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Race in Place: Black Parents, Family–School Relations, and Multispatial Microaggressions in a Predominantly White Suburb

by Linn Posey - 2017

Background: Research has demonstrated the importance of understanding the multiple factors that shape parents’ relationships with schools, including the resources parents have at their disposal, their own educational histories, and the influence of school cultures and policies. Less is known, however, about how parents’ engagement relates to their everyday experiences across school and community spaces, particularly for Black parents in nonurban, predominantly White settings.

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to examine Black parents’ school and community experiences in a predominantly White suburb and how their experiences and engagement may vary based on social class and gender (and their intersections).

Participants: A socioeconomically mixed sample of 56 Black parents (16 men, 40 women) with children in Grades K–7 participated in the study, as well as 2 longtime residents whose children attended district schools.

Research Design: The findings are based on an ethnographic study of Black family–school relationships in a predominantly White Wisconsin suburb. The data include semistructured parent interviews; field notes taken in monthly districtwide African American Parents (AAPO) meetings; an analysis of district and AAPO documents related to district resources, demographics, academics, and family engagement; and an analysis of census and demographic trends in the suburb and the broader county.

Findings: Results reveal that parents supported their children’s education in a variety of ways, and most parents valued the resources and opportunities the suburban district and community context provided their children. Yet parents described experiences with racial microaggressions in their interactions with school officials and community members. These microaggressions were often classed and gendered, and, for a number of parents, relived and reinforced in their children’s schools. The results reveal both the everyday racism Black parents encountered in the predominantly White suburban community and school district, as well as the dynamic ways they navigated, resisted, and sought to change barriers to Black student and family success.

Recommendations: The research findings suggest the utility of educators recognizing the often racialized arenas many Black parents traverse in their everyday lives, legitimating parents’ alternative forms of engagement, and building on what parents are already doing to support their children’s education and well-being. Given the growing number of students of color in suburban districts, educational researchers have both an opportunity and responsibility to engage in studies that interrogate urban-focused frameworks and explore the intersections of race, class, gender, and place in families’ experiences.

Research has demonstrated the importance of understanding the multiple factors that shape parents relationships with schools, including the resources parents have at their disposal, their own educational histories, and the influence of school cultures, relationships, and policies. Research on low-income parents and parents of color, in particular, highlights the barriers or challenges they often encounter in their efforts to support their childrens education, often in the form of educators deficit-based framings, inaccessible or exclusionary parentteacher organizations, and employment or economic constraints (Baquedano-Lopez, Alexander, & Hernandez, 2014; Cooper, 2003; Doucet, 2008; Lawson, 2003; Posey-Maddox, 2014; Valdes, 1996).

Much of this important research, however, is focused on the domains of home and school. Less is known about how parents educational orientations and engagement relate to their everyday experiences across school and community spaces, particularly in nonurban, predominantly White settings. Yet understanding the school and community experiences of parents of color in these contexts is timely and important, as more individuals of color and those in poverty have spread out from central cities and are settling in suburban areas. The suburban poor now outnumber the urban poor, for example, and in 2012, 47% of racial and ethnic minorities in poverty lived in the suburbs (Kneebone & Lou, 2014). These demographic shifts are reflected in suburban schools (Frankenberg & Orfield, 2012; Fry, 2009) and disrupt dominant framings of suburbia as largely middle-class and White.

In light of these trends, I argue that an ecological framework for understanding the familyschool relations and engagement of parents of color is particularly important in predominantly White areas because studies solely focused on what parents do (or do not do) in relation to school settings alone may miss the ways in which racialized community-based experiences and interactions (e.g., with local residents, police, store clerks) may mirror their relationships with institutional agents in their childrens schools and have a cumulative impact on their sense of connectedness and engagement with the local schools and the broader community. More studies are needed that examine the relationship between Black parents experiences in and out of suburban schools, as well as how their experiences and engagement may vary based on social class and gender (and their intersections).

Drawing from a yearlong ethnographic study of Black mothers and fathers engagement and experiences in a predominantly White Midwestern suburb undergoing demographic shifts, in this article, I examine parents experiences with their childrens schools and in the broader community. Results reveal that the socioeconomically mixed group of parents supported their childrens education in a variety of ways, and most parents valued the resources and opportunities the suburban district and community context provided for their children (particularly when compared with more urban areas). Yet most parents described experiences with racial microaggressions in their interactions with school officials and community members. Microaggressions, defined here, are subtle forms of everyday racism that are often automatic and unconscious on the part of the perpetrator and yet are cumulative and result in significant psychological and physiological tolls on people of color (Huber & Solorzano, 2015; Pierce, 1970). I show how the racial microaggressions that parents encountered in the community were often classed and gendered, and, for a number of parents, relived and reinforced in their childrens schools. The results reveal both the everyday racism many Black parents encountered in the predominantly White suburban community and school district, as well as the dynamic ways they navigated, resisted, and sought to change social and structural barriers to Black student and family success.  


Numerous studies have demonstrated the value that Black parents place on education, both today and historically (Billingsley, 1992; Cooper, 2003; Diamond, 2000; Howard & Reynolds, 2008; Robinson & Harris, 2014; Scott-Jones, 1994). Black parents support their childrens education in multiple ways, through their communication of high standards, advice, advocacy, and monitoring of progress (Cooper, 2009; Diamond & Gomez, 2004; K. Jackson & Remillard, 2005). These forms of engagement are commonly home-based or community-centric (Lawson, 2003), however, and thus are likely to be overlooked or devalued by educators who commonly evaluate parent engagement based on traditional measures such as school-based volunteerism or attendance at parentteacher organization meetings (Abdul-Adil & Farmer, 2006; Cooper, 2003; Lawson, 2003). When Black parents do interact directly with their childrens teacher or schools, their efforts are often rebuffed by White educators who view them as threatening or combative (Cooper, 2007; see also Diamond & Gomez, 2004; Lareau & Horvat, 1999; Lewis-McCoy, 2014).

A common theme in the research on Black parent engagement is parents desire to be watchful (Vincent, Rollack, Ball, & Gillborn, 2012) and hypervigilant (Lewis-McCoy, 2014) to ensure that their children are held to high expectations and treated fairly (Diamond & Gomez, 2004; Fields-Smith, 2005). Black parents are often attuned to potential or actual discrimination in their childrens education on the basis of their own past experiences with educational institutions and knowledge of current racial disparities in educational opportunities, resources, and outcomes (Cooper, 2009; Diamond & Gomez, 2004; Lewis-McCoy, 2014). Indeed, research suggests that Black parents commonly experience racial microaggressions in school contexts in the form of low teacher expectations for their children, negative assumptions about Black families, teacher and administrator assumptions of Black childrens deviance, and school officials perceptions of Black parents as angry or threatening in their efforts to support their child (Abdul-Adil & Farmer, 2006; Allen, 2012; Diamond & Gomez, 2004; Lareau & Horvat, 1999; Lewis-McCoy, 2014; Reynolds, 2010).

Although Black parents are commonly attuned to potential racial discrimination in their childrens education, social class often shapes how parents engage with their childrens education and how educators view their efforts (Diamond & Gomez, 2004; Howard & Reynolds, 2008; Lareau & Horvat, 1999; Lareau, 2003; Lewis-McCoy, 2014). Black middle-class parents are more likely than their low-income and working-class counterparts to know the often unspoken rules of the game (Lareau, 2003; Lareau & Horvat, 1999) when monitoring and intervening in their childrens education. They commonly draw on their social, cultural, and economic capital to promote or maintain a quality educational experience for their children in ways that are more likely to be legitimated by teachers and other institutional actors (Allen, 2012; Diamond & Gomez, 2004; Lareau, 2003; Lareau & Horvat, 1999; Vincent et al., 2012).

As Allen (2012) found in his study of Black middle-class fathers engagement strategies, for example, fathers drew upon their school-based social networks and their understanding of the school system to respond to and resist race-gendered microaggressions and create opportunity for their sons (p. 183). As Allen described, the fathers worked proactively to shield their sons from any differential treatment by teachers or other school personnel, developing relationships with teachers and school personnel and observing their sons classrooms when they desired an inside look at classroom dynamics. Other studies have discovered similar patterns, showing that middle-class Black families often work to counter any potential negative stereotypes and gain legitimacy in the eyes of White institutional actors through strategic decisions about their dress, language, tone, and forms of interaction (Lacy, 2007; Lareau & Horvat, 1999; Lewis-McCoy, 2014; Reynolds, 2010; Rollack, Gillborn, Vincent, & Ball, 2014).

Although a growing number of studies demonstrate the multiple ways Black fathers work to support their childrens education (Allen, 2012; Reynolds, Howard, & Jones, 2015), the vast majority of scholarship on Black parent engagement is focused on the experiences and actions of mothers. Although some studies suggest Black parents familyschool relations and engagement strategies may vary by both their own gender and that of their children (see Graves, 2010; Reynolds, 2010), this remains an area for future exploration. Questions remain as to how Black mothers and fathers engagement and experiences may differ within shared familial, community, and educational contexts.


