Out in the Open

'I am protecting them from whiteness': Why this mom chose to take her kids out of public school

Akilah Richards was concerned about structural racism she saw in the public education system, which echoed her own experiences growing up. She speaks with Piya about how that led her to pursue alternative education for her own kids.

Akilah Richards finds more educational value in real world experiences than the traditional school system

Akilah Richards and one of her daughters in Jamaica (Courtesy of Akilah Richards)

One day, Akilah Richards' daughter was told by a white girl at school that she was scary because she's black.

For Richards, a Jamaican immigrant to the United States, it echoed personal experiences she had growing up. It also reminded her of broader racism she's seen in public education since she was in school

"Not much has changed, unfortunately," she said. "There are all these same issues that we see that continue to happen now with how students of colour are policed differently, or over-policed in school. Or how girls of colour in particular are sexualized in school.... Your goal is to essentially assimilate and succeed. That layer was always present. I didn't understand it the way that I understand it now."

We have it completely twisted that school prepares you for the real world.- Akilah Richards

After seeing her children experience similar struggles as she had, Richards took her two daughters, now 12 and 14, out of public school and began a form of self-led education called "unschooling."

She said the concept falls under a larger umbrella that focuses on "non-coercive, equitable, partnership-centered relationships between adults and children."

For Richards' daughters, learning happens through life experiences and through the structure that emerges rather than the structure that already exists.

"I am protecting them from whiteness," she said, "This idea that they have to figure out how to make sense inside of whiteness as opposed to figuring out themselves, developing what we call confident autonomy, and then using that to navigate varying systems including pervasive whiteness."

Educational value in the real world

Of course, racism exists outside of any school setting. But Richards said the opportunity for real world experiences is precisely why she ultimately removed her kids from the system.

"The fakest world ever is school ... so if you want to be a person who knows how to be compliant, who knows how to follow the rules and get the right validation, that is primarily what you're learning in school. 

"I didn't want my daughters acclimated to this idea that how they self-actualized was directly tied to how obedient they could be, how quiet they could be, how much racism they could tolerate inside of a classroom setting."

Richards believes that in the real world, children will be able to get the nuanced experiences that actual life, not school, calls for. This is why she believes an alternative approach to education for black families is necessary.

"That transition out of conventional schooling is hard because in the U.S. there's been such a fight for educational equity," she said.

Richards, citing cases like Brown v. Board of Education, considers non school-focused education an the evolution of that fight.

"Before, we were saying, 'Look, we want a seat at the table. We should be able to get into the same schools as your children.' Now, we're saying all those same things and we're saying we can make all the educational choices we need that make sense for us, and sometimes that is not schooling."

'There's surviving, and then there's thriving'

"I'm not for reform. I'm not for making classrooms nicer or prisons nicer. I'm looking at the systemic issues that caused them. And I'm looking at the ways that the people that are trapped inside those systems can get free."

Richards said she thinks people of colour need to build something new so that the old norm can become obsolete.

"There's surviving, and then there's thriving. I believe that a lot of what the people who came before me did was surviving, so that we can thrive."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Protection."