Issue Of The Week XXIX: Punitive Models As A Mechanism To Facilitate Social Justice Is Ineffective In Creating Dialogues About Race And Inequality Within School Environments
In a society that is increasingly adopting and legitimizing a “colorblind” ideology, making an argument that racism still exists becomes an arduous task. I have a 14-year-old daughter that attends a predominately white school and on many occasions, she has come home in tears with hurt feelings because one of her peers has assaulted her with a racially charged comment. In the past, I have addressed this by reassuring her of her value and worth to our family and to broader society. However, I realize that reassurance from mom is not enough to stave off the extremely damaging impact those hurtful comments have on my daughter’s self -esteem. I need reinforcements. I have embarked on the journey of bringing forth awareness among the administrators at her school, in hopes to garner their support. Students of color need to feel that their teachers and their administrators care about their experiences and recognize the unique way in which they navigate their environment.
Like many schools across the country, the current model used to address issues of race at my daughter’s school is punitive. As we know, school is a microcosm of broader society, so not surprisingly there is a palpable almost frantic attempt to keep issues of race at bay. Involving the administration at her school has proven to be much more difficult than I had initially anticipated. When a student makes a racist or a stereotypical statement, they are punished, very little is done to address the broader issue, which is race and racism. Assigning a student to lunch detention or issuing a suspension sends the message that what the student said was wrong but omits the discussion of why? The student is taught to “not say that again” and with this punitive model, they probably won’t, but it is the silence that reinforces race as a system of oppression. “Silence” conceptualized as an entity has proven to be a powerful oppressor. It is our responsibility to dismantle the enormous power that “silence” yields over oppressed and disenfranchised people.
Having honest conversations about race is painful, but we have to learn how to become familiar with and work through the feelings of discomfort when discussing issues of race. We ask ourselves; why are we so uncomfortable, and why is it painful? There is a reason, but it is not reason enough to dismiss the discussion; on the contrary, it is an argument to begin the conversation.
My daughter and other children of color should not have to walk through a minefield of racial stereotypes on a daily basis. It is insulting to me, to my daughter and to other students of color to have the school administration dismiss the bombardment of verbal racialized assaults by dealing with them as individual occurrences perpetrated by individual students. There are broader structural forces at play here, such as institutional racism and the stereotypical images disseminated that maintain that racism. Young people’s minds are like sponges. They absorb these racist and stereotypical images almost as if osmosis were taking place.
However, as a sociologist I know that racist ideologies are not learned via osmosis. It is through socialization. Stereotypical images and racism manifest themselves within students’ interpersonal interactions with each other. Unfortunately, as a result of this phenomenon the self-images of students of color are disproportionately negatively impacted. Race is a social construct that does not exist in a vacuum and school administrators have to work towards creating a safe environment for all students, even if that means experiencing feelings of discomfort and talking about painful issues. There is definitely a pattern emerging within the school system that impresses upon me that there is not enough being done to address issues of race.
Incorporating diversity programs within academic environments is a much more beneficial tool to create discourse about race and inequality. Including diversity issues into the everyday curricula will promote awareness and knowledge about race and stereotypes. It will also provide administrators with the agency to implement policies that encourage and facilitates communication, instead of silence when addressing those students that commit racial assaults against their peers. Moreover, dialogue among administrators about race and inequality will help facilitate conversations among the students as well, without the “taboo” stigma attached. As a collective society, we have to equip our young people with the necessary tools and knowledge about inequality so that they can become allies in struggle against injustice. As mentioned earlier, convincing the school administrators that there is a problem that needs immediate active attention is difficult. They have to first acknowledge that inequality does exist and then work to implement programs to aid in the discourse about these issues.
The fact of the matter is that racism is embedded throughout every facet of our lives. We are all affected by it in one way or another, whether it is directly or indirectly and also whether we benefit or are disenfranchised by it. Punishment without discussion only serves to maintain the systems of oppression and racial hierarchies that currently exist.
If the goal is to create social justice within the school systems as well as within broader society, then it is time to rethink the ways in which we address these issues. Punitive models are ineffective tools to promote awareness of injustice and racism. It only reinforces the silence and simultaneously upholds systemic oppression executed under the invisible cloak of the “colorblind” ideology; which we all know is a crock of (you fill in the blank)! Which makes me wonder, is there a collective goal in our society to create social justice, or does it only serve as the politically correct rhetoric where real action is only simulated?
What do you think?
Author Bio: Allison Monterrosa is a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She will graduate in December 2012 with a Master of Arts degree in Sociology.
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