientist at Booze Allen Hamilton. He has over 26 years of research and development experience in machine/deep learning, computer vision, remote sensing, full motion video, and image/signal processing. He is currently a scientist with NGA Research conducting research and development in applying state-of-the-art methods in object detection, classification, computer vision, image processing, and remote sensing methods in the diverse image modalities of satellite/aerial/ground electro-optical (EO), synthetic aperture radar (SAR), multispectral (MSI)/ hyperspectral imaging (HSI), and full-motion video (FMV). Lastly, he was a full-time high school math teacher for three years, and a part-time University of Phoenix instructor teaching adult learners’ math and computer science programming courses for over 14 years.

Mason: Dr. Green, looking back at your childhood and up to today, how might you summarize some of the key ways that racism has impacted your life?

Green: I feel like we have to do more to be average compared to someone who is White. This was true in school and holds true up to today. Everyone needs to encourage people of color to help raise their self-esteem, especially as it relates to STEM. My dad, as you know, was a friend and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, and President of  the University of the District of Columbia. Yet, even with his achievements, he struggled. Math was an area where he lacked confidence. Dad told me of how amazed he was when he achieved the highest score in his college statistics class. He had spent extra hours studying, trying to understand statistics, and even as he completed his exams, he doubted his own ability. He was both surprised and thrilled when he ended up doing better in that class than some of his friends who he always considered to be superior math students.

I, too, have had to work on my self-confidence and self-esteem. I will be forever indebted to students from India and China who motivated me through their examples as I completed both my master’s and doctorate degrees. These degrees helped me reaffirm that I am capable and I can achieve. One of the reasons I taught math in high school and college was to instruct students in ways that instill confidence. I have benefited as a scientist because I have been able to take complex scientific and mathematical concepts and explain them to students who doubted their own math abilities.

Mason: Let’s turn for a moment to the current situation. The current state of police brutality against people of color is horrific, and yet, there is a new openness about the depth of pain caused by racism that seems to be a critical step towards healing. What are your thoughts on this topic?

Green: As an African American male, racism has impacted my psyche for years. With the death of George Floyd, we are saying we are not going to take this anymore. Deep seated racism exists. Police brutality has gone on for a long time; however, with videos, it has been recorded for all to see.

One thing I am beginning to see is that educators are finally beginning to talk about racism and White supremacy. As I look back, so much has happened that wasn’t included in the history books. The history in the books used in schools, really didn’t reflect “our” history. You could consider, for example, all that could be said about the transatlantic slave trade. The African Museum in DC provides a vivid picture of that stark reality.

There are too many disparities—economically, and in terms of leadership opportunities, access to high quality education, access to resources, and disparities even in terms of status, recognition, and ways to better one’s life.

When it comes to education, America needs to be able to look at America as a place for all students. We are creating the future. It is wonderful to see Whites alongside Blacks with Black Lives Matter signs. Seeing educators discussing changes that need to happen in schools, seeing White parents bringing children to the streets in support of Blacks matters. People are more engaged. They are interested in police activities and police reforms. Police have to be retrained. They have a role. They should be in our lives as a protective force. Police shouldn’t be a threat to our children; their role is not to cause terror. They shouldn’t be shooting someone in the back. Education and retraining are needed. Police conduct needs to be reviewed; some police should be dismissed and replaced with individuals with a different mindset, individuals who really care about supporting all of our citizens.

And yet there is hope. Hope that perhaps this time there is adequate attention and worldwide support. Adequate attention from companies, from schools, from people of many races. Adequate attention so that we will continue to call out racism where it exists, so that policies and practices will change and people will learn to live in peace with one another, without racism, without discrimination, and with healing.

Mason: Dr. Green, we too hope that there is the possibility for a new world. We thank you for all that you are doing to build the skills of teachers and students and for sharing some of your knowledge and experience with us today.

In 2009, Dr. Kevin Green published a chapter in his dad’s book, Expectations in Education: Readings on Educational Expectations, Effective Teaching, and Student Achievement. In the preface to that book, Dr. Robert Green (Kevin’s father) explains that his dad “was the son of a sharecropper in Jones County, Georgia, and when he was six years old, he was expected to begin working in the field just as all sharecroppers’ children were expected to do” (p. ix). Yet, he managed to convince his father to let him complete another year of school. After that, he became self-educated and had high expectations for himself and his family. Robert Green describes the importance of his dad’s mindset—that essentially his children could become anything they wanted if they just worked hard enough. In Kevin’s chapter on teaching math, He explains more about his experiences in engineering school: “Many of the engineering faculty seemed to teach to the students that they perceived to be the brightest” (p. 181). Kevin also explains his experiences teaching and how “fear and math anxiety,” rather than lack of ability, is the major deterrent to achieving mathematical success (p. 187).

