Breaking Ranks with the Unexamined Silences of Their Parents
May 20, 2015 4:59 PM   Subscribe

"To all these ends, the third- , fourth- , and fifth-graders at Lower were to be divided once a week for five weeks into small groups according to their race. In 45-minute sessions, children would talk about what it was like to be a member of that race; they would discuss what they had in common with each other and how they were different, how other people perceived them, rightly or wrongly, based on appearance. Disinhibited by the company of racially different peers, the children would, the school hoped, feel free to raise questions and make observations that in mixed company might be considered impolite. The bigger goal was to initiate a cultural upheaval, one that would finally give students of color a sense of equal owner­ship in the community. Once the smaller race groups had broken up, the children would gather in a mixed-race setting to share, and discuss, the insights they had gained."

The story of one private school's attempt to teach children about race and the reactions of the parents and children involved in the pilot year.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (26 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm sorry not to provide more framing, but it's an extremely dense article -- that I suggest reading to the end even though it's quite long -- and I couldn't find the right things to pick and choose without distorting the story.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:04 PM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


That's a fascinating article, thanks for posting it. The dynamic reminds me of the reaction when Wiscon proposed having a Safe Space for con-goers of color: a certain number of people claimed that this was racist, of course.

I would like to see what comes out of this: are the kids able to keep their friendships as they age? Are the kids able to fight off stereotype threat?
posted by suelac at 5:21 PM on May 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


My heart broke when I reached the point in the article with Tanekia Thomas. We have the women-are-burning-out-on-MF parallel, but it's nothing like the exhaustion of face to face conversations with people, over and over and over. I've never been through that.

I support the idea of programs like this being mandatory - although in some ideal future maybe we'll be good enough as human beings to not need it.
posted by erratic meatsack at 5:37 PM on May 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


Other schools' programs don't make white-identifying children participate? I'm not sure why they'd think that would be an improvement over including everyone...

These programs sound really interesting. Way better that they have this conversation early than when it is a source of conflict, or in the worst case, never.
posted by halifix at 5:38 PM on May 20, 2015


This reminds me of a program that we did at my (predominantly white, liberal magnet schools) called S.E.E.D. (Students Educating Each other about Diversity — I know the acronym is pretty forced). But instead of affinity groups like that, everyone would go through empathy building and, uh, racial simulation games I guess would be the best way to put it. Like, everyone would be assigned a certain token and then would have their chits scored according to that, or similar stuff. In some ways it was really good at illustrating the arbitrary and unfair aspects of racism, but sometimes it was just frustratingly telegraphed as over-determined, like, whelp, I got assigned "black," guess I'm gonna lose so I won't even play this time. Which is its own sort of lesson, but probably not what they were going for. I think the most apt description would be that it was like CEMREL for race.

The other thing this reminds me of is the couple times that the larger, non-magnet high school I went to did some anti-racism assemblies, which would have breakout sessions where the ice breaker would be "Give a stereotype you've had about another race," which sounds like something they're doing at Lower before it's too late to challenge those stereotypes. (It is how I learned that white people apparently smell like wet dog, though.)
posted by klangklangston at 6:05 PM on May 20, 2015


Very interesting read. Like the one parent at the meeting, I was also raised in communities where "Jewish" and "White" were more often than not considered different groups. So many layers.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:31 PM on May 20, 2015


$36k for tuition. Well I guess if anyone needs progressive cultural enlightenment, it's the 1%.
posted by Brocktoon at 7:19 PM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


It does suck that, more often than not, only schools with prospering budgets get to experiment with stuff like this. There's a whole other rant to be had about the rigid structure imposed on "failing" schools, and obsessions with standardized testing in lieu of programs that actually educate students about the world and our place in it.

It's so obvious to me that more money means more learning opportunities at schools that I'm not sure the derision is warranted, honestly. Maybe once programs like this are more broadly talked about (and measured successful, however that may be) we will be able to roll them out across public schools as well.
posted by erratic meatsack at 7:27 PM on May 20, 2015 [6 favorites]


To me as a (white, liberal, American) parent of small children trying to raise my kids right -- I've read Nurtureshock, I'm up on a lot of the current thinking about talking to little kids about race rather than pretending colorblindness and making it a taboo topic ... but having been raised that race is a taboo that polite people don't notice because they're colorblind, IT IS SO EFFING HARD to break that taboo and not panic when my kids say something about race. But I know I have to, but I don't know how, because I wasn't raised that way, so I feel a cold panic the whole time and overwhelming terror that I will fuck it up and thereby turn my children into bad people or at least people who say unforgiveably awkward things in public. So I could sympathize with the resistance of some of the white parents in the article, although I think I personally would be like, "HELLS YEAH trained professionals have my back on teaching this thing I'm afraid I suck at. PHEW."

