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When "Fun" Gets Racist, What Should Schools Do?

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It was, perhaps, a spontaneous decision: The six senior students at Desert Vista High School were a part of a larger group of students that had donned shirts with letters to spell out "Best You've Ever Seen Class of 2016." At some point, these six decided to pull away to spell something much less benign (see image below). Now, their faces are all over the internet, they've been suspended for 5 days, and a Change.org petition (with over 20,000 supporters) is calling for them all to be expelled. On other parts of the interwebs, there are calls for far worse.

Source: Change.org
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Is this justice? And, if not, what would be just, in this case?

I want to be clear about my own identify and agenda. I identify as a racial justice activist and though I do not support the petition's stated purpose (for the girls to be expelled), I am sympathetic to the part of the petition that argues that the girls' actions showed "a complete disregard for the dignity of the black community in Arizona and across the nation." More than that, it is my view that the girls' actions showed either tragic ignorance of this nation's history or an intentional rejection of that history's significance. It may be protected speech, but that only means the word/action is not criminal. It is still, in my view, offensive, harmful, insensitive, and in poor taste. Perhaps more importantly, actions like these can reasonably be perceived as creating a hostile environment, not only for black students but for all students of color, and not only for students of color but for all students who identify as part of an oppressed group.

Such actions are not, as some might claim, harmless fun or just kids being kids and it should be understood that, in such a case, especially when it is a national story, the school's response needs to take into account not only the particulars of the situation but also of the symbolic meaning -- the meta message -- that others will no doubt attach to it regarding the school's orientation toward a myriad of often contradictory issues, including justice, perceived safety, free speech/expression, and of course racism. It's not just schools that have to grapple with these complex dynamics. We all do. But this particular incident happened in a school so let's focus on that particular environment.

First, a few complications to what some may see as a blatant and uncomplicated act:

1. Who bears responsibility? At first glance, the girls posing for the photo are clearly responsible for their actions. As far as I know, no one forced them or otherwise manipulated their actions. They are 100% responsible for their choice and nothing here is intended to suggest otherwise. But are they solely responsible? Their actions suggest that they have been socialized to enjoy the benefits of whiteness without the corresponding awareness of historical and present-day racial inequality in this country and their privileged status within in. Didn't parents, teachers, and other adults create the conditions for this to unfold by not sufficiently underscoring the historical harms and the present-day inequalities? Didn't some of these same adults, as well as their peers, perhaps unintentionally create a culture/subculture in which racism (or at least some manifestations of it) are seen as more funny than hurtful? What jokes or stories have we, as white Americans, told or laughed at in the privacy of our homes or the safety of an all-white gathering? Do not we have some responsibility too?

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2. What does it mean to hold kids accountable? Although this perspective is starting to be challenged, for hundreds of years our society has essentially equated accountability and justice with the administration of punishment. In the next paragraph, I'll challenge the notion that punishment is the only way to create accountability. Here I want to ask a less more straightforward question: How high a price should these girls pay for making light of a painful history and contemporary reality (of white supremacy) they did not create? This isn't a leading question. Though it's true that the girls inherited our racial hierarchy, posing for this photograph essentially reinforced and maintained that reality. And while it may not have been an intentional act of harm, it wasn't entirely innocent either. Surely, the girls knew something about the history of this word and the harm associated with it. Had they not, there would have been no reason for the photo-op. And yet, we generally acknowledge that young people make mistakes, that the role of the education system is to teach not to punish, and that no one should be defined by one bad choice. So, how do create accountability that respects the need for all students to feel safe in school without scapegoating a handful of young people who made a bad choice?

As we consider the above, it might help to know that there is little evidence that punitive school discipline serves either a corrective or preventive function. Data show that a single suspension in high school doubles the risk of drop-out and dropping out of school triples the risk of incarceration. Though there are reasons to think that those numbers may not apply to this atypical discipline case, they do nevertheless raise doubts about the efficacy of punishment-based discipline policies.

