Stop White Supremacy in Student Voice

“NO RACISM ALLOWED,” announced a loud banner across the school’s entrance. I’d come this high school in Michigan to train the new SoundOut Student Equity Team, and was greeted by a handful of students.

Seattle students at the SoundOut Summer Camp
A group of high school students in a SoundOut training.

As we walked through the hallways on a winter day in 2018, I listed to stories from the students about their work to challenge white supremacy in the education system. It was an alternative high school for historically disengaged learners in a mid-sized urban school districts. The students led training for their peers and teachers, and the building was known for being progressive. It was an inspiring experience.

During our workshop focused on Meaningful Student Involvement, the students talked openly about white supremacy, white fragility, willful ignorance, whitesplaining and all bias, especially discrimination and hatred against Black people, American Indians, and other people of color. All sophomores and juniors, they shared that in their careers as students they’d experienced these realities directly as racist slurs, white supremacist curriculum, the school-to-prison pipeline and other hate-filled, explicitly discriminatory activities in schools. However, they also said that white supremacy poisoned their experiences from their youngest years through micro-aggressions and other toxic behaviors by teachers, principals and other students, including being facetious, making light, being condescending, gaslighting and otherwise demeaning, belittling, or insulting Black people, American Indians, and other people of color.


White Supremacy in Student Voice

Do your student voice activities reflect these traits? These traits are damaging to both students of color and white students. They reflect predominant white culture, and should be addressed and dismantled through Meaningful Student Involvement.

  • Perfectionism, instead of a culture of appreciation
  • Sense of Urgency, instead of realistic workplans and outcomes
  • Defensiveness, instead of understanding that school cannot in and of itself facilitate or prevent abuse
  • Quantity Over Quality, instead of fostering processes and quality goals in your planning
  • Worship of the Written Word, instead of accepting that there are many ways to get to the same goal
  • Paternalism or Adultism, instead of making sure that all students know and understand who makes what decisions in the class, program, school and education system
  • Either/Or Thinking, instead of noticing when students use either/or language and pushing to come up with more than two alternatives
  • Power Hoarding, instead of including power sharing in your class, program, school and education system’s values statement
  • Fear of Open Conflict, instead of handling conflict before conflict happens and distinguishing between being polite and raising hard issues
  • Individualism, instead of honoring students based on their ability to work as part of a team to accomplish shared goals
  • Progress is Bigger, More, instead of fostering deep impact, meaningful processes, and holistic outcomes of all involved
  • Objectivity, instead of realizing that every student has their own world view and that every student’s world view affects the way they understand things
  • Right to Comfort, instead of understanding that discomfort is at the root of all growth and learning

Adapted from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, ChangeWork, 2001


The reason I was there was to learn with them about how Meaningful Student Involvement has no room for racism. Ultimately, we resolved that white supremacy should be canceled from every student voice activity of any kind. These students were determined to immediately and completely address all white supremacy in their schools, whether from other students expressing internalized racism, or from educators who were resistant or ignorant of their own indiscretions and hatred for students of color. They were determined to make their school stop being racist.

Unfortunately, in my experience working with hundreds of schools nationwide, this isn’t the case across the United States. A lot of well-meaning but poorly informed student voice activities inadvertently reflect an overwhelming trend towards white supremacy, including featuring white student voice as representative of all student voice; homogenizing student leadership and acting as if small elite groups of designated student leaders can represent large swaths of the student body effectively, and otherwise diminishing the capacity, power and possibilities of African American, Latino/a and Hispanic, American Indian and other students of color to share their voices in positive ways throughout the education system in order to affect curriculum, learning, teaching and leadership.

Worse still, most of the current practices in student voice clearly and wholly minimize and undermine the tremendous ways that students can be meaningfully involved in the entire functioning of schools, including the teaching of classes; research of educational practices; planning curriculum, calendars and policies; evaluation of learning, teaching and climates; decision-making at all levels; and advocacy for what students themselves believe in.

SoundOut Student Voice Team at Cleveland High School, Seattle WA
Students at the SoundOut Student Voice Summer Camp in Seattle, Washington.

The potential of students becoming substantively involved in determining the course of their own learning, let alone leading the entire education system, is regularly dismissed by educators who claim the lack of students’ abilities, skills and knowledge is the undoing of Meaningful Student Involvement. However, more than twenty years of research clearly shows otherwise.

I am beginning to understand that these concerns are merely convenient cloaks for “keeping kids in their place.” By denying their roles, adults everywhere are working hard to ensure the status quo is maintained. Today, however, we know this is merely the defense of white supremacy everywhere. In order to confront our collective racism, white supremacy, willful ignorance, and ANY bias against students of color, every school with every grade everywhere across the country must shift to Meaningful Student Involvement immediately.

Spaces for Student Voice
These are the spaces where student voice should be engaged throughout education.

Fostering the characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement is the first step in this process. Moving towards re-conceptualizing the roles of students throughout the education system is further down the line. Ultimately, we must establish the role of the Public Student, whose sole purpose is to actualize the potential of democratic society be becoming an educated, engaged member of the world around them through learning, teaching and leadership.

Are you ready to stop white supremacy in education? The first step is to stop white supremacy in student voice. What are you going to do next? Please share you thoughts in the comments below.


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