But it is hard and scary and I feel like its really important so I don't want to do it wrong, but resources for how to do it right are lacking ... and a lot of that is just because, it's a sea-change for white parents and we don't have a lot of examples to imitate. I mentioned on facebook a while back a question my son had asked about race after reading a Rosa Parks storybook, and how I tried to be honest and factual, while also transmitting moral values, but how I felt panicked the whole time because I was breaking the taboo and I was desperately worried I'd messed it up. It turned into a wonderful thread where other white parents were confessing similar fears and non-white parents were offering encouragement and tips and reassuring us we were doing the right thing and offering themselves as resources and elementary educators and PhDs in cultural studies were linking to books and it was just a very kumbaya moment on social media and I felt much less alone and very heartened by it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:36 PM on May 20, 2015 [32 favorites]


Yes, a long article, but worth the read, especially for Americans. The idea is great, but some problems crop up in the article that don't seem to be easy to solve. The Asian kids, for example, seem to be a little baffled by the program. And the multicultural children, with the option of being in either the multicultural group or the not sure group don't seem as likely to benefit from this kind of grouping. (Reading the article, these particular concerns pop up for me because my daughter is white/Asian.)
posted by kozad at 8:35 PM on May 20, 2015 [4 favorites]


That comment from the Asian-American kid struck me too. It makes me wonder if they had any Asian-Americans help design and implement this program.
posted by zompist at 9:05 PM on May 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


To me as a (white, liberal, American) parent of small children trying to raise my kids right -- I've read Nurtureshock, I'm up on a lot of the current thinking about talking to little kids about race rather than pretending colorblindness and making it a taboo topic ... but having been raised that race is a taboo that polite people don't notice because they're colorblind, IT IS SO EFFING HARD to break that taboo and not panic when my kids say something about race.

I feel you on this! I'm aware of the stats showing that parents of children of color have their first conversations about race far earlier than parents of white children. I don't have kids, but beyond a few obvious ideas, I'm not sure I'd know what all to say to a young child, and I'm sure I'd fear saying something wrong.

But while trying to look up that statistic, I did find a blog about raising race conscious children, so I'm off to do some reading!
posted by salvia at 9:07 PM on May 20, 2015


That's just a great article. And an amazing program.

Is my understanding correct that they pre-designated the possible racial groupings? I was impressed with the thoughtful professionals interviewed in the piece, so I can't imagine why my judgment could in any way be better than theirs, but it just seems weird to me that they didn't have a preliminary period where the parents and kids were able to come up with the groupings that would be used. Some of the things that seem like problems -- that for some of the parents jewish isn't white (they were from the south -- in the fundamentalist small town I grew up in, "jewish" absolutely was a marked category and would have been distinct from "white"), as well as the distinctive issues for multiracial folk -- might have been resolved by allowing the "racial" categories to be determined by that which these parents feel are very active in their and their children's lives.

Which brings me to another thing -- the opposition the writer makes between self-construction of these identities, which she (implicitly) and some subjects of the piece deny is possible, against the fact that society assigns these racial identities and they're not voluntary. But it's not one or the other, it's both. It depends upon a lot of different factors and either can be true for the same person in different social contexts and at different points in their lives. Surely it makes sense to accommodate that complexity by allowing that people do have some control over their racial identity in some times and places, and that often, they don't.

Did anyone else get a bad vibe about Hort? I was struck by how he spoke for his wife, saying she doesn't identify as latina, although the writer mentions that she speaks spanish to her parents and such (I know lots of hispanic folk who don't have spanish as a first or second language), and then the older boy says “My mom is Spanish, but, like, we’re not — I kind of consider myself more white than Spanish.” Both kids seem highly motivated to follow their father's line about this. And we don't hear from the mom.

The middle section where the writer talks with Tanekia Thomas (who went to Exeter and then to Penn) and Cristina Melendez (who also went to an Ivy) is powerful. I feel like everyone who doesn't understand the point of the program, and everyone who is a critic of it, and well, every white person in North America, really, ought to hear what they have to say and listen:
“I understand that parents say, ‘I don’t want my kid to pick a box.’ But the boxes are already being picked for her left and right. Sometimes people think I’m black, and then I open my mouth” — Melendez has an accent — “and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re not really black, are you?’ I want to tell you that I’m black. I’m a Latina black woman. I am going to pick, and this empowers my kid to pick. And she’s going to be perceived from that moment on, hopefully, as the person she wants to be. That’s not limiting. That’s not putting my kid in a box. That’s empowering.” As Melendez says all this, her whole upper body is draped on the table, her head propped in her hand. “My kid knows yesterday that she is black.”
Mostly, I was struck by how this is like a vignette that perfectly illustrates so many different but related things going on in our culture these days. White people claim that we live in a post-racial society and that they don't "see" race. Men and a whole lot of women claim that our society is no longer sexist and that the people who keep talking about sexism are the ones who are the sexists. I find that I'm increasingly angry about this because I'm increasingly cynical about how it is that we got to this place.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:30 AM on May 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


Thanks for posting this, and salvia for your link too. I'm the designated "cool" aunt for my circle of family and friends, where cool equals "has time to keep up with news/pop-culture/politics" rather than actually cool. Many of the mums I know have said they're counting on my support for things like this because although they care, they're too buried under laundry and bills to seek out and evaluate the finer points of 21st century parenting. And their kids actually seem to respect my opinions and seek out my advice, so I feel a lot of pressure to do the best I can. I bet they'd welcome a program like this in their school to help them figure it out.