Much of the research on Black parent engagement focuses on Black families in large, underresourced urban school and district contexts, with few studies exploring their experiences in suburban schools and communities. The small but growing literature on Black families in suburban schools largely focuses on students and educators in these settings, showing that achievement and opportunity gaps are common, and educators and districts are often ill-prepared to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population (Diamond, 2006; Frankenberg & Orfield, 2012; Gordon, 2012; Holme, Diem, & Welton, 2014; Howard & Reynolds, 2008; Lewis & Diamond, 2015; Lewis-McCoy, 2014; Ogbu, 2003). In one of the few in-depth studies of Black suburban parents engagement and familyschool relations, Lewis-McCoy (2014) found that many of the resources in the districts schools were inaccessible to Black families, whereas White families leveraged these resources to further advantage their children. Although the Black middle-class families in the study were better positioned than their lower income counterparts to leverage various forms of capital in support of their childrens education, their relative class privilege did not insulate them or their families from racial microaggressions, exclusionary practices, and hostility on the part of White educators and parents. As Lewis-McCoy wrote, the role of class was influential in home-school relations, and the role of race was equally pernicious in shaping educational experiences (p. 171).

Although this growing body of research provides important insight into the ways inequality works in and through suburban schools, Black parents engagement in their childrens education is largely discussed in isolation from their experiences with the suburban communities where they live. Scholars and educators are thus left with a limited understanding of the relation between their engagement and the broader ecological context within which they are situated. When Black families migrate to predominantly White communities that have little experience with blackness and Black individuals, it is arguably critical to interrogate if and how the racialized encounters and microaggressions they may experience in the broader community are relived and reinforced in the local schools. Additionally, most studies focus either exclusively on the experiences of the Black middle class in suburbia (Lacy, 2007; Reynolds, 2009; Tatum, 2000) or the experiences of the Black poor who have relocated to middle-class suburbs via housing voucher programs (Briggs, Popkin, & Goering, 2010; DeLuca & Rosenblatt, 2010). Questions thus remain as to how a socioeconomically mixed group of Black parents within a shared suburban context understand and experience schoolcommunity relationships.


An ecologies of parent engagement (EPE) framework guides this study (Calabrese Barton, Drake, Perez, St. Louis, & George, 2004; Carreon, Drake, & Calabrese Barton, 2005). The EPE framework, influenced by Bourdieus theoretical concepts of capital and field (Bourdieu, 1977), conceptualizes parent engagement as a dynamic and interactive process that is best understood by examining how broader contexts (e.g. community, family, and schooling) shape parental beliefs, actions, and circumstances. Specifically, an EPE framework focuses on how particular histories, contexts, relationships, and resources (e.g., comprising the various social contexts of parents lives) all shape parents actions and orientations toward their childrens schooling (Carreon et al., 2005). The unit of analysis for understanding parental engagement is thus not simply the actions of individual parents, but rather parents interactions with both school and community actors within particular spaces and contexts (Calabrese Barton et al., 2004).

Researchers employing an EPE framework examine how parents understand the hows and whys of their engagement, and how this engagement relates more broadly to parents experiences and actions both inside and out of the school community (Calabrese Barton, abstract, 2004, emphasis added). Yet in common applications of the EPE framework, the out of the school community portion of the ecology of parents lives is largely unexplored, with research largely focused on parents relationships and engagement in schools (see, e.g., Carreon et al., 2005; Reynolds, 2009). Although several applications of the EPE framework draw from tenants of critical race theory (CRT) to understand the role of race and racism in familyschool relations (Calabrese Barton et al., 2004; Howard & Reynolds, 2008), questions remain as to how race, class, and gender intersect in parents orientations and experiences within and across racialized school and community spaces.

A central tenet of CRT is that racism is not an aberration or vestige of the past but rather is deeply embedded in the structures and institutions of our society (such as schools). Although CRT has its roots in legal studies (Bell, 1992; Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, & Thomas, 1995), researchers in the field of education have used CRT to identify and challenge the more subtle or everyday forms of racism that characterize education in our postcivil rights era (see, e.g., Huber & Solorzano, 2015; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995), as well as to explore how race intersects with other identities (e.g., class, gender, sexual orientation) (Lynn & Dixson, 2013). CRT scholars emphasize the centrality of experiential knowledge, meaning that their analytic lens focuses primarily on the understandings and lived experiences of people of color (Huber & Solorzano, 2015).

Most relevant to this article is the work of CRT scholars in education who examine racial microaggressions, or the layered, cumulative, and often subtle and unconscious forms of racism that target People of Color (Huber & Solorzano, 2015). Racial microaggressionsemerging from ideologies of White supremacycan manifest in verbal, nonverbal, or visual forms (Huber & Solorzano, 2015; Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000) and contribute to the exclusion and marginalization of students and families of color in White-dominated school and community contexts. Whereas other important studies of microaggressions (Sue, 2010) focus on the implicit bias of the perpetrators of microaggressions and strategies to address unconscious racism, a CRT analytic framework focuses on how people of color experience racial microaggressions, the type and context of the microaggressions, and how they respond (Huber & Solorzano, 2015). The primary goal of the research is thus not to prove the intentions of the perpetrator (especially given the often unconscious or subtle nature of microaggressions) but rather to highlight how an event or interaction is understood and experienced by those targeted and how context shapes these understandings and experiences. As Pierce (1970) argued, Even though any single negotiation of offense in and of itself can be considered relatively innocuous, the cumulative effect to the victim and to the victimizer is of an unimaginable magnitude (pp. 265266, as quoted in Huber & Solorzano, 2015). Indeed, those experiencing microaggressions can become disengaged out of a feeling of disempowerment, or as an act of resistance (Suarez-Orozco et al., 2015; Sue, 2010).

Although the research on microaggressions and familyschool relations is limited, it is highly probable that microaggressions can have significant implications for Black parents engagement, given that parents are more likely to participate in school activities and events when they feel welcome and invited (Edwards, 1993; Mapp, 2003). Indeed, Black parents and other parents of color may engage in alternative or more community-centered forms of engagement when school spaces or traditional school-based activities do not feel welcoming (Lawson, 2003; Warren & Mapp, 2011). As Greene (2013) argued (drawing from CRT), If the goal of increased engagement is to strengthen families and com­munities, then doing so will require that educators and teachers listen to families voicesto their counter-storiesand recognize the complexity of the problems that families seek to address in their day-to-day lives (p. 6). In an effort to recognize and analyze these complexities, I take an ecological approach that draws from CRT to interrogate the role of race and racism in parents everyday lives. This integrated perspective provides me with the theoretical tools not only to uncover the multiple and often overlapping fields (Bourdieu, 1977) that shape parents engagement but also to analyze the ways that race and racism inform and influence Black parents everyday experiences in suburban school and community contexts.



The research is based on a larger ethnographic study of Black familyschool relationships and experiences in Forest Glen, a predominantly white Wisconsin suburb undergoing demographic change.1 Specifically, the study asks: How do Black mothers and fathers understand and experience familyschool relations and community life within the suburban context? How do parents engage in their childrens education, and what role do race, social class, and gender play in shaping their experiences and relationships with school actors? The findings reported here are based on multiple sources of data: (a) semistructured interviews with a socioeconomically mixed sample of 56 Black parents (16 male, 40 female) with children in Grades K7 and semistructured interviews with two longtime residents (one man, one woman) whose children attended district schools; (b) participant observation in monthly districtwide African American Parent Organization (AAPO) meetings; (c) an analysis of district and AAPO documents related to district resources, demographics, academics, and family engagement; and (d) an analysis of census and demographic trends in both Forest Glen and the broader county. The larger project also includes interviews with 7 principals and 3 district administrators (responsible for district policies related to curriculum, instruction, and equity), as well as observations in bimonthly school board meetings. Although this article is centrally focused on the understandings and experiences of the 56 Black parents, data from these other sources provided relevant background about the broader school and district context and was used as part of the data triangulation process.


Although the majority of participants were U.S.-born and self-identified as Black or African American, the study also included 6 parents who self-identified as mixed-race (Black and 1 or more races) and 5 African-born parents who had all resided in the United States for at least 6 years. Two of the participants in the sample were grandmothers who played a central role in the caregiving of their grandchildren, and thus parents is used broadly in reference to the primary caregivers in childrens lives. Of the 56 parents with children in Grades K7, 10 had obtained an M.A. or Ph.D., 6 had a B.A., 28 had some college or an associates degree, 11 had a high school diploma, and 1 had some high school. Parents self-reported incomes ranged from $0 to $170,000, with an average income for the sample of $47,730 (compared with a median household income of $66,544 in Forest Glen for 20092013, according to the U.S. Census). Three parents had spent all or most of their childhood in Forest Glen, and 10 were originally from the state. Most parents were originally from Illinois (23) or another state or country (5 African-born parents).


During the first phase of data collection (September 2013December 2013), my research assistant and I collected data that provided us with a deeper understanding of the school district context and the key leaders, issues, and social groupings in the AAPO and in the district more broadly. We observed and wrote detailed field notes in both bimonthly school board meetings and monthly AAPO meetings, and we analyzed school and district-level data on student achievement and opportunity gaps, school funding and resources, and demographic changes in the district. We also interviewed district administrators to gain a better understanding of opportunity gaps in the districts elementary and middle schools, recent curricular changes and professional development related to culturally responsive pedagogy and practices, policies and practices related to familyschool relationships, and administrators perspectives on the districts current strengths and key challenges.

