Tiffany Jewell On Racism In Our Education System And Why She’s Hopeful For The Future

“I want educators and caregivers to know that our stories are unique, but we've all experienced very similar things no matter where we've been in our schooling journeys.”

Raising Anti-Racist Kids

“Our system, it's not created out of empathy,” says author and educator Tiffany Jewell. “We have so many amazing teachers in our schools, and then there are all these rules and boundaries and things that they have to ascribe to.” Jewell’s new book, Everything I Learned About Racism I Learned In School, is about her experience as an educator and a Black biracial woman, and the identity-framing impact of her own education.

Jewell, who is an anti-bias antiracist educator and the author of three other books, including the New York Times Bestseller, This Book Is Anti-Racist, has been working with children and families for nearly two decades. Her work at the intersection of social justice, activism, and identity has propelled her into a career as a sought-after speaker and facilitator.

In Jewell’s new book, she delves into how she was misidentified as white and how this paved the way for different treatment, opportunities, and pathways for her. The book is both a mirror to the American education system and a calling in of all educators. I asked Jewell about how parents, caregivers, and educators can use her new book as well as how colorism plays a role in education.

What’s the significance of this book for educators and also for parents?

I've been a teacher for about 20 years at this point, and I really wanted to give some background on just what my schooling was like. I hope that others would see their story in it. As I was telling the stories from third grade and middle school, at some point I realized, "Pretty much everything I learned about racism, I learned in school."

I want educators and caregivers to know that our stories are unique, but we've all experienced very similar things no matter where we've been in our schooling journeys. Still today students are experiencing and witnessing and taking part in racist actions and traditions and things in school. I really want the takeaway from the book to be, this happened, it's still happening, and we can really work to put an end to it so this doesn't keep happening.

In the book, you share that you were mislabeled as white in school and how that impacted the opportunities you were exposed to. What is the potential impact of something like this?

It's probably why all of the work I do with young folks and children, and even adults now, starts with us doing the work of creating our identity maps, understanding who we are, because we know who we are and it's really important for us to be able to name ourselves and go through that process. As a kid, I didn't know how I was labeled, but I knew I was biracial, I knew I was mixed, or the other words that we used for it in the 80s and 90s. My white mom was the one who was like, "You are not white. You are Black kids, too." Then to realize that our school, they called us white, and is that why I got to have these opportunities that other people didn't? I always tell my own children and other people, you know who you are and it's not okay for other people to tell you who you are.

You talk in the book about three different scenarios concerning a child who is late to school. In one, the teacher makes the child leave and get a hall pass. In the second, the teacher tells the child to go to the office after class. And in the third, the teacher smiles and tells the child they made it just in time. I think about how punitive measures that lead to carceral mindsets can start from a very young age. Can you talk about that?

We have a system that really rewards some folks, and usually it's white folks and folks who have more money and resources already available. They don’t just divide, but also create punitive measures for people who are Black and brown and poor and have disabilities, anybody who doesn't fit into the dominant culture of our society. It stinks. You look at that pipeline and you see a kindergartner who's missed a lot of days of school then getting suspended from school because when they return, they don't know what they're supposed to be doing. The teacher just keeps going on and nobody's checked in on them, and then they get suspended and they're asked to leave school. It's just this cycle, and we could be doing it way differently, but we're not.

I think about the fact that even if the child is missing school because there is an issue at home, the response shouldn't be punitive. It should be, how can we help the conditions under which this child is living in so that they can show up to school.

Right, and we always think about kids that have homes, but there are many kids who are unhoused, and our schools will help them, but it's also very secretive. So sometimes teachers don't even know if their students are unhoused. We need to really understand every kid's story and understand their journey before they get to us in order to create pathways for them to be successful, because success is different for everybody too and that's not how our schools are really often shaped.

You talk about your teachers having high expectations for you, prepping you for college, even if that wasn’t the same experience for other kids in the school. Can you talk about the relationship between colorism and education?

I feel like we're very divided by white and Black or white and brown, and we don't talk about the nuances of color within racism too. The experience I had as a light kid, walking to school with a white mom, was that my mom was often trusted by the educators. I remember people even making comments to my mom about my sister and I being like, "Oh, you keep those girls so neat and clean," which then tells you something. How are they viewing other children who are like us or darker than us?

Tell us about the difference between the achievement gap and the opportunity gap and why parents need to know the difference.

I love when Gloria Ladson-Billings talks about the education debt that's owed to our students, because these gaps are not personal things. We often learn about people as individuals, and we learn that this kid isn't living up to their potential because they're from a broken home or whatever. What we're not learning about is how neighborhoods have been divided and that resources have been taken out of places, and that it's not just a gap, but these kids are owed the money that was taken from property taxes. They’re owed the community that was taken when highways were built. They're owed Black teachers that were taken from our schools when schools integrated and they didn't hire Black teachers to go into predominantly white schools.

Actually, we're experiencing this from the pandemic. They’ve talked a lot about learning loss, and, well, yes, kids had a learning loss based on these standards that somebody created for children. But can we talk about all the things they gained too? Can we talk about how kids are so much more savvy around technology? Can we talk about how we have different skills and tools now?

In a time when there is a lot of pushback for DEI, how can parents of the global majority use this book to gain the skills and knowledge to advocate for their kids in school?

I really am hoping that parents, and parents of the global majority, and white accomplice caregivers, that we don't accept the status quo and the way things have always been, because they've been like this for so long and it's not okay. The beautiful thing is I think students now are so much more savvy and smarter than we were, and so they also, listening to them, they know it's not okay. So really working and collaborating with them to fight for our schools in a way that, I don't want to say hasn't been done before, but in a way that is really exciting and revolutionary.

Everything I Learned About Racism I Learned In School is available anywhere books are sold.