Stuff like this really helps. My generation has been better at race issues than the one before (ye gods, my parents mean well but...). But I don't want to rest on those laurels, I want kids today to do more and better. I hope one day my nieces, nephews and godchildren say about me "ye gods, she meant well and put us on the right path, but..."
posted by harriet vane at 4:18 AM on May 21, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'm not sure I'd know what all to say to a young child, and I'm sure I'd fear saying something wrong.

It's hard to break kids unless you're really trying or are super negligent.

A year or two ago I took my kids to a McDonalds in a largely black part of town. One of my kids noted aloud - loudly aloud! - that there a lot of brown people there, and proceeded to wonder if white people were allowed to be in that particular McDonalds. That, then, led to a little discussion of redlining or something.

Stuff like that is sort of cringe-y, but it's also pretty funny. And it's neat to see their little brains process this stuff and have chats with them as they figure it out.
posted by jpe at 4:32 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was struck by how he spoke for his wife, saying she doesn't identify as latina, although the writer mentions that she speaks spanish to her parents and such

I speak Spanish to my parents and other relatives, spoken Spanish as one of my first languages, regularly visit relatives in a Spanish-speaking country and identify relatively strongly with that country. I do not identify as Latina. I'm assuming this guy was reporting what his wife has expressed to him. What you basing your assumptions about her identity on?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:15 AM on May 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Eyebrows, thanks so much for posting this, and it sounds like you're doing an awesome job pushing through that very understandable panic to do the right thing.

It's funny that you mention Nurtureshock, because I thought the chapter about race in that book was really off, especially since the rest of it was so great. Like the conclusion they came to (that going to a less diverse school would counterintuitively lead to more cross-racial friendships) was true, but so obviously written for the benefit of white people. Yay, your white kid has a Vietnamese friend, but no mention of the effect on the Vietnamese kid of being so isolated. The school in this article goes in the exact opposite direction, which I appreciate. This knee-jerk reaction we Americans have to anything that looks like "segregation" is so understandable, and yet so weird. Diversity is great, but I'm also a big believer in strength in numbers.

On the other hand, I have no idea what group I would have picked had I been in a similar program as a kid, or how it would have affected my racial identity. I think that a group of multiracial kids could actually get more out of the experience, if it was designed right--I know that every time I've happened to land with a small group of mixed-race folks, even since childhood, the conversation has been filled with "I know, right?!" and understanding, much more than when I get together with Asians (as important as the Asian American community is to me). But that comment from the Asian kid, that they just talk about black and white issues--that's a bit disheartening. (He could totally just be a kid hating on school, but it would also not surprise me at all if they didn't consult any Asian Americans when implementing the program.)
posted by sunset in snow country at 7:21 AM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think someone raised a point about the Asian kid which I think is important. I'm a 32 year old black dude and I think one of the reasons why Asian-Americans all too often get put in the backseat of race related conversations in America is that they are viewed as being in the same category as white. For all intents and purposes, to a lot of folks (in my opinion), Asian-Americans are culturally white or at least are seen as embracing all things white and being just as anti-black as anyone else. This is a sentiment that I have come across quite often.
posted by RedShrek at 8:56 AM on May 21, 2015


RedShrek, sadly you are correct. I'm Asian-American, and my parents taught me to be racist against basically anyone who wasn't white, in their messed-up understanding of what assimilation into American society means. Happily, it didn't take, mostly because of "Roots" the TV miniseries. (No kidding, i was 6 years old, and I was well aware of race by then).
I always have thought of myself as a POC in a white world, because that's what my suburban experience growing up was. I didn't identify with the blond girls, I was othered because of my funny last name, etc.
It saddens me when black & Latino activists don't consider me as another POC, but I understand.
posted by honey badger at 12:05 PM on May 21, 2015 [3 favorites]


@honey badger,

Sucks to see that. On an individual level, I see the same level of idea transfer from parents to children with my Asian-American friends. That said, I have been very lucky to have great friends who refused to toe that line completely and are able to have full interesting dialogue. As to that last point you brought up about activism, I see that starting to change ever so slightly. A few years ago, I began to take notice of the push-back within the Asian-American community against the "model minority" myth and greater engagement with other POC groups (and I think women are at the forefront of this). I have some hope that there will be greater engagement and understanding. All too often, we tend to clump Asian-Americans into one giant bucket when in reality there is so much diversity within that grouping including the life outcomes. I'm a very cynical person at this point in my life but on this I do have some (even if it's a little) hope.
posted by RedShrek at 1:07 PM on May 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm Jewish and totally consider myself white. Jews are a white European ethnic group that has historically been scapegoated and victimized by other white European ethnic groups. Not the only white European ethnic group that has faced that situation but Jews faced it on the most sustained basis.
posted by zipadee at 3:15 PM on May 21, 2015


Don't think much of the perspective that seems to underlie this program, and which