Kevin Simpson: A View of Racism in International Education

Kevin Simpson is an educator and global entrepreneur. He recently founded AIELOC (the Association for International Educators and Leaders of Color), an organization devoted to amplifying the work of international educators and leaders of color with a focus on advocacy, learning, and research. Simpson is also founder of “a leading learning organization focused on empowering educators and education companies globally” called KDSL Global, which recently researched the race and gender of school leaders at US Department of State Assisted Schools around the world. According to their findings, international school leaders are mostly White and male (KDSL Global, 2020).

Mason: Kevin, could you talk to us today about some of the challenges you faced growing up as a young Black male in a racially divided city in Michigan?

Simpson: My first educational experiences were in predominantly Black schools in Flint, Michigan, where as a young student I loved reading and math and did well in school. When I was in the fourth grade, I moved to school in Rankin, Michigan, and entered a school with vey few Black students. Up until that time I had little awareness of prejudice. However, as a 9 year-old, in this new school, another child in my class referred to me with the “N” word and suddenly my world changed. I realized at that moment that I was different and my world was shattered. Visibly shaken, I remember crying, and having my first real discussion about race and the world with my mom. The principal contacted my mom, and we attended a meeting with the student and his mother. However, the conversation stopped there at the principal’s office. An apology was made and that was it. There was no further discussion. The end. Of course, further discussion was needed and is still needed.

Mason:  Kevin, it is so hard to understand the cruelty in this world and I realize that as a child this must have been a particularly difficult experience, and probably one that caused you and your family tremendous grief and anxiety. And of course, we can only surmise that this language was learned at home. In essence, this incident was hushed up, glossed over, and nothing else was done.

Simpson: Yes. There was no discussion with others in my class or with my teacher. And we were supposed to carry on, as if there was no bias or racism in this class or this school.

“What one Black American experiences, many Black Americans experience. Black Americans are constantly stepping into the toil and terror and trauma of other Black Americans. Black Americans are constantly stepping into the souls of the dead. Because they know: They could have been them; they are them. Because they know it is dangerous to be Black in America, because racist Americans see Blacks as dangerous.”

 Ibram X. Kende, “The American Nightmare”

Mason: As if this didn’t matter or would never happen again. However, there is so much more that can and needs to be done. This is a long-term proposition. Today, Ibram X. Kende and others are urging the adoption of anti-racist policies. Kende and others are urging people to identify not simply as “not racist” but as “anti-racist.” Can you explain the differences and what you perceive the implications of these differences to be?

Simpson: When you are anti-racist, you make it known that you are opposed to racism, not simply that you aren’t a racist. You agree to speak up. You promote racial equity. You acknowledge active engagement in calling out racism not only in others, but also yourself. You work to eliminate the “micro-aggressions”—or subtle expressions of racism. You engage in a self-check. Kende and others ask us to look at ourselves before others. It is something I am doing and urging others to do. There are so many ways that we may be perpetuating racism unconsciously, not even aware of what we are doing. So, becoming more aware and monitoring ourselves, reframing situations, is a critical step forward.

Mason: So, in light of all that is happening right now, what are you doing? I know you have started a new organization, AIELOC, to promote the leadership of educators of color in international schools.

Simpson: I have spent much of my time the past 15 years working around the world in international education. Ten years has been spent in the middle east, primarily in the United Arab Emirates. During this time, I have repeatedly witnessed episodes where Blacks and colleagues of color around the world were told there was no opening for them as teachers or administrators in schools or as consultants providing educational training. I’ve seen instances when someone might be promised a promotion, only to learn, there was none. Black and Brown people have faced enormous barriers to employment in international education and particularly in leadership positions. So, one of my major priorities right now is to change policies and end that racism and discrimination.

Mason: Kevin thanks so much for sharing a few minutes from your busy schedule with us today to share your personal experience as a Black student years ago and your current experience as a leader of color in international education.

Flint, Michigan native Kevin Simpson owns and operates KDSL Global, a leading learning organization based in the USA and in the United Arab Emirates. He and his team have served thousands of schools, educators, and leaders worldwide in over 25 countries. Since 2008, he has been focused on education in the MENA region, assisted numerous schools with accreditation, training, development, and served as a thought partner with investors on school start-up projects.  Simpson is co-founder of the UAE Learning Network, leads the GCC ASCD Connected Community, and recently started the Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color (AIELC). He shared with us a spoken word piece he wrote about his experience of being perceived by others as a Black man, which you can read an excerpt of below.

“Oh Say Can You See” by Kevin Simpson

In the year of yes we can

I would enter a land of opportunity

Wasn’t that supposed to be America?

I found life and made a plan in the desert

Sir what do you do? Play basketball, are you in the military?

Is that what you see?

Let me help you.

What do you not think I do? 

Both Kevin Green and Kevin Simpson are highly successful educators. Both had to overcome obstacles and are still facing racism, even as they are working to help remove barriers for others as they excel in their fields. My thanks to both of them for sharing a little from their life stories as we continue to learn together. 

References

Green, R. (Ed.) (2009). Expectations in education: Readings on high expectations, effective teaching, and student achievement. McGraw-Hill: SRAonline.

KDSL Global. (2020, January 6). Launch of new association focused on international educators and leaders of color.

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