In the second phase of the project (January 2014June 2014), we interviewed the principals of district elementary and middle schools (all but 1 principal participated), as well as the 56 parents who self-identified as Black or of African descent, our primary emphasis in this analysis. We also continued to take detailed field notes of our observations in bimonthly school board meetings and AAPO meetings and events. Our interview protocols, observations, and subsequent data analysis were informed by what we had learned about school and district contexts and issues in the first phase of the research. For example, district reports and school accountability data on opportunity gaps and racial disproportionality in disciplinary and special education referrals, combined with administrators understandings of these issues, was compared with parents descriptions of and personal experiences with these issues (see more on triangulation of data sources below).

Interviews and observations were conducted by myself (an African American and White woman and Forest Glen resident) and my research assistant (an African American woman). Parents who were longtime Forest Glen residents were asked about the history of the suburb and the changes they witnessed over the years, and parents who migrated to Forest Glen were asked about their reasons for moving to the suburb and their expectations for life there. We asked all parents about their experiences in the suburb and its schools, as well as their engagement in their childrens education. We interviewed each participant once (with interviews lasting typically between 60 and 105 minutes), with short (10- to 15-minute) follow-up interviews conducted when confirmation or clarification of something parents said was necessary (see Appendix A for a list of interview questions).


Data analysis was ongoing throughout the project. Interviews were transcribed and coded using qualitative research software (Dedoose), and handwritten field notes were typed up and coded via Dedoose as well. After first reading through all the data and taking notes to get a general sense of its overall scope and any emergent themes, we then began a more detailed coding process. We compiled a list of etic codes based on the theoretical framework, extant literature, and questions guiding the research, with emic codes added throughout the coding process to reflect emerging themes and the language of participants (Miles & Huberman, 1994). I initially created etic codes such as parental educational experiences, community social relations, and social capital, for example, because these codes reflected an EPE frameworks conceptual focus on the histories, contexts, relationships, and resources that shape parents engagement in their childrens education. My research assistants and I created a qualitative codebook (Creswell, 2009) via Dedoose with definitions for each code, and we developed and refined this codebook throughout the study based on the information we obtained in our data analysis. Racism in schools, for example, was initially used as a broad and overarching parent code based on the theoretical framework and literature on Black parents schooling experiences but later refined after reviewing all excerpts with this code. After reviewing coded excerpts, writing analytic memos, and reviewing the extant literature on racism and racial microaggressions, I found that almost all the data coded as racism in schools and racism in community were more accurately captured by the code racial microaggressions. To account for this emergent code, we recoded and analyzed all the data excerpts falling under this parent code, and I further refined the coding scheme by creating child codes related to the specific types of microaggressions parents described (e.g., hypervisibility, presumed criminality). See Appendix B for examples of the types of microaggressions reflected in the data, and Appendix C for an excerpt of coded data related to microaggressions in familyschool relations.

As a way to both ensure the reliability of the codes and coding process, and investigate potential differences in parents experiences, my research assistant and I engaged in the open coding of a subset of interviews with parents varying by class and gender. We coded each interview transcript separately and then met to discuss any discrepancies in the codes we assigned, and we refined our codebook and coding scheme accordingly to ensure intercoder agreement (Creswell, 2009). Throughout the data collection and analysis process, we wrote analytic memos about clusters of data and emergent themes (e.g., class-based differences in parental engagement, multispatial microaggressions), met regularly to discuss preliminary findings and cross-check codes, and recoded sections of the data when and where necessary on the basis of discrepancies in coding or pieces of data that were not covered in my initial coding scheme.

My positionality as a mixed-race stepparent of an African American boy in the school district and as a local resident informed the research and analysis. It made gaining access easier, for example, because several key district leaders and members of the AAPO viewed me, as one district leader explained, as invested in the research and unlikely to just collect data and leave. It also made things complicated, however, because I wore multiple hats and could not simply leave the field at the end of the day. Reflective of qualitative inquiry and humanizing research (Paris & Winn, 2011), I do not claim objectivity or attempt to omit myself from the study. During the period of data collection, however, I did not discuss my own experiences with or views on familyschool relations in the district with participants, and my husband was the primary contact for my stepsons school. With the exception of a Black History Month celebration that I had attended with my family the previous year, my relationship to the AAPO was solely as a researcher, and in meetings I was on the sidelines (Green, 2011) taking field notes and observing.

A number of strategies common to qualitative research were also used to ensure the trustworthiness and credibility of the study (Creswell, 2009). I took careful notes on my positionality throughout the research process, looked for disconfirming or contradictory evidence, and consulted with colleagues and my research assistant to test my initial interpretations during the data analysis process. I also used methods of triangulation in my analysis, comparing multiple sources (e.g., interviews, field notes, document analysis) related to the same phenomenon to look for any disconfirming evidence and to provide a rich, detailed picture of parents experiences across multiple contexts. The theme of presumed criminality and racialized school disciplinary practices that emerged from my coding of parent interviews, for example, was also prominent in my analysis of school district documents and newspaper articles related to school discipline in the district, as well as in my field notes from AAPO meetings. Although teacher interviews and school-based observations were beyond the scope of the project, parents feelings of invisibility in parentteacher association (PTA) meetings and their descriptions of where and how they engaged in their childrens education were triangulated with descriptions of family engagement policies and the challenges related to inclusion discussed in interviews with principals and administrators.

Last, I conducted member checks that allowed participants to comment on the research findings via a community presentation attended by district administrators, several teachers and principals, and members of the AAPO; a presentation of findings and interactive dialogue with the AAPO leadership team as well as a separate meeting with district administrators; and brief one-on-one interviews with several parents for instances when additional data or clarification of their comments was needed. As an ethnographic study, my goal was not to obtain findings that are generalizable but rather to engage in an in-depth investigation of Black parents experiences and engagement strategies that could aid in theory generation and inform future studies on Black families experiences in predominantly White spaces, and in suburban areas in particular.


Forest Glen is a suburb of approximately 30,000 people located in Dane County, Wisconsin. Historically a small town surrounded by farms, the suburb has experienced a boom in housing and commercial development and overall population growth during the last decade. Although Forest Glen was over 80% White in 2010, the Black population grew 186% between 2000 and 2010, with many individuals moving from both the neighboring mid-sized city and from large Midwestern cities such as Chicago. The number of Black, Latino/Hispanic, and Asian students in the school district has also grown during the last decade, with the White student population declining from more than 80% in the 20032004 school year to just below 70% in 20132014. During the 20132014 school year, the districts student population was roughly 6% Asian, 10% Black, 8% Hispanic, 69% White, 7% Two or More Races, and less than 1% American Indian and Native Hawaiian. The number of low-income students has also increased over the last decade, from 18% in 2003 to 28% in 2013. Students of color and low-income students are generally spread out across district schools, representing less than 56% at any one school.

Despite the increase in Black residents, there are few predominantly Black organizations or institutions in the suburb (e.g., businesses, religious, or advocacy organizations). During the year of research, the city council, school board, and school district executive-level staff were almost exclusively White. A predominantly Black church and the districtwide APPO (created by a small group of Black district staff members and parents) were the primary anchoring institutions for Black families. Although many low-income Blacks were clustered in one of several apartment complexes, these buildings are spread out residentially across the suburb, and there was no public transportation system. Black homeowners were also spread out across the suburb.

Like many districts across the nation, Forest Glens school district has grappled with how best to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population and address racial and socioeconomic disparities in student achievement. Although in 20132014, the district rated higher than the neighboring city district in regard to overall student achievement and achievement gaps, there is nevertheless room for growth. During that school year, for example, 17% of Black students in Forest Glen schools were deemed proficient in reading, compared with 43% of White students (District Accountability Report Card). District leaders and teachers have also faced pressure to address disproportionate school discipline and special education referrals among youth of color. During the 20102011 school year, for example, African American students represented 8.8% of the general student population and yet composed 33.8% of the students who were referred by district personnel for an initial special education evaluation (district Equity Focused Action Plan presentation). As a result of the disproportionality in special education, the district was under oversight from the U.S. Department of Educations Office for Civil Rights. To address these issues, district staff and teams of principals and teachers have employed data-driven continuous improvement models, attended trainings on social justice and culturally responsive pedagogy, and sought to increase the racial and ethnic diversity of the district workforce.


Employing an ecological approach to understanding Black parents familyschool relationships, I explore how parents histories, relationships, and resources interact with school and community contexts in Forest Glen. I first outline the features that attracted parents to the suburb, and their expectations for suburban life. Informed by their own past experiences, most parents explained that the suburban community offered more resources and a better life for their children than they would have growing up in a more urban area. Despite their favorable comparisons with life in larger cities, however, many parents described racialized experiences in and across community and school spaces that could be best characterized as one or more of the following types of microaggressions: hypervisibility and invisibility; presumed homogeneity; presumed criminality; and the rebuffing or dismissal of parents engagement efforts. In line with the components of a racial microaggressions analytic framework (Huber & Solorzano, 2015), I provide examples that illustrate the content of each type of microaggression parents experienced, the ways in which these microaggressions were both multispatial and cumulative for many of the parents in the study, and how they shaped the overall ecology of parents everyday lives. I also discuss how parents experiences in racialized school and community contexts informed their engagement in their childrens education and their relationships with school actors.


