Nothing has let Chicago public school policy-makers off the hook more thoroughly than the ideology of white fragility. If below average academic achievement is the result of racism alone, then it is white supremacist culture and white supremacist teachers—who are unwilling or unable to acknowledge their racism—who are the problem: not dishonest politicians who divert school funds to their cronies in exchange for kick-backs, like former Chicago public schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, recently released from federal prison; nor incompetent administrators, who repeatedly fail to protect students from pedophile staff, such as those exposed by the Chicago Tribune; nor grief at the violent dysfunction plaguing some neighborhoods, such as those parts of Chicago in which 94 people were shot and 14 of them killed over the Father’s Day weekend; nor the ever-changing array of fully funded urban school improvement initiatives, developed by enthusiastic profiteers with no teaching experience; not massive class sizes; nor truancy; nor the increasing numbers of teachers leaving the profession; nor the high percentage of students who are poor, or who are parents, or who work full-time after school to pay for things like car insurance and dental care, or who attend school in order to fight—or to eat.
I teach at a public school in Chicago. We Chicago teachers have a lot of additional work to do. As the strange and difficult 2019–2020 school year drew to a close, we dutifully began the work—not of developing Covid contingency plans for the coming year—but of completing a reflection exercise:
In recent months, the realities and impact of structural racism, white supremacy culture, privilege, and the inequitable distribution and access to resources continue to pervade news cycles and public forums. While discourse about some of these issues have [sic] begun in various departments and most explicitly via the work of the Race and Equity Team, we have a long road ahead if we are to become anti-racist educators that [sic] work to dismantle systemic racism in our school and the communities we are a part of. We must continue to wrestle with these issues personally and in community with others, self-reflect, listen to understand, and actively commit to suspend and dismantle policies and practices that perpetuate inequitable experiences and outcomes for our students because it’s something we [sic] the power to do. The prompt below pushes us to reflect on these issues and what it means for our individual and collective work.
What implications do you see for how your work and role will evolve this year as someone who serves historically and continued [sic] marginalized students? How does the “skin you are in” influence your next steps? For example … “as a gay black woman … as a young latino and [school name] alumni … as a straight, white, male”
Thanks to multiple previous staff meetings, I understood, as a white woman, the expectations of me: to acknowledge my privilege and implicit racism, decry my people’s oppressive practices and express my commitment to overthrowing the pillars of whiteness and defeating the enemies of equity. My skin, however, contains a brain in which memories of personal injustice are fresh and sometimes surface unbidden to disturb my peace or productivity. Consequently, lived experiences shaped my response:
As a white woman; and as a domestic violence survivor; and as a crime victim whose assailant used his CPD [Chicago Police Department] badge and clout to avoid justice; and as a mother who tried to shield her kids from their father’s crimes against her; and as a parent to a child with a life-threatening disability whose medical needs and legal rights were dismissed by institutions tasked with protecting her; and as an employee whose safety and legal rights were explicitly ignored by her employer; and as the former patient of an intensive mental health treatment program, I must be diligent to avoid romanticizing hardship while simultaneously teaching students their rights and recognizing when students are marginalized. This is a delicate balance. Nobody can become a survivor unless they first realize that they’re a victim. But victimhood is nothing to celebrate. It is passive, and frankly, often self-destructive and undignified. It is a condition to be overcome, and victims must realize that they themselves hold the true key. And the next step—surviving—isn’t good enough either. The end goal is to thrive. To gain strength. To heal. To feel indifferent to the pain from one’s past. To experience and share joy. To become oneself, at long last. I couldn’t protect my kids from my ex-husband or from the institutions that enabled him, but I learned how to provide support as they learned the facts and skills with which to protect themselves. And then to become themselves, by themselves. The same is true for my role as a [school name] teacher. SY 2020–2021 will be the first year that I will be teaching while free from fear and violence at home. I hope that I will evolve to become a teacher whose service to marginalized students recognizes and addresses the pain wrought by abuse and injustice in order to help put in motion the process of recovery, a process by which oppressed people set themselves free.
Here is some additional information to help you fully understand the situation I am describing. My ex-husband is a police officer with the Chicago Police Department. In Illinois, domestic abuse charges cause the revocation of one’s FOID (firearm owners’ identification) card: police officers who lose firearm eligibility are subject to unpaid suspension from work. Police officers convicted of domestic abuse and/or stalking are usually terminated, which means that they lose their health insurance and pension benefits. Many children of police officers are insured through city health plans and the police pension is the primary retirement asset for many police couples. These facts create one method by which abusive police officers evade justice and maintain control over their victims.
The Chicago Police Department’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is staffed by therapists who are mandated reporters of child abuse. EAP’s stated mission is to ensure the safety and well-being of all members of the Chicago Police Department and their families. I reported to EAP an incident involving battery and aggravated assault on the part of my ex-husband, which occurred in the presence of our daughter, a minor, ten days after her discharge from the PICU of a Chicago hospital. EAP took no action. Emboldened by this, my ex-husband’s violence escalated. From 2017–2019, the majority of his crimes took place while he was on duty, armed and driving an unmarked Chicago Police Department squad car. If the squad car’s GPS system had been in place and in working order, the Chicago police would have been aware of the amount of time my ex-husband spent at our shared marital residence while on duty (committing violent crimes against me). When I expressed outrage at this to my domestic violence advocate, she replied, “Honey, nobody gives a shit about you or your daughter in Chicago.”
In Illinois, the Victims’ Economic Safety and Security Act, VESSA, provides eligible employees with unpaid work leave and accommodations to address issues arising from domestic violence. After an investigation based on my formal complaint, the Illinois Department of Labor determined that CPS violated VESSA. Ice Miller LLC represented CPS at the complaint hearing. CPS faced no sanctions.
To conclude my response to my school, I quoted Booker T. Washington: “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life, as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”
My response met with silence.