My purpose here is not to call for leniency, in part because I'm well aware that a so called "slap on the wrist" would be perceived by many as tacit acceptance of their actions and perhaps even as an indication that the white girls' well-being is more important than the well-being of those who are targeted by racism. My point, rather, is to point out that 1) accountability, in the form of natural consequences, happens outside of formal sanctions, as well as within them. Regardless of how the school might respond, the public notoriety and corresponding damage to their reputation is not only likely to be extremely unpleasant but also has implications for college admission and even future employment opportunities. Harm has, undoubtedly, already flowed in the opposite direction. And 2) besides punitive sanctions, accountability can also be created through an expectation that those who did the harm do what is necessary to "make it right." What such "making right" looks like is not for me to determine but for those in the school and community who see themselves as having been harmed, those in the community who feel impacted by what happened, and of course the girls themselves to figure out together. Certainly heartfelt statements of regret, in combination with tangible and meaningful efforts (not mere promises) to work on behalf of black rights and racial justice would be seen by many as desirable steps in that direction. This too is accountability, especially if the process used to create such accountability has restorative elements and not just punitive ones.

The examples of accountability above are just that -- examples! I do not know anything about any of the six girls or their parents. I don't know anything about the school and therefore nothing about its students, its teachers and staff. I don't know anything about the school culture or the community in which the school is located. It is not my place to suggest specific strategies for accountability. This if for the school community to work out, not for me.

But, as a student of conflict, I do know something about what conditions contribute to the outcomes that I think most of us want -- for this to be a learning experience for the six girls, for school to be a safe place for students of color (and other oppressed groups!), for this country to begin to dismantle the structures that maintains the existing racial hierarchy. Below are just a few of those conditions, deliberately written in the first person so that we can all try them on and see if they apply to us.

1. We all need to feel heard and have our motivations be seen and understood. Creating an opportunity for everyone to share their point of view does not invalidate anyone else's. And the point is not to let everyone present their side and then have some authority person decide who is right (as in a court of law) but to simply create an opportunity for all those involved (and impacted) to share their personal truth.

2. We need to understand the impact of our actions. Most of us have an internal justice framework. We typically see ourselves and want to see ourselves as "good people". Honest feedback about the negative impact of our actions challenges this self-concept and often creates conditions for us to want to repair the harm we've caused so that we can continue to think of ourselves in positive ways.

3. We want to have autonomy. As I stated above, when we become aware of how we've negatively impacted others, we often voluntarily want to make things right. This voluntariness is key. When we feel that others are imposing their will and forcing us to do things, we often resent it, even when, on some level, we might realize that it's the right thing to do. We can see it when we force others to apologize rather than giving them an opportunity to make that decision for themselves but it applies just as much to other actions. Offers and requests are more likely to be done with love and integrity than when something is demanded or prescribed by an authority.

4. We need to have actions. As much as dialogue creates conditions for positive outcomes, everyone typically feels dissatisfied unless there are also concrete action agreements (and follow through). Without actions, those who are harmed have a hard time trusting the words, even when the words express heartfelt regret and remorse. Without actions, those who are harmed have a hard time seeing themselves as being reintegrated back into community. What that actions look like is limited only by the imagination of those involved but should, ideally, be agreeable to all parties.

5. We all need dignity and collaboration. Our criminal justice system is set up to be an oppositional process. It's the prosecution versus the defense and, at the end of the day (or week or month), one side will be proclaimed the winner and the other, the loser. While such a paradigm has some advantages, it also creates conditions for resentment, a sense of victimization (from the process), and possibly even anger and a need for revenge. No one likes feeling like a loser (see previous section on autonomy). It need not be that way. It's possible to create dialogue that focuses on repairing harm and making things right and that is collaborative in nature. If I were working in this school, I would want to work WITH these girls and their families to figure out next steps, not dictate those steps to them. I would want the same as a parent. More importantly, I would want the same if I were the aggrieved party. Shouldn't the needs and preferences of those who were harmed matter too, not just the preferences of someone with structural power? If we frame the process in oppositional terms, someone will be sure to resent whatever decisions are made, but a collaborative win-win process is possible because, at our core, we all want the same things: safety, fairness, self-responsibility, and a school where all kids can thrive.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)

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