When asked what led them to move to (and/or stay in) the suburb, parents mentioned school and community resources as important factors in their decision making. Specifically, they described employment opportunities, housing stock and affordability, safety and quality of life, and, for low-income and working-class parents in particular, family members already residing in the area. When asked if their expectations for life in Forest Glen had been met, parents spoke favorably of the safe parks and recreational spaces, the relative affordability, availability, and size of rental properties or homes compared with those in cities, and the quietness of suburban life.

Parents also spoke favorably of the district and school resources and opportunities for students and families. For example, Janelle, one of three participants in the study who had spent part or all of their childhood in Forest Glen, explained that she had spent short periods of time in other states and urban districts and yet moved back to Forest Glen based on the educational opportunities for her children. As she stated,

I mean speaking as an adult, choosing to live here, choosing to stay here, it's really just thethe education is a lot different . . . and just seeing the different school systems and how different even the education I'd get in those different places, I prefer Forest Glen school district. I think that there's a lot of improvements that could be made for, you know, African American children specifically, but the content is much better. I feel like they're getting a better education in Forest Glen.

Like Janelle, parents believed there were areas for improvement in individual schools. However, most spoke favorably of the school districts efforts to begin to examine and attempt to address race- and class-based educational disparities and opportunity gaps through an infusion of resources and training for educators. Parents in the districts AAPO, in particular, spoke favorably of the districts support (via the provision of funding and space) of the organizations work. Last, parents shared stories of individual teachers, principals, or staff members who were particularly supportive of their childrens education and receptive to parents input.

When asked what led them to move to the suburb, most low-income and working-class parents who migrated from large cities spoke about aspects of their life in the city that motivated them to leave, such as gang influences and crime in their neighborhoods, as well as limited education and employment opportunities for both themselves and their family. Cherene, for example, moved to Forest Glen in search of employment opportunities and a better life for her and her family. As she explained,

I figured if I would have stayed in Chicago with so much stuff going on down there now, I don't know where I'd be at today with my kids. You know so I made the right choice by coming here. And I did at one point in time say, you know, I didn't like it here, I wanted to go back, but then I said no, you know it's too much help up here&I went from making $5.00 to $9.00 an hour, so it was just like heaven&and at that time back then apartments was real cheap back then, you know, paying $600 [a month], so I managed you know.

Like Cherene, most of the low-income and working-class parents in the study had grown up in large Midwestern cities such as Chicago and wanted their children to have a better life than what they had experienced growing up in high-poverty, racially segregated neighborhoods in the city. These parents talked about wanting a quieter suburban life for their children, for example, or as one father stated, a place where you can breathe.

Whereas low-income and working-class parents like Cherene moved to Forest Glen with a hope for better employment and educational opportunities, most of the middle- and upper-middle-class families in the study moved to Forest Glen after already securing a job in the broader metropolitan area and researching the local schools. Byron and Susan, for example, explained that they had done some research on the local schools and were attracted to Forest Glen because of the smaller number of students in the free/reduced price lunch program compared with the neighboring city and the fact that the average ACT scores for students in the district were, as Susan described, higher than for [neighboring city], especially for minority students. Like Byron and Susan, many middle-class parents spoke of their desire to have a district that not only was well resourced and safe but also had some level of relative success in educating African American children. They spoke of the important role that education played in their own social mobility, and their efforts to ensure that their children were given the resources and opportunities they needed to succeed academically. For all parents, their past histories and schooling experiencesas well as what they saw as fewer resources and opportunities for Black students in more urban areasinformed their orientations toward and decision making in Forest Glen.


A dominant theme that emerged in the research, however, were the subtle and not-so-subtle slights or insults parents experienced in predominantly White school and community spaces. As I illustrate in the following section, these microaggressions were often multispatial and cumulative, occurring both within and across the various fields that parents traversed in their daily lives and influencing parents sense of belonging in and connection to community and educational institutions.

Hypervisibility and Invisibility

Hypervisibility in the predominantly White suburb was a common theme; parents described incidents in which their race was spotlighted or highlighted (Carter Andrews, 2012; Pollock, 2004) by Whites in local stores or at school events via long stares and/or racialized comments. Parents descriptions of hypervisibility were most common among low-income parents, and they were often gendered. For example Tequila, a low-income mother of four, explained that its challenging being Black in Forest Glen because shes watched a little bit more as a single woman with all these kids. As she explained, Going to sometimes [name of big-box store] is justits a lot of us. Other low-income and working-class mothers described the stares and racialized comments they received from White neighbors when they wore their hair in natural styles that did not conform to Eurocentric standards of beauty. Several low-income and working-class fathers described their hypervisibility based on their gender, skin color, clothing choices, and stature.

Darryl and Aaliyah, a low-income couple who had moved to Forest Glen from a predominantly black area of Chicago, described experiences with hypervisibility in both school and community spaces. The couple had moved to Forest Glen in search of better educational opportunities for their children and a safer and more quiet community than what they had experienced in their former neighborhood. Yet when asked what, if anything, made life challenging in the suburb, they both shared incidents in which their race was highlighted when they did not intend for it to be. Darryl, for example, explained, You go into [name of big-box store] and everybody looks at you likeyou Black. Later in the interview, Darryl and Aaliyah described similar experiences with hypervisibility when attending concerts and school-based activities for their children:

Darryl: Like we go to every activity that [our children] have. . . . And whatever it is, you can tell they don't see too many Black parents doing that.

Aaliyah: We the only ones sitting in the assembly. . . . And everybody turn around and you know, you be the center of attention, and we be like, Why they looking at us? And Im like, Im doing everything. I don't care what it is. It can be a lil speech. I don't care if he got one minute in the speech. I am going to see that one minute.

As one of few Black parents at these school events, their engagement in their childrens schooling was racialized when they did not intend for it to be. Yet despite their discomfort with being the center of attention and racially highlighted in school events, they continued to support their childrens education by attending school-based events and activities and ignoring the stares or looks of others. Doing so likely required extra labor on their part when compared with White parents, however, given that their engagement in predominantly White school spaces at times meant being viewed as racial beings and marked as Other instead of simply parents attending school events.

In addition to being spotlighted or hypervisible as Blacks in the predominantly White suburb, parents shared instances in which they and/or their ideas or contributions were ignored, snubbed, or rendered invisible in community and school spaces. Both Monica and Moniqueboth low-income mothersshared instances in which cashiers or store clerks refused to acknowledge them or make eye contact, and often waited on White customers first. Monique also shared an incident in which she and other Black neighbors witnessed a crime in her neighborhood, and yet the local police only spoke to White residents about what happened. Anthony, a working-class father, shared in great detail a negative interaction he and his wife Tanya had with White medical staff at a local healthcare facility when his wife was seeking treatment. As he described, he was both hypervisible as a big, burly Black guy, and yet paradoxically, he and his wife were made to feel invisible when White medical staff prioritized other patients, spoke to them in a demeaning way, made Tanya recount her symptoms and history multiple times, and ignored her requests for assistance with pain. Anthony stressed that both he and his wife did not drink or smoke, and yet they got a different reception than someone else would have got.

The snubs and slights Anthony and Tanya experienced in the broader community were reinforced in some of their experiences with White teachers and parents in their childrens school. Although both Anthony and Tanya lauded the suburban district for its educational resources and opportunities (especially when compared with their experiences as parents with children in Chicago Public Schools), they described several instances in which they were both hypervisible as Black parents and yet rendered invisible by White institutional actors. Anthony, for example, shared that he appreciated the diversity in Forest Glen and that he could get educated through his interactions with parents and families of other ethnicities. Yet in describing his experiences in school events, he stated,

You know me and my familyI feel like its a challenge that everybody is still watching us. And waiting on me to do this thing, so that they can say, see I told you. When in all actuality, this is it. I don't have any surprises. . . . You know its always kind of something, but I don't know if it is me or not.

While Anthony shared his experiences with everybody watching us, he also shared his frustration with PTA meetings in which he felt his perspectives and input were ignored or unwelcome. This sentiment about the PTA was expressed by other working-class and middle-class mothers and fathers in the study as well. Anthony and Tanya ended up not going back to the PTA meetings at their childrens school because it felt too cliquey. When I asked them to explain, Anthony stated,

You can say something in a meeting and you know a topic will be on the table and you can tell if it doesn'tits like its already preanswered . . . you feel like you wanna be a part of it and try to say something. You can see it and feel the subtle eye roll thing.

Anthony went on to share that these interactionsin both school and community spacesmade him constantly question whether race was at play, as well as whether, after three years in Forest Glen, he wanted to continue to live there because it still did not feel like home:

And it was all because of assumptions. . . . So, and that happens a lot and those are the things I was saying earlier, maybe its me. Maybe I am just putting too much into it. And I try to brush it off, but I am constantly fighting little stuff like that to try to figure out, you know, is it me? Or am I finished [living] here? Is this the line? I don't know.

