A counternarrative autoethnography exploring school districts' role in reproducing racism: Willful blindness to racial inequities

Muhamad A. Khalifa, Felecia Briscoe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Background: Racialized suspension gaps are logically and empirically associated with racialachievement gaps and both gaps indicate the endurance of racism in American education. Inrecent U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Office of Civil Rights data, it was revealedthat nationally, Black boys are four times more likely to be suspended than White boys. Insome geographic areas and for certain offenses, some intersections of race, class, and genderare dozens of times more likely to be suspended for than others. Although most educationalleaders and district-level official express disapproval of racism in schools, racialized gaps inachievement and discipline stubbornly persist.Purpose/Objective: The purpose of this study was to examine how school district-level administratorsreact to investigations and indications of racism in their school districts. Itis relevant because in many school districts that have disciplinary and achievement gaps, the administrators ostensibly and publically express a hope to reduce or eliminate the racisttrends. Yet, one administration after another, they seem unable to disrupt the racially oppressivediscipline and achievement gaps. In this study, we examined administrators' responsesto our requests about their districts' racialized disaggregated disciplinary data, and their responsesto our sharing of our findings with them. We use counternarrative autoethnographyto describe that school district administrators play a significant role in maintaining practicesthat reproduce racial oppression in schools. Setting: This study was conducted in large urban school districts in Texas. The profiled districtswere predominantly Latino; however one district was over 90% Latino and the otherjust slightly more than half with sizable White and Black student populations in some schoolsand areas. Participants: As this is an autoethnography, we are the primary participants of this study; weinterrogate our experiences with school district administrators in our investigations of racialdisciplinary gaps. Research Design: Our autoethnography is counternarrative, as it counters bureaucraticnarratives of impartiality, colorblindness, and objectivity espoused by school districts. Inaddition to our own self-interviews, we base our counternarrative on the examination of 11phone calls and 35 email exchanges with district administration, and on field-notes takenduring seven site visits. These collective experiences and data sources informed our counternarratives, and led to our findings. Our research encompasses three phases. The initialphase was our attempt to obtain disciplinary data from various school districts in Texas. Only two school districts made the data accessible to us, despite being legally obligated to doso. For the second phase of our study we calculated risk ratios from those two school districtsto determine how many more times African Americans and Latinos are suspended thanWhites in all of the schools of TXD1 and TXD2. The third phase was the district administrators'reactions to our presentation of our findings in regards to their district schoolswith the most egregious disciplinary gaps. Based on the administrative responses to them, we thought that it was important to highlight our experiences through a counternarrativeautoethnography. Conclusions: From our qualitative data analysis we theorize three bureaucratic administrativeresponses contributed to the maintenance of racism in school-(1) the administratorsdiscursive avoidance of issues of racial marginalization; (2) the tendency of bureaucratic systemsto protect their own interests and ways of operating, even those ways of operating that areracist; and (3), the (perhaps inadvertent) protection of leadership practices that have resultedin such racial marginalization. These responses were enacted through four technical-rational/bureaucratic administrative practices: subversive, defensive, ambiguous, and negligent.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-34
Number of pages34
JournalTeachers College Record
Issue number8
StatePublished - 2015


Dive into the research topics of 'A counternarrative autoethnography exploring school districts' role in reproducing racism: Willful blindness to racial inequities'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this