Posted on April 7, 2021

‘The Narrative Is, “You Can’t Get Ahead”’

Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, April 3, 2021

Ndona Muboyayi wants to improve the education that public-school children, including her son and daughter, receive in Evanston, Illinois, where her mother’s family history goes back five generations.

As a candidate for the school board in District 65, which educates children up until eighth grade, she wants to close the academic-achievement gap separating Black and brown students from white ones, help children who need special education, and address what she sees as a lack of support for students whose first language isn’t English. That agenda would be ultra-progressive in many communities. In Evanston, however, Muboyayi is challenging not the right, but the left.


Muboyayi, 44, a member of the NAACP Evanston/North Shore Branch and the Congolese Community of Chicago, shares their concerns about the curriculum and is now among its most outspoken critics. She attributes her willingness to talk openly to the fact that she is self-employed. A business consultant and translator, Muboyayi attended public schools in Evanston as a child and then moved away. When she returned with children of her own in 2018, she anticipated that they would receive the empowering, racially inclusive education she remembered. Instead she was confronted with a curriculum she deems disempowering, divisive, and ill-suited to helping students of color succeed in school.

I spoke with Muboyayi on Tuesday. {snip}


Friedersdorf: What was the problem with those lessons, beyond your children not liking them?

Mboyayi: My children have always been so proud of who they are. Then all of a sudden they started to question themselves because of what they were taught after arriving here. My son has wanted to be a lawyer since he was 11. Then one day he came home and told me, “But Mommy, there are these systems put in place that prevent Black people from accomplishing anything.” That’s what they’re teaching Black kids: that all of this time for the past 400 years, this is what [white people have] done to you and your people. The narrative is, “You can’t get ahead.”


Friedersdorf: Tell me more about the narrative you want to challenge.

Mboyayi: One day my daughter told me she was taught that all white people are privileged and part of a system of white supremacy. My son said the same thing. So I reached out to my daughter’s teacher to find out what exactly was being taught. It was pretty much like she said: that all white people were part of this system of white supremacy, and that all white people, because of the color of their skin, had privilege. I said, “But that’s not true.” And the teacher said, “Well, what do you mean?”

I have traveled a lot. My father was a university professor and taught in both the United States and Paris, France. And when I visited, I saw white people in public housing. I’ve been to Belgium and Switzerland and seen very poor white people. I’ve visited other parts of Europe. I lived in Canada for 10 years. There are poor white people in Canada as well. I’m not saying systemic racism doesn’t exist, but class exists too, and I don’t believe that all white people have privilege. That white person who’s living in the Appalachian Mountains, who has no means or prospect of changing their situation—do they, too, have privilege? Compared to me and my kids?I’ve spent a lot of time in Central Africa because my dad is from the Congo. And some of the propaganda that’s being spread right now here in Evanston is similar to some of the divisiveness that took place in Rwanda before the massacre. I’m not saying that is what’s going to happen here, but when you start labeling people in a negative manner based on their race or ethnic group, this leads to division and destruction, not finding common ground and positive solutions.Friedersdorf: Not all white people are racist, but some are. How should schools handle that?Mboyayi: I am aware that there are parents who are very negative and teach negative things to their children. And if a child does have a thought that is negative, you correct them, but in a positive manner. You don’t have to correct them by browbeating everyone and making them ashamed of who they are and telling them that because of how they look, they’re innately bad.

If I were white—which I don’t want to be because I love the skin I’m in—I’d be angry if I learned my child was being labeled a racist or a white supremacist or the fruit of white supremacy.