Like Anthony, several parents spoke of the challenge in naming or calling out these insults, highlighting the pernicious nature of microaggressions, or types of racism [that] are difficult to identify, quantify, and rectify because of their subtle, nebulous, and unnamed nature (Sue et al., 2007, p. 272). Paradoxically race was thus a double-edged sword (Carter Andrews, 2012) for many participants in Forest Glen, because they were made hypervisible and racially highlighted in predominantly White community and school settings and yet sometimes ignored or disregarded when seeking service (e.g., in local stores) or when interacting with institutional actors (e.g., in PTA meetings). Although these types of microaggressions were more common in low-income and working-class parents descriptions of life in Forest Glen, several middle-class mothers and fathersseveral of whom worked as staff members in the districtalso shared experiences of marginalization and invisibility in predominantly White PTA meetings or in their interactions with school personnel.

Presumed Homogeneity

Another common theme was parents experiences with what I refer to as presumed homogeneity, or a narrow view of blackness and Black families that fails to recognize and account for the diverse views, life contexts, actions, and experiences of parents. White residents conflation of Black with poor and urban, in particular, was a common frustration voiced by parents. Miranda, a middle-class parent originally from a large, racially diverse east coast city, explained,

Well I think even this can go more broadly to [the state] in general, I think that there are so few Black people relatively that there has always been kind of . . . there is a limit to what they can even imagine a Black person doing. So, I think we have that issue. And I joke with like my family in [another state]. Sometimes I am like, if you have a nice car or whatever its not that people think that you have a good job, they think you must sell drugs or do something like that.

Like Miranda, several middle-class parents shared instances in which White families or school personnel viewed Blacks in Forest Glen as a homogeneous group, often failing to see or acknowledge differences within the Black community by socioeconomic status and place of origin. This was particularly true for parents who had moved from cities in other states besides Illinois but who were commonly assumed to be from Chicago. As Jonathan, a middle-class parent, explained, Blacks who had grown up in Forest Glen were accepted a little more, but Everyone else is from Chicago. It seems like it in the minds of people here.

Several parentsof varying social classwho were married or in committed relationships described interactions in which school staff automatically assumed that their children lived in a single-parent household, and both mothers and fathers shared instances in which they felt school staff assumed they would not be actively involved in their childrens education. Aisha, a middle-class parent originally from Chicago, explained that when she first moved to Forest Glen, it was more like a fight to just let people know that just because I was a parent of color that I still was very interested in my kids. When she frequently visited her childrens schools and asked teachers to call her immediately if there was ever a problem, she explained that sometimes teachers were surprised and shocked at her level of engagement in her childrens education. She went on to describe that later, after she had earned a reputation for being very involved in school and district committees, she was frequently treated as an expert on Blackness by school personnel. As she explained, just because Im the Black person in the room doesnt mean I know necessarily how to fix the problem . . . I dont speak for every child of color . . . I dont know what other people went through. While Aisha worked to ensure that her own children and other Black children were receiving a high-quality education in the district, she expressed a desire to have more teachers of color in the schools so that White teachers would be surrounded by racial diversity and not rely on the small number of families and staff members of color in the district to educate them. Indeed, although most of the districts schools had one or more African American staff members, these employees (with the exception of two principals) were support staff (e.g., playground aides, cafeteria workers, custodial staff) with little power or authority to shape school policy and practice. Interviews with Black staff members who were also parents of children in the district suggest that several experienced token stress (P. B. Jackson, Thoits, & Taylor, 1995) as a result of their numerical rarity in district schools and the pressures they faced to represent and speak for other Black parents and families.

Presumed Criminality

Parents also described experiences, in and out of school, in which people perceived them or their children as threatening or potentially criminal. Both mothers and fathers described incidents in which store clerks or school staff presumed criminality or negative intent on behalf of their Black boys, and several fathers (and one mother) described their own experiences with surveillance in local stores and neighborhoods. Tequila, for example, described an incident she experienced when she first moved to Forest Glen. She had locked herself out of her house, and had climbed over her own patio fence to enter through her patio door. Her neighbor had called the local police, and when they showed up, Tequila was asked to show her lease. At that time, she and her children were one of two Black families in her neighborhood, and Tequila explained that she expected racism in the predominantly White community. Tequilas experiences with presumed criminality and being watched a little more were not isolated to her experiences in community spaces, however; they were also reflected in her experiences with school personnel. Although Tequila said that overall she was satisfied with the education her children were receiving in Forest Glen, she described several instances in which her sons were singled out and wrongly accused of criminal behavior. Her sons were playing rock, paper, scissors on the bus, for example, and the bus driver called the school and accused the boys of throwing up gang signs. Tequila ultimately intervened at the district level, and the bus driver was replaced. In recalling these incidents, however, Tequila stated that it was nothing major that I would say okay, this is racism at its finest, but just small things . . . those individuals might not mean it in that way. They might not have tried to be offensive, but thats the world we live in, highlighting the often subtle and unconscious nature of racial microaggressions (Huber & Solorzano, 2015; Pierce, 1970).

Parents also spoke about what they saw as differing consequences for their children (and particularly boys) when it came to discipline in schools, with White children receiving lighter (or no) consequences for similar behavior. Danitaa parent and regular volunteer at a local schoolexplained that once she started working in the schools, she noticed they were sterner with the Black kids. She saw this in her own experiences as a parent and spoke at length about the number of notes she received from her sons teachers for what she considered minor, nonthreatening infractions (e.g., tying his shoelaces together, dancing down a hallway). She explained that this had a deep impact on her son:

He just wanted his teacher to just like him. . . . He just really wanted to make his teacher proud. And you know if somebody did something to [him], his teacher would be like they wouldn't do that. Thats not their character. But if [he] did something, [the teacher would say] Thats his character you know, [name of child] did that.

Indeed, district statistics and interviews with district and school administrators reveal that Black students, and boys in particular, are disproportionately represented among students facing suspension or expulsion. In 2011, for example, Black students were suspended (out-of-school) at a rate 9 times that of White students (U.S. Department of Education). In recounting her own sons experiences with presumed criminality in schools and in the broader community, Lisa summed up her experiences: And instead of seeing a Black boy with a problem, they see the Black boy as the problem.

Illustrating the gendered dimensions of racial microaggressions, several Black fathers also described instances in which they believed that they were viewed as a threat, often simply based on their size, stature, or color of skin (Posey-Maddox, 2017). Derrick, a low-income father, described feeling watched when he and his wife, who is White, were in local stores. People, they look at her different than they do me. They listen to her. They talk to her. When Im out in the store with her, they help her and talk to her . . . but me, its more theyre keeping an eye on me. Several middle-class fathers also described instances in which either they or their children were perceived as a threat or potentially unlawful. When asked if there was anything in the suburb that makes life challenging, Charles, an upper-middle-class father, shared that almost every time he would go to his local grocery store, he would encounter some lady with her purse in her shopping cart. He explained,

shes on the side of the aisle, and I come into the aisle, and she, like, has to rush back and, like, grab her purse like I'm going to come take her purse and I'm going to loot the grocery store. Just stuff like that, where it's just like, do I really need this kind of constant implication that there should be something to be feared or something like that?

Although two mothers spoke of their own experiences being followed in stores, or instances in which their daughters were assumed to be guilty in the eyes of school personnel, most cases in which parents spoke of presumed criminality or deviance were in reference to fathers or sons, with these race-gendered (Mutua, 2006) experiences of presumed criminality crossing lines of class.

The Dismissal or Rebuffing of Parents Efforts to Engage

Although interviews with administrators and principals revealed their desire to increase the number of Black families participating in school-based events and committees, interviews with parents suggest that their participation was not always welcomed or well received by school and district actors. Parents described instances in which their efforts to support their childrens education (and in some instances, that of other children) were delegitimized or rebuffed by White teachers or administrators, or by White parents in school organizational settings such as PTA meetings. In an AAPO meeting, for example, several attendees described instances in which they were encouraged by district and school leaders to participate in district meetings and planning sessions, and yet when they did so, they felt their input was not fully heard or acted on. As one mother recounted,

She said that she didnt really feel like the group wanted the contribution of their voices. She said at the last meeting [she attended] she felt like the district had all these people in the room, but the School Board was going to do what they wanted to do anyway. She explained that she didnt attend the meeting the previous night because she was sick, but at the same time she didnt force herself to be there because of the lack of consideration for her opinion. (AAPO field notes, 3/27/14)

Similarly, in interviews, other parents shared their frustrations with what one father described as the district paying lip service to parents concerns and input but not engaging in fundamental changes in practice. The district had taken a number of steps to try to address race- and class-based opportunity gaps in its schools, including trainings related to equity and cultural responsiveness, data-driven strategic planning, positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS), and efforts to diversify the district workforce. In interviews, many district administrators and school principals, however, spoke of the challenges of creating fundamental changes at the classroom level and changing dominant norms and practices.

Derrick described an incident in which he attended a meeting to discuss his sons special education services and academic progress. His wife had attended most of the meetings previously, given that Derricks work schedule usually conflicted with the meeting times. His wife was sick that day, and so he adjusted his schedule to attend the meeting because they needed paperwork signed by the school related to his childs special education referral. He explained his frustrations with how his childs teacher and school staff received him:

I can tell that they had all these questions for me. These were about where [my wife] was, why am I here, and at one point, I said What is this meeting for again? And [the teacher] was You dont even know what this meeting is for? Why are you here? And I was, What do you mean? Im here because theres a meeting, and Im his dad. [My wife] couldnt make it, so Im here. And shes like Well you dont even know what were talking about. I dont even think you know what youre talking about.

