Silent in the Face of Oppression: A Story of Cultural Incompetence in American Schools

Youth storyteller and advocate who enjoys writing about social justice and identity-based issues with the ultimate intent of breaking down barriers and changing

On the first day of first grade, I walked into class to discover that mine was the only black face in the room. We began the day by introducing ourselves and showing off the self-portraits that we’d made over the summer. I rose precariously to present my Crayola-colored masterpiece, but before I could even say my name, a boy in my class asked me why my portrait was brown, saying that brown was ugly. I froze entrenched in silence as my face grew red and tears began to fill my eyes. However, what was most painfully disappointing at that moment was not what was said, but what wasn’t. My teacher stood there just as silently as I and then beckoned me to continue- all without so much as addressing the boy.

Unfortunately, experiences like these characterize the educational careers of students of color all across the nation. And what these encounters really expose is the overwhelming lack of cultural competence in schools. As you may have gathered, the school I described was homogenous and predominantly white — and that was over 10 years ago. According to a recent study published by the University of California, Los Angeles and Penn State, which analyzed the changes in our educational landscape over the past 65 years, schools have actually become more segregated at the expense of public education.

Schools often closely resemble the neighborhoods in which they are located, so Black and Latinx students are more likely than their white counterparts to attend impoverished schools that serve majority students of color. These schools often do not have the resources to adequately equip students to escape cyclical poverty — which is usually what landed them in those schools in the first place.

Let me paint you a picture: a Black student goes to a poor school in their poor neighborhood and ends up either in prison or with a low-paying job as a result of a low-quality education. The student goes on to raise a family in the same segregated, low-income area where they were raised and the same deteriorating, underfunded school still remains. Their children end up going to the school where they will likely have the same exact experience — the cycle continues. This type of pattern takes place all over the country and does its job in reinforcing racial and socioeconomic inequalities. However, on the flip side of this narrative is a phenomenon referred to by Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon and USC sociologist Ann Owens as “isolation”.

Isolation is a way to measure school segregation by looking at students who attend schools with a low proportion of a given racial group. Because the majority of white students attend schools that are at least 75% white, it is far more common for a student of color to be one of the only students of their race than it is for a white student to be one of the only students of their race. Similar statistics are also reflected amongst school faculty.

Teachers of color are overwhelmingly outnumbered by their white colleagues, accounting for only 20% of educators in public K-12 education. This means that they are considerably less diverse than the student population they serve, which has a particularly adverse effect on the way we see society and navigate the world.

Most white students will be taught by teachers that look like them for their entire educational careers whereas students of color (and especially male students of color) will be lucky if they get a handful of teachers that look like them.

The white dominance of education in our ever-diversifying society often means that educators are not trained in cultural competence — and for kids with stories like mine that can mean suppressing pieces of our cultural identities just to fit in at school.

Up until the eighth grade, I attended schools that were predominantly white and had predominantly white faculty. As a Black girl that meant constantly getting in trouble for being “too sassy”, being stared at mercilessly by students and teachers alike as subjects like slavery were discussed, and being pet like an animal anytime I came to school with a new hairstyle. My battles, however, contrasted starkly with those of the Black boys in my class. Where my behavior cards seemed to change from green to yellow on a near-daily basis, theirs seemed to be permanently set on red. Minor infractions were often “resolved” with yelling and frequent visits to the principal rather than genuine attempts to understand the alleged issue and its roots. I quickly internalized the trauma of watching them be so rampantly criminalized and began to self-police.

I was determined to be the non-threatening Black girl. No poofy hairstyles, no hands on my hips, no talking back — nothing that would make my teachers treat me how they treated my Black male peers.

I began to code-switch without even recognizing it, leaving my Blackness at the door whenever I stepped onto my school’s campus and replacing it with “whiter” things such as straight A’s and “proper” diction.

I was rewarded for these acts of assimilation with things like honor roll and selection for class activities — I had achieved my goal of being non-threatening. But that should never be the goal of a student in the classroom; students of color are not tasked with mitigating the underlying biases of their teachers. In order for a teacher to effectively do their job, these biases must be eradicated before they even enter the classroom.

Many organizations such as the National Education Association (NEA) have written policy briefs in support of cultural competence which thoroughly explain its necessity when teaching within a diverse cultural climate. In the field of healthcare, cultural incompetence has long been recognized as an issue and legislation is currently being written to intervene — we need to do the same thing with education. We must urge districts to require that all hired faculty and new hires undergo extensive cultural competency training in order to best serve students because no student deserves to endure a teacher who remains silent in the face of oppression.