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

In Evanston, Illinois, a Black parent and school-board candidate takes on a curriculum meant to combat racism.

An illustration of a classroom and Black Lives Matter sign.
Mark Edward Atkinson / Christian Monterrosa / Bloomberg / Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs, and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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.

In a recent article on the Black Lives Matter at School curriculum in Evanston, I quoted Evanston parents who favor diversity, racial equality, and inclusiveness but object to lessons that they believe cross a line into indoctrination. All the parents I interviewed would be quoted only anonymously, out of fear that they would be harassed online or even lose their jobs.

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. The transcript of our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Conor Friedersdorf: How has Evanston changed?

Ndona Muboyayi: I grew up in the Fifth Ward, a predominantly Black neighborhood. My mom is African-American and very Afrocentric. We had Black dolls. We had books about Africa. We had all of this imagery that was positive reinforcement for who we were. We did have white friends. But to be honest, our life didn’t revolve around white people. We had a kind of cushion of Black comfort, so to speak, where we were allowed to be children and whatever prejudices that might have existed, we weren’t aware of them.

So I had a very good childhood. One teacher, who was not white, thought in first grade that I needed to be in special education, because I was active and talked a lot. In third grade, my teacher couldn’t pronounce my name. But those are the only issues I remember. Evanston to me was almost a utopia. Which is why I told my children, while we were living outside Toronto, “When we move back to the States, let’s move to Evanston.” I gave my children and my husband, who grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this idea that it would be a place of both Black unity and people working together across color lines. But when we got here in 2018, within the first year, my children were being taught about white supremacy and white privilege and that all white people were rich and racist. My son and daughter came home like, What is this?

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.”

Of course I want my children to know about slavery and Jim Crow. But I want it to be balanced out with the rest of the truth. They’re not taught about Black people who accomplished things in spite of white supremacy; or about the Black people today who got ahead, built things, achieved things; and those who had opportunities that their ancestors fought for.

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.

Friedersdorf: Does it rankle you, as a Black person, when people define white culture with positive stereotypes, such as showing up to places on time?

Mboyayi: That’s exactly how I feel. The education system tends to erase or mute Black people from different backgrounds and experiences. They make this assumption that all Black people are a monolith—they all speak the same way, think the same way, and conduct themselves in the same way.

Showing up on time has nothing to do with being white. It’s something that you’re taught or not taught. My father taught me at a very early age to keep my word. If you say that you’re going to be somewhere at some time, be there. What system of white supremacy was he influenced by?

Friedersdorf: You argue that the sort of support given, for example, to English-language learners should be available to some Black students too. Can you tell me more about that?

Mboyayi: Unbeknownst to many, there are many Black children—not all, but many—who speak different dialects at home, like patois, creole, or African-American Vernacular English, which are very different from standard English. And if they had the same language support as other English-language learners, it would help them to better understand standard English, which would enable them to do better not only in English class but also in math and science and other courses. So the first step would be to give them language support. There are some people, even within the Black community, who are very uncomfortable having that conversation.

But when I was a child, there were some friends of mine, who happened to be Black, who did not speak standard English, who had a very, very hard time. At that time, they used to offer speech classes in order to help them learn to speak standard English. Today, you would never know that they had a problem with standard English when they were children. Now, I’m not saying that to speak a dialect is bad. It’s not bad. I do it myself when I’m speaking to my sister or my mother or my friends.

Friedersdorf: You were willing to talk about all this on the record, under your own name. Other parents with concerns about the public-school system in Evanston were terrified to do so. Are they overreacting?

Muboyayi: They should absolutely be afraid because, you know, certain elements of our community are threatening to get people fired. Even if someone just poses a question, or expresses a conflicting view, you’re immediately labeled a part of the problem, a white supremacist, and people will say, “Find out where they work.”

If you’re a Black person who says what I say, you get attacked too. Now, I’m independent. I work for myself. So who is going to fire me? But what are we telling our children, who will one day lead our society, when we show them that if you pose a question, and if someone doesn’t agree with you, maybe they’re going to go after your job?

Viewpoints from other candidates in the school-board election referenced in this interview can be found here.