Derrick explained that he left the meeting feeling like his sons teacher didnt have any respect for [him], and this feeling was reinforced by the fact that it took the teacher two weeks to fill out the paperwork he needed for his sons doctor. Derrick explained that after that meeting, he talked to his wife about the teachers actions and tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. The meeting left him unsettled, however, because he felt like school staff were trying to break [him] down. Derrick reasoned, I dont want to call it racist, but I definitely will say that after that meeting everything kinda. . . . The way they made me look at it as, okay, is whats been going on this whole time is everybody considers me the problem. Derrick had spoken of the microaggressions he experienced in the broader community (e.g., being watched and followed in stores), and these schooling experiences only compounded these other negative experiences. Derricks experiences werent simply about his marginalization as a father: the microaggressions in and across the contexts Derrick encountered in the suburb were race-gendered (Mutua, 2006) and related to his positionality as a Black man (see also Allen, 2012; Posey-Maddox, 2017).

Thus, although White educational leaders in Forest Glen sought to increase the number of Black families participating in school and district-level settings, parents descriptions of their relations with school personnel suggest that their engagement was not always well received. Both of the AAPO members described earlier continued to attend district-level meetings and events but expressed their frustration with what they saw as the slow pace of change in district schools. After the negative encounter he had at his sons school, Derrick chose to support his sons education in primarily home-based settings (e.g., through homework help) and had his wife continue to be the main point of contact with school personnel. As the preceding examples indicate, parents interactions with school personnel were not uniformly positive and were often racialized, with their input and engagement efforts at times rebuffed by teachers and administrators.

In summary, for a number of parents, the local schools mirrored, rather than countered, the microaggressions they experienced in the broader community, resulting in missed opportunities to foster strong familyschool relations in support of student success. Although there were some variations by gender and class in the types of racial microaggressions that parents experienced in Forest Glen, almost all parents in the study experienced one or more forms of the microaggressions described in detail earlier. Indeed, only 2 parents in the entire sample (one U.S.-born and one African-born) made no mention of some form of racial inequality or racial bias in their descriptions of their life in the suburb. Race and racism were thus key components of the overall ecology of parents lives in the predominantly White suburban school and community contexts and informed their efforts to support their childrens education.


Influenced by the often racialized spaces and relationships they encountered in Forest Glen, parents engaged in a number of strategies to ensure their child was receiving a good education and treated with respect. Parents monitored their childs schooling for potential bias on the part of educators; advocated for their individual children when they felt they were treated unfairly; reinforced or supplemented classroom learning; encouraged and affirmed their childrens educational success; and worked collectively to benefit Black children and families in the district. Although a detailed analysis of each strategy is beyond the scope of this article, in what follows, I briefly describe each strategy and end with a discussion of social class differences in parents engagement practices and contexts.

Although most parents believed their child was receiving a better education than they would receive in more urban areas, they expressed a need to closely monitor their childs education to ensure that they were being held to high standards and treated fairly and with respect. Lisa, a working-class mother, often engaged in what she called pop-up parenting, a strategy that she said was used by her own parents when she was younger. When Lisa received several notes home about her sons behavior in school, for example, she showed up to her sons middle school unannounced to both ensure that her son was behaving and that teachers were holding him to high standards. She said that her original intention had been to focus on her childs behavior and not that of the teacher, but she felt the need to monitor teachers as well after she sat through a class where paper balls were being thrown while the teacher's back was turned. After several incidents she felt were poorly handled by teachers (included one in which her son was called a racial slur by a White student), she continued to closely monitor her childs schooling through frequent school visits and classroom observations. Like Lisa, other parents closely monitored their childs education via classroom volunteerism, requests for daily or weekly behavior updates, and (for middle school students) the regular monitoring of assignments and grades via the districts online parent portal.

Parents who were dissatisfied with teacher and school practices advocated for their children at the district or school level when they felt it necessary. For example Mary, a low-income mother, went directly to the district office (or in her words, straight to the top) to file a formal complaint against a district employee who had not intervened when her son was being bullied in a district-sponsored extracurricular activity. Marie, a middle-class parent with professional expertise in the area of equity and inclusion, provided specific guidance to her childs teacher when she felt her childs specific strengths and learning style were not sufficiently recognized and built on in the classroom. Although class did not appear to shape whether parents engaged in their childrens education, the data suggest class and gender-based patterns in how and for what parents advocated on behalf of their child. Low-income and working-class parents often advocated for their children around disciplinary issues, particularly those involving their sons. In contrast, middle-class parents advocacy efforts more commonly focused on curricular or academic concerns such as talented and gifted placement or the need for culturally relevant pedagogy.

Parents also commonly reinforced or supplemented the education their children were receiving in schools via both home- and school-based activities. Tequila, for example, required her children to research and write weekly reports on a major figure in Black history and share their reports with each other as a way to compensate for what she saw as a limited amount of Black history taught in the local schools. Like Tequila, most parents spoke of the home-based supports they provided for their children in the form of homework monitoring and assistance, communicating their high expectations, and purchasing educational materials such as workbooks, books, or flash cards that would supplement what their child was learning in school. Parents also supported their childs learning via words of encouragement and affirmation. Although home-based forms of support and affirmation were the most common, many parents spoke of their efforts to support their childrens education by attending structured school activities such as parentteacher conferences and events.

Last, parents worked collectively to support both their own childs education as well as that of other Black children in the district. This was most commonly done via the AAPO. The districtwide organization was a major hub of social networking and information sharing for parents and, with the exception of a local church, one of the few spaces in which Blacks in Forest Glen came together across social class and neighborhood lines. As Coretta, a low-income parent, stated,

When you are around people that look like you, talk like you . . . that you have a lot in common with and may have come from the same area . . . have some of the same concerns because you are in a predominately White neighborhood . . . you tend to find strength.

The organization worked to provide parents in the district with information about educational opportunities and news as well as to secure material resources for families. Aisha, an active member of the organization, described the organization to other parents, stating, Our goal is to advocate with you, and give you the tools and resources you need.

Many AAPO parents were guided by a sense of collective responsibility (Diamond, 2000) for Black children in the district and worked on behalf of not only their own children but other Black children as well. For most, this was best accomplished via the AAPO; parents described PTA meetings as having a pre-set agenda and providing little opportunity to discuss and address issues of concern. As Jonathan stated,

People in the school had started to create tensions and I thought that there was more that could be done for African Americans. I thought that to be an African American parent that you have to work to be more useful than the PTA in helping bridge those gaps. You come up with strategies to offer to the school district and teachers to help them facilitate the education of our children.

In the year of data collection, the AAPO (led primarily by middle-class parents and parents who were also district staff) facilitated student access to a college preparation program, brought in guest speakers from the district and from civic organizations to talk about local issues and resources, advised district leaders in their strategic planning, and organized and implemented an annual Black history month celebration. Although an in-depth discussion of AAPO social relations and organizing is beyond the scope of this article, organizational dynamics were not without tension; several members voiced a need for greater financial stability and autonomy from the school district. Several AAPO parents also lamented the small number of parents who regularly attended meetings (meetings on average ranged from 6 to more than 25 parents, depending on the agenda), and, like the Black parents in Howard and Reynoldss (2008) research, parents voiced the need for a greater commitment from other Black parents to engage in the organization and at the school and district level.

Differences existed in the social, cultural, and economic resources that parents had at their disposal. Most low-income parents had few ties to social, educational, or cultural organizations in Forest Glen, and thus they engaged primarily as individuals. Indeed, many described their preference, as several stated, to keep to themselves. Some had not even heard of the AAPO until it was mentioned in the interview. As Darryl explained, I dont have that many friends here and . . . I dont go outside much around here unless Im going fishing or stuff like that. For several low-income parents, however, the local predominantly Black church served as a source of information sharing about educational issues and connected them with Black district employees and AAPO members. Similar to Diamonds (2000) research on the cultural resources and educational participation of low-income Black parents, the local church provided these parents with access to broader social networks and served as a connector to other educational resources and engagement opportunities (e.g., participation in the AAPO).

In contrast, most middle-class parents had multiple and varied social networks and organizational connections, ranging from social ties to other parents via community sports programs and churches to Black fraternities and sororities. Several African-born parents also had informal gatherings with other African immigrant parents in the broader county. These social networks and organizations served as a source of Black social capital (Orr, 1999), as many middle-class parents shared information about educational resources and opportunities and also collaborated and engaged with other Black families in Forest Glen and the neighboring city. Middle-class parents also utilized their economic capital to support their childrens education via supplemental educational activities such as trips to museums, private tutoring, and special academic camps and extracurricular programs.

