I just finished listening to the “Nice White Parents” podcast from the New York Times. The podcast’s tagline is, “If you want to understand what’s wrong with our public education system, you have to look at what is arguably the most powerful force in our schools: white parents.” Listening to the five episodes that focus on one school in Brooklyn caused me to reflect on how much it mirrored my experience as a white parent in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS).
The first episode was particularly painful. It details how a school that had been ignored by white parents for years received a sudden influx, many of whom implemented ideas for curriculum and fundraisers without talking to the Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) families already attending. I thought back to 2010, when my daughter started kindergarten at Lyndale Community School. It was the first year of the new school boundaries and a group of white families were attending a school that had been 90% BIPOC the year before. Did I sound like the parents in that podcast? How much of the principal’s time did I demand with my ideas for how things could be “better” for my child? Too much.
Over the years I heard many MPS neighbors talk about “winning the magnet school lottery” so they wouldn’t have to send their kids to our community school. They said they wanted small class sizes and arts programming and I would reply that we had all of that at Lyndale, but those neighbors still didn’t choose it. I gave tours and would watch them count the number of white students in the class and tense up if the number was too small for their comfort level. In the podcast, they call this “the bliss point” — the percentage of white students at a school so that white parents are comfortable with integration. National research had found it was at least 26% white students in a school. Based on the schools that consistently get put first on choice cards, I think our local bliss point is much higher. The Minneapolis chapter of Integrated Schools used state data to analyze segregation in Hennepin County schools, accounting for school districts’ differing racial demographics. If Southwest Minneapolis were its own district, we would have the most racially segregated elementary schools in the county.
Spoiler alert: Nice White Parents ends on a somewhat optimistic note. For the first time in decades, Brooklyn had passed a plan that was going to intentionally integrate the middle schools. I kept comparing that to the just completed MPS Comprehensive District Design (CDD) process and reflecting on how much more contentious the CDD was. Many white parents were upset that their schools may have a smaller percentage of BIPOC students under the plan. But in MPS, as in the podcast, what white parents say and what they actually
do with their school choice often differs. If white parents care about integration, then the burden should be on us to make school choices consistent with those values. MPS has failed BIPOC students in both segregated and desegregated schools for too many years. The focus of MPS needs to be on improving the educational experience for BIPOC students regardless of the demographics of the school. It’s time for us white parents to admit that advocating for what’s “best” for our children can be an act of oppression against BIPOC students and families, as we hoard resources, opportunities and power within a system that has always put our children’s needs in front of those of others.
Bridget Gernander is founder of the Minneapolis chapter of the organization Integrated Schools.