My friend is dead, but don't call her a hero
Is there anything more insufferable than a white person trying not to be racist?
You know the type--she’s so well-intentioned, but also inevitably a little annoying, checking and re-checking every one of her instincts and assumptions, turning apologies into events, reading all the right books, but shying away from creating real relationships with people of color for fear that she’ll screw it up. You might even be the type. I know I have been at different moments.
Which is part of what made Courtney Everts Mykytyn, one of the nation’s most effective white, anti-racist activists, so important.
She didn’t try. She did.
She also died in a tragic accident last month, so it’s got many--myself included--thinking about her legacy. Everts Mykytyn not only took action against racism in her own life, with her own kids (the third rail of social change), but did the often tedious, uncomfortable work of raising the consciousness and inspiring the real world actions of other white people. And all the while, she stayed humble, bold, and funny as hell.
Here was her theory of change: if you can get 3.5 percent of white and/or privileged families--that’s three million in the U.S.--to voluntarily desegregate public schools, it would change society forever.
Everts Mykytyn got this number from Dr. Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, who did a meta-study and found that no civil resistance campaign across the globe over the last century “failed after they had achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population.”
To get that 3.5 percent, you need to get white people to understand that, as bestselling author Seth Godin puts it, “people like me do things like this.”
That’s why Everts Mykytyn talked so much about fighting the good fight among friends and neighbors. Her all-volunteer and ever-growing army of parents rallied under the banner of the organization she founded four years ago, Integrated Schools. They took her two tour pledge (which, at a minimum, asked parents to tour two schools that serve a majority of students from different racial, socioeconomic, and linguistic backgrounds than their own), sent their kids to these schools, joined online book club discussions, devoured her popular podcast (with over 7K listeners), and even started Integrated Schools chapters in their own hometowns (there are over 20 to date).
An anthropologist by training, Everts Mykytyn understood that the playground was political, no matter how much we might pretend otherwise. She encouraged white and privileged parents to work on their own mindset, countering what she called “the smog” of whiteness, which she described as “all of the things that we hear and say about schools, often without realizing the ways those things are racialized.” (Think of the last time you heard a white person describe a neighborhood or school as “tough” when what they really meant was majority black.)
She also encouraged parents to expand their own knowledge about integration in this country, who has had the burden historically (black families) and how effective it actually is when sustained over time (extremely). She inspired parents to practice talking about all of that even when it felt uncomfortable--like while standing around at the 4-year-old birthday party eating gluten-free cupcakes. Everts Mykytyn didn’t buy into what some white people might call “polite company.” There is no being polite, she believed, when our schools are more segregated todaythan they were in the 1960s, and the opportunity gap is still so dramatic.
There was no half-ass-ing it with her. In an interview last year she explains without equivocation: “It’s about white and privileged families opting into global majority black and brown schools. You’re either contributing to school segregation and concentrations of whiteness and privilege, or you’re making a choice to not have that as a priority.”
Andrew Lefkowits, her co-host on the podcast, said that this was part of Courtney’s genius: “She knew that as soon as there is a little wriggle room, white people will cram themselves through it so they don’t have to deal with the truth of it. But she also managed to call you out without pushing you away.”
How did she do that? “Because she, herself, was on the journey. She wasn’t afraid to go hard, but she also wasn’t afraid to change tactics when she learned something new,” Lefkowits explained. “She made you want to go along with her.”
Was she naive to think that white and/or privileged parents would ever make these kinds of choices and have these kinds of conversations in meaningful numbers?
Some thought so. Even her own board member, Dr. Noliwe Rooks, a professor at Cornell University and the author of Cutting School, thought so. In a Facebook post following Everts Mykytyn’s death, Rooks wrote: “She and I had epic conversations about my skepticism with actually resurrecting large scale educational integration efforts...But then, so many integration efforts have been sabotaged by white people...clearly resistant whites have to engage if there is any hope at all. That was Courtney’s lane, her mission, her passion and she was very, very good at it.”
Everts Mykytyn was a strategic organizer. She recognized that the time is now--cities are growing and gentrifying, meaning--for better and worse--more of us are living in racially diverse neighborhoods than in previous decades. She, herself, lived in Highland Park in Los Angeles. Even white and privileged parents are growing disenchanted with intensive parenting (also called “helicopter” or more recently, “snowplow,” parenting)--the religion, if you will, of seeking the best for your kids at all times, no matter what the collective cost. And finally, there is a growing public conversation about how we define a “good school.” More and more people recognize that test scores largely map onto the socioeconomic background of the existing population, giving a prospective parent little information about how the kids actually feel, learn, and come together as a community at a given school.
Importantly, Everts Mykytyn wasn’t just urging white parents what to do--desegregate schools; she was urging them to think long and hard about how they did it. In short, show up and shut up. At least for awhile. Create real relationships. Proceed humbly and with a sense of humor about yourself. As Peter Piazza, education policy researcher and a collaborator of Everts Mykytyn, put it: “Integrated Schools simultaneously recognizes the moral imperative on white people and the importance of decentering whiteness. It’s obviously an enormously difficult thing to balance.”
Everts Mykytyn knew from her own experience--her kids are now 15 and 17--that it was easy to get overzealous as a white, privileged parent in a school where most people don’t look like you, to step into leadership with a style that alienates others (think highly polished power points or meeting at a hipster beer garden) or take on issues that aren’t actually important to the majority (organic food and other things that hit, as my friend puts it, white parents’ “bougie pleasure centers.”).
Courtney was my friend and mentor, too. My white six-year-old goes to a predominantly black and brown school, a dreaded 1 out of 10 on the GreatSchool.org website. Courtney helped me have the courage and context to make that choice, despite the fact that neighbors warned me against doing so and most of my friends didn’t do the same.
She showed me that people like me do things like this. We shared one wonderful in-person dinner together, had lots of phone calls and exchanged countless emails and texts over the last two years about how to show up, about the growing movement, about Blackish and summer camp and “white fragility.” She firmly corrected me when she thought I got it wrong. She made me laugh a lot. Like really, truly laugh.
Ever since I heard that she died (on a playground, no less), I’ve been conceptualizing this piece in my head. And I’ve been in constant conversation with Courtney. She would hate to be cast as a hero for doing something that she believed in her heart should not be exceptional--making choices that honor all kids, not just your own, particularly if they are already the beneficiaries of so much of America’s excesses.
I looked back on our correspondence (which she always signed off as “otherCourtney”). I wrote about her a bit in one of the essays that led to the book project I am now working on. At the time, I ran some language by her to make sure it was accurate, and she wrote back with a few tweaks. Most of all, she was hoping it could be: “a little less badass, less white-savior sounding.”
That’s Courtney. Or that was Courtney.
She wasn’t trying to save anyone. She was building an unlikely force for racial justice, one phone call at a time. Her husband Roman Mykytyn explains, “The kids and I think of her as a deeply principled woman, and sometimes, a pain in the ass. She would get on a ‘30 minute phone call’ and stay on for two hours. We’re trying to have dinner here! But we didn’t fault her for it. In the big picture, we knew she was trying to do something big and important.”
She will never delay dinner again or write another word or record another podcast. Which makes me so mad. There were so many more things I wanted to learn from her, so many more things she had to teach white people in this country at this crucial moment of racial reckoning. But like all great organizers, she built an organization that will outlast her.
In the last podcast episode she ever recorded she said, “I actually do believe that we have enough white and/or privileged families that are willing to dig in deeply and re-write who we want to be in America and re-write that for our children.”