Both individually and at times collectively, parents worked to activate the forms of capital they possessed in order to ensure that their children were receiving a high-quality education within racialized school and community contexts. Although both social class and gender shaped parents experiences and forms of engagement with their local schools, parents shared a common value of education and a desire to ensure that their children succeeded academically. Although several parents considered leaving Forest Glen (and one participant did in fact move back to a large, more racially mixed city), the majority of participants felt that the resources, safety, and educational opportunities available to their children in Forest Glenparticularly in contrast to the city districts they had experiencedoutweighed the microaggressions they experienced in the suburb. Yet most remained watchful (Vincent et al., 2012) for potential discrimination in their childrens schooling, intervened when necessary, and, for a subgroup of parents, worked collectively to improve the educational opportunities for and outcomes of Black students in the district. Parents thus engaged in a number of strategies to navigate, resist, counter, and/or transform the racialized ecology of their everyday lives in Forest Glen.


Although most Black parents spoke favorably of Forest Glen in comparison with the city neighborhoods and school districts they had encountered in the past, their suburban dreams of high-quality schooling and nice, quiet living were not fully realized. Parents appreciated the resources, safety, and educational opportunities the suburb offered, and many described positive relationships and interactions with one or more teachers or administrators. Yet parents descriptions of life in Forest Glen included one or more racial microaggressions that were also often gendered and classed, occurring in both school and community contexts. The presumed criminality and homogeneity that mothers and fathers encountered in the broader suburban community, for example, characterized some of their school-based experiences as well. For these parents, the schools mirrored or compounded the slights, snubs, or everyday racism they experienced in the broader community, resulting in multispatial microaggressions. Regardless of the perpetrators intentions, these negative racialized experiences likely took a toll on parents; research has shown that experiences with perceived racism can have negative psychological and emotional effects on people of color (Franklin, 1999; Sue, 2010). As Carter Andrews (2012) wrote in relation to her research on Black youth in a predominantly White suburb, Being a Black body in a sea of White bodies is no easy task. . . . Having to constantly manage being racially spotlighted and ignored in the school context requires effective strategies for resisting racism and, in turn, demonstrating resilience (p. 38).

Yet an analysis of parents lived experiences in Forest Glen also reveals narratives of resistance that challenge dominant assumptions of Black parentsand particularly low-income Black parentsdisengagement from their childrens education. The research illustrates the multiple and varied ways Black parents worked to support their childrens education and well-being within the predominantly White suburban context. Parents worked individually and collectively to seek out resources and opportunities for their children and ensure that Black students were treated fairly and held to high standards. Yet parents engagement often occurred in the realms of the home (e.g., via supplemental educational activities) or the broader community (e.g. AAPO), which highlights the need for educators to adopt more holistic and community-centric (Lawson, 2003) frameworks for thinking about what counts as family engagement.

Auerbach (2007) offered a helpful alternative typology of parent roles, describing how the working-class African American and Latino parents in her study engaged as either supporters, advocates, or companions in ways that fell outside traditional school-centered models of parent engagement. Yet several parents in my research described instances in which they were spurred from a more hands-off (Auerbach, 2007) and supportive role to one that was more hands on and active after what they viewed as the unfair and racialized disciplinary treatment of their child, suggesting the fluidity of parent roles and the role of context and relationships in shaping when and how parents engage. Whereas parents like Tequila expected racism in Forest Glen and thus closely monitored their childrens schooling, other parents were motivated to advocate at school and district levels after they felt their children were disrespected or mistreated by White school actors.

When parents did engage in school-based forms of engagement, it wasnt always well received by educators, particularly in those instances in which parents sought to advocate on behalf of their child in matters of discipline or academic placement. Similar to the findings of other studies of Black parent engagement (Lareau & Horvat, 1999; Lewis-McCoy, 2014), parents described instances in which their input was ignored and/or their advocacy efforts were rebuffed by White teachers, administrators, and PTA leaders. Parents also spoke of the challenges of identifying and responding to more covert forms of racism in their childrens schooling experiences because what they perceived as racialized encounters were sometimes difficult to prove. The research is in line with other studies that show that Black parents often engage in additional forms of labor as compared with their White counterparts given their need to monitor their childs schooling for potential racial bias, deliberate about whether to intervene, and develop strategies to manage and/or resist microaggressions in familyschool relationships (Allen, 2012; Lareau, 2003; Lewis-McCoy, 2014). Informed by key tenants of CRTthe centering of parents experiential knowledge (Solorzano & Yosso, 2002) and the challenging of race neutrality (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995)my analysis of parents experiences reveals that familyschool relations are not race-neutral. Future studies of Black familyschool relations in predominantly White school and community contexts should explore the cumulative psychological, emotional, and physiological distress, or racial battle fatigue (Smith, Hung, & Franklin, 2001), that parents may experience as they repeatedly encounter, navigate, and resist racial microaggressive conditions.

Indeed, the research findings highlight the need for broader conceptions of what counts as parental engagement in childrens education, particularly for parents of color in predominantly White school and community contexts. Given persistent racial inequalities in many schools and communities across the United States, Black parents efforts to assist their children in navigating institutional racism and teacher bias while maintaining a positive racial identity and academic orientation is arguably just as importantif not more sothan common indicators of involved parents often cited in the parent involvement literature (e.g., attendance at school events and meetings, homework help). This may be particularly true for Black parents in places like Wisconsin that are marked by massive racial disparities in employment, education, and health (Wisconsin Council on Children & Families, 2014). Additionally, Black parents decisions to move to and stay in predominantly White, well-resourced suburbsdespite the microaggressions they may encounter in school and community domainscan be understood as a form of engagement in and of itself. Many parents in the study decided to reside in Forest Glen based on the resources and opportunities it offered their children, particularly in contrast to the nearby city and other cities they had encountered in their own upbringing. In deciding whether to stay or go, parents were having to make what Cooper (2005) called positioned choices, or those that are emotional, value-laden, and culturally relevant. They are informed by how parents are politically situated within greater society and the educational structure (p. 175). For many parents, Forest Glens resources, safety, and educational opportunitiesrelative to parents past experiences in more urban areasshaped their decision to stay despite the microaggressions they encountered.

In addition to the empirical contributions outlined previously, the research makes a conceptual contribution to the existing scholarship on Black parents engagement in predominantly White schools and districts. The research builds on existing ecological approaches to understanding parental engagement by interrogating how racialized interactions and encounters with everyday racism relate to parents engagement in school and community contexts. As the research findings suggest, attention to Black parents experiences across multiple and sometimes overlapping fields (e.g., education, family, community) can uncover the often cumulative impact of microaggressions on their sense of belonging and engagement in predominantly White spaces and institutional settings. Although the extant educational research on microaggressions has provided important insights about the subtle forms of racism students and families of color encounter in suburban settings (see, e.g., Allen, 2012; Reynolds, 2009, 2010), the research findings outlined earlier highlight the usefulness of studying the experiences and engagement of families of color across multiple contexts and fields of interaction. More in-depth, longitudinal observations of Black families interactions and experiences across the domains of home, community, and school, for example, would illuminate processes of inclusion and exclusion in real time (see, e.g., Suarez-Orozco et al., 2015) and how parents experiences in other fields may shape their relations with school actors (see, e.g., Lareau, 2003).

Although the research findings are based on one suburban context, they offer empirical insights that may be transferable (Firestone, 1993) to other predominantly White suburban school and community contexts. Indeed, the high growth rate of the Black population in Forest Glen is not unique to the suburbamong the largest 100 metropolitan areas, for example, 96 showed gains in their suburban Black populations (Frey, 2015). As the number of Black families in suburbia continues to grow, it is important for educational and civic leaders to take proactive steps to ensure that Black residents are able to benefit from the educational opportunities and material resources offered to White residents in these settings. The research findings highlight the need for access to be accompanied by inclusion, where families can access these resources and opportunities for their children free from microaggressions and be equal partners in their childrens educational success.

The research findings suggest the utility of educators recognizing the often racialized arenas Black parents traverse in their everyday lives, legitimating parents alternative forms of engagement, and building on what parents are already doing to support their childrens education and well-being. In addition to bringing in professional experts to talk about culturally responsive teaching practices, for example, much can be learned from listening to Black parents about their own hopes and goals for their children and the challenges they confront when seeking to realize these goals. Community-based organizations and districtwide parent groups such as the AAPO may provide the space and structure through which to facilitate these learning experiences for educators because they are often held on more neutral ground than in schools and provide parents of color an opportunity to speak and act collectively in family and community-centric (rather than school-centric) ways (see, e.g., Warren & Mapp, 2011). Districtwide Black parent groups like the AAPO can also provide a space of belonging and recognition in predominantly White suburbs, or as one mother stated, one of few spaces where Black parents dont need to conform or code-switch. Through these groups, parents can build in-group, or Black social capital (Orr, 1999) as they share information about district and school resources and strategies for ensuring their childrens academic success.

