I pulled into the parking lot with a familiar sense of weariness. I might not be the best teacher or the best activist, but I could always pride myself on my dogged ability to show up. My purse was packed with survival — leftover spaghetti crammed into a Tupperware container, an article I needed to read, a to-do list that already felt overwhelming. “Why am I here? Will it really make a difference?” I wondered aloud as I rounded the bend. It was 7 p.m. on an August Tuesday and I was headed to a school board meeting after a long day of training. What I saw when I entered the lot dropped my jaw — it was packed, with the row closest to the cafeteria taken up by news trucks and police vehicles. This was no ordinary school board meeting.
At issue was the renaming of three elementary schools in my district — Lynch View, Lynch Wood, and Lynch Meadow — and the audience had seated themselves on opposite ends of the cafeteria according to their beliefs. In recent years our East County district has become a landing pad for families gentrified out of Portland’s increasingly unaffordable inner neighborhoods, and 55 percent of our student population is now students of color, a marked change from the demographics just 10 years prior.
On one end of the room sat white people sipping water and fanning themselves with community comment sheets. On the other, majority Black and Brown families quietly chatted. No signs were necessary to understand which side was which. News cameras captured both sides sizing each other up — quick glances, small comments.
I sat with a group of co-workers nervously making small talk about our respective summer vacations on the “name change” end of the room. I was there to support a petition generated by district staff advocating for the name change. As a teacher new to the district (and the profession), this seemed like a badly needed update. I had recently tried to get a friend of mine, an elementary teacher of color, to apply for a job in my district. “No offense,” my friend texted, “but there’s no way in hell I’m walking into a building with Lynch on the walls.”
Our staff petition read in part: “It is not just that the word ‘lynch’ conjures images of murder and a history of devastating injustice, terrible as that is. It is also that the names are, at least in part, symbolic of historic laws and policies that continue to negatively impact people of color today.” The legacy of land donated by the Lynch family a century ago echoes this unease when “Lynch pride” is shouted at elementary sports games and “Lynch Meadow” greets incoming families of color at registration. “Lynch Wood Elementary? This has got to be a no-brainer,” muttered our school counselor.
The meeting kicked off with each side given 15 minutes to speak. Those opposed to the school renaming were called first and to my horror a long line of people, all white, began a district-sanctioned tirade against the influx of people of color into their neighborhood. The context of “neutrality” provided cover for white people to say, on camera and in front of children and families of color, that Lynch would always be in their hearts and that no one they knew had a problem with it.
An elderly white man assured the school board he wasn’t racist because of a Black friend on his softball team and in the same breath derided “political correctness” for holding his history back. A white staff member at a Lynch school used the word “negress” in an attempt to demonstrate that words don’t have power. Preserving history became a cover for preserving white supremacy as our school board meeting fit itself into the larger national conversation about Native American mascots and confederate monuments. I sat in my uncomfortable plastic stool both aghast and superior — I was not like “those” white people. I got it.
At last the unendurable 15 minutes came to an end. The board chair called all those in favor of removing the word “Lynch” to the microphone. This was our moment! I eagerly looked around for who would champion our cause to the finish line. After a moment of hesitation, a Latino boy stood, then an elderly Black man, then a Black mother and her daughter.
It quickly became clear that the line of people arguing in favor of the name change was entirely people of color. I felt excited. I felt confused. Do I stand? There were no teachers in line. What do I do? I don’t even teach at those schools! All sorts of thoughts went through my head. Maybe it’s better if the line is just Black and Brown folks — then I’m not overstepping my bounds as a white woman and speaking for someone whose own voice would be more powerful. Maybe as a second-year teacher standing in this charged room would get me fired. Maybe I would get so nervous that I would say the wrong thing or take up time that is better spent on someone else. I looked around at my table of white educators, all carefully avoiding eye contact with the expertise of professional bus riders. I turned to a colleague who had helped to coordinate the petition — would it be read? She shrugged. Fear of repercussions, of violating sacrosanct “professional neutrality,” or of potentially angering parents kept us anchored to plastic stools.
I sat and listened while the people of color in the room took the risk, took the glares, took the side comments and the cell phone footage and stood, despite it all, determined. One mother’s hands shook as she held her notes in front of her but she stayed standing. I, seated, continued to convince myself that it was better not to act than to act when unsure. My own concerns with what it meant to do it right, to be a “real ally” actually created space for me to pull away from the struggle itself. When finally a white colleague joined the back of the line (becoming the only white person to do so), I felt a searing sense of relief and shame. That’s what I was supposed to have done. But it’s OK now — Kate’s got it.
Here’s the thing: There were six other white educators sitting at that table with me. Chances are they each went through some version of my mental spin round the hamster wheel, but instead of asking, identifying, and strategizing our position as white educators in a racialized conversation about our district, we laughed nervously, played on our phones, and excused ourselves to the restroom. In my experience, white people struggle to talk to other white people about race, even in a moment of crucial action. How different could that have looked if I or someone at my table had been able to say, “Hey friends, what is our role here?”
There are many moments when white anti-racists need to step back, listen, and make space for voices of people of color in this work. Policy, curriculum, and workplace culture crafting come to mind easily. A school board meeting with an openly hostile white presence was not a time for me as a white person to step back.
“Were all of the parents and neighbors and business owners of color completely certain that they had the best thing to say out of everyone in the room before they stood up?” Kate later asked me. “No, probably not, but they stood up anyway because they knew it would fall to them and we as white people confirmed that.”
The false equivalency that created the space for violent words from white mouths also bowed to white supremacy in a “compromise” that allowed two schools to drop the hurtful word but re-designated one school “Patrick Lynch Elementary” — in schoolyard mouths, “Lynch School.”
I needed to stand up in that line that evening not just for people of color to see they had allies, but also for the other white people in that room to see themselves reflected in anti-racist work. To see themselves as a part of a diverse community and not as stewards of a neighborhood, granting permission to, or threatened by, people of color.
My inaction at that table, my need for assurance, was itself an act of internalized white supremacy. True allyship requires risk, and risk is built on uncertainty. I can’t be most effective at fighting racism when I am waiting for a guarantee that my actions will manifest change, or even keep me safe. I can pat myself on the back for going to the meeting, for posting something on Facebook, for putting a sign on my lawn or my car, but until I can call out other white folks (even the “allies”) or stand up when there is fear in my heart, I am not truly doing the work.
Next time in the school board meeting, in the lunchroom, in the professional learning community, and at home, I commit to asking my white peers:
• What is our role in this situation?
• Who holds power here? What power do we have?
• What will we do?
If nothing else, these questions pull me from isolation, refocus me on the institution and issue at hand, and, ultimately, should end in action.
Julia Kirkpatrick teaches language arts in the Centennial School District in Oregon.