Yet the White-dominated institutions and community contexts that shape the ecology of parents engagement (Calabrese Barton et al., 2004) also need to change in order to ensure the full inclusion of Black families in predominantly White communities and schools. Race-conscious programs and policies that aim to increase both the representational diversity and decision-making power of Black parents and community residents in civic and educational life are also needed if change is to be structural and sustainable. Although Forest Glens school district has a stated goal to increase the diversity of its workforce, for example, my interviews with Black parents and staff members and observations over time in the district suggest the need for changes in school climate and culture as well as policy. The adoption of a Grow Your Own teacher certification program may be one promising reform toward this end because it would provide a path of mobility for Black parents and staff members in district schools while also increasing the number of Black teachers and administrators. Racial justice trainings and workshops offered to local civic leaders, police, landlords, and small business ownersas well as the active enforcement of antidiscrimination laws and policiesare also needed to address the multispatial microaggressions and racism Black parents may encounter in predominantly White suburbs. Black parents and their allies may find opportunities to push forward reforms that converge with the interests of White families, teachers, and/or residents (Bell, 1980), as these may be more politically viable given the history of White resistance to reforms or movements that appear to them as a loss of resources or power. Yet as Milner (2008) argued in his work in teacher education, Change is often purposefully and skillfully slow and at the will and design of those in power (p. 334). Black families in Forest Glen may also need to leverage the support and resources of Black-serving civic and political organizations in the broader metropolitan region and work in collaboration with other Black parent groups across the county to facilitate fundamental institutional changes.

Given dramatic growth rates in the number of residents of color and residents in poverty in suburban areas (Frey, 2015), more research is needed to explore and illuminate the heterogeneity of U.S. suburbs, their unique contexts and histories, and how these contexts shape the educational experiences of families of color. As Frankenberg (2012) noted, there are many different types of suburban districts, ranging from exclusive enclaves that are largely home to elites, to inner-ring transitioning districts with higher concentrations of poverty. With the unprecedented growth in the number of students of color in suburban districts (Frankenberg & Orfield, 2012), scholars of education have both a great opportunity and responsibility to engage in research that interrogates urban-focused frameworks and explores the intersections of race, class, gender, and place in families experiences.


1. To protect the anonymity of individuals I used participant-chosen pseudonyms, as well as pseudonyms for the suburb and all organizations.


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Background/Migration Narratives

1. What is your childs/childrens current age and grade? What school does he/she attend?

2. Has your child (or children) attended any other schools?

3. Have you lived anywhere besides Forest Glen?

If yes: Can you talk about where you moved from, and what led you to live in Forest Glen?

What were the names of the last 2 places (e.g. cities, towns) you lived previously? What led you to live in these places, and why did you move? What led you to live in Forest Glen specifically?

Did the local schools play a role at all in your decision of where to live? How so?

4. How long have you lived in Forest Glen?

5. What were your expectations for life in Forest Glen? In other words, what did you expect life to be like here, as compared to places youve lived previously? Has Forest Glen met your expectations? Why/why not?

6. Are there any organizations, groups, or spaces in Forest Glen that make life here enjoyable or easier for you and your family?

7. Is there anything that makes life in Forest Glen challenging?

FamilySchool Relationships

As you know, in our project were particularly interested in learning about families relationships with their childrens schools.

8. To start out, can you talk a bit about your hopes and goals for your childs education? What do you want him/her to get out of his/her schooling experiences?

9. How, if at all, do your educational goals for your child/children relate to your own educational experiences?

10. Are you satisfied with the education your child/children are receiving at [name of school]? Do you feel that your goals for your childs education are being met? Why/why not?

11. The district currently has 5 priority goals (show list, give time to read over). Based upon your experience as a parent, how successful has the district been in achieving them? Are there any goals you would add to the list, or things you would change?

12. In your mind, what do successful familyschool relationships look like? Can you give a few examples based upon your own experiences as a parent?

13. What are the different ways that your childs school encourages families to be involved in their childs education?

14. Parents can support their childs education in many ways, both in and outside of schools. Can you describe the ways that you work to support your childs education?

Are there things you do to support your childs education that teachers and school staff may not have been able to see or that occurred outside of the school setting?

15. Have you heard about the African American Parents Organization?

If yes: Have you attended an AAPO meeting or event? If so, which ones? What led you to attend this meeting/event?

If no: Are there any particular reasons for why you havent attended an AAPO event? Is there anything the organization could do to get more black parents to attend in the future?

16. Ultimately, what do you see as the ideal role and responsibility of parents in supporting their childrens education? In supporting their childs school?

17. Is there anything youd like to add, or any questions you have for me?



Type of Microaggression

Examples from Data


When we moved to our area four years ago, we lived on the corner and we got treated like accidents because people would just stop. They couldnt believe that two people of color were living there. . . . Some people would wave and others would just stare. That actually was for the first year and later I guess they were okay when they saw we were getting up and going to work every day and not causing problems.


Sometimes I speak and nobody speaks back.

Presumed Homogeneity

So they just assumed that I was living in low income or in the projects, versus me actually owning a home.

Presumed Criminality

If I'm driving down the street, you know, a licensed driver and my car is insured, and it just seems like the police officer always wants toyou know. They'll be parked and it could be a thousand-and-one cars in front of me and behind me; they'll kind of cut off in behind me and follow me. I have no criminal record, you know.

Rebuffing Parents Engagement

I shouldn't get a dirty look every time I walk into the office. Like 'oh she's here again.'



Note: Codes are as follows: Student Academics (SA); FamilySchool Relationships=FSR

(Communication-FSRc; Responsibilities=FSRr); Parent Engagement=PE (Rebuffing

of=PEr; Homework Help=PEhh; Teacher Perceptions of=PEtp); Discipline=D

(Discipline at school=Ds; Discipline at Home=Dh); Racial Microaggression=RM


Interview question:

Are you satisfied with the education your children are receiving in the district?


Not with [name of older child]. My oldest has been in summer school since she started. And like I said shes laid back, and they always put her in all these programs, and program and program, or help for a while in elementary, but then they stop. And I dont know if it was her, why she didnt catch on, or were they not really working with her the way that they should have. (SA) And they always try to say that, Oh, you should be at home working with her at home, which we did. (PEhh) But I dont know they didnt reallyand I cant say that because see [name of younger child] is different. Hes very smart, and so he is exceeding in school. Hes really doing really well, but it took him lashing out, talking back and being a smart aleck in school for them to really say, Hey, somethings going on. (SA) Theres an underlying issue which they try to blame on the parents. (PEtp)


Tell me more about that. How did that come out about?


We were telling them that he needs medication, and were gonna take him to get looked at, and they were going, Oh, no, you need to be disciplining your child. (Dh) You need to beyoure not being a good parent or whatever. (PEtp) And Im like, I dont know. You just dont understand. This is how hes been his whole life. It didnt just start one year. Hes been like this. The discipline you dohell laugh at you sometimes, or at this point, hell cry and behave for a while, but he turns around and does the same thing.. . . Hes a good kidvery smart, but if you dont know him, hell have you fooled.


So heso you went to them, rather than them coming to you and you said


Yeah. And all the teacher did was send emails every day, and its like Arent you guys supposed to punish him, you know what I mean, within school? (Ds) Im not sure what youre supposed to be doing but--she just was sending emails every day, every day, every day about what he was doing, his behavior. (FSRc) And then it was just like, I dont know, after a while I got frustrated. Its like youre the teacher, just handle it. Its your classroom. (FSRr) She almost seemed like sometimes she didnt take over her classroom. (Ds) And this is one of the teachers that I believe . . . I dont know, I dont like to say that anybodys racist, but I know, I can tell, that she looks at me as just some Black guy, you know what I mean, whos probably in the streets and doesnt care about his kids. (RMg, PEtp) Hes got some White girl that hes using, and its far from that. (RMg)


Can you give me an example of when youve experienced that or felt that?


There was a meeting, and I cant remember what it was for, but [my wife] was sick and couldnt make it, so I went and she told me just go there, take down your notes and then bring back it home. . . . She said theyre going to talk about [name of sons] averages and his behavior and his school and his grades and all that. And so in the middle of theI can tell that they had all these questions for me. These were about where [my wife] was, why am I here, and at one point, I said What is this meeting for again? And [the teacher] was You dont even know what this meeting is for? Why are you here? And I was, What do you mean? Im here because theres a meeting, and Im his dad. [My wife] couldnt make it, so Im here. And shes like Well you dont even know what were talking about. I dont even think you know what youre talking about. (FSRc, PEr) I said, Wait, excuse me? And I was like Im here doing exactly what Im supposed to do. It doesnt matter if I know about the meeting or not as long as I get the information that I get to show to their mother. (FSRr) And I said Well heres a paper for [his doctor] that youre supposed to fill out, and it just sat there for a while, and she eventually took it but it was like two weeks before she got it filled out . . . I just got the feeling that she didnt have any respect for me. (FSRc)

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 119 Number 11, 2017, p. 1-42
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21970, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:26:33 PM

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About the Author
  • Linn Posey
    University of Wisconsin-Madison
    E-mail Author
    LINN POSEY-MADDOX is an assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests are focused on urban education; education and urban policy; families and schools; and qualitative research methods. She is the author of When Middle-Class Parents Choose Urban Schools: Class, Race, and the Challenge of Equity in Public Education (University of Chicago Press). Other recent publications include: Posey-Maddox, L. (2016). Beyond the consumer: Parents, privatization, and fundraising in U.S. urban public schooling. Journal of Education Policy, 31(2), 178–197; and Posey-Maddox, L. (2016). Challenging the dichotomy between “urban” and “suburban” in education discourse and policy. The Educational Forum, 80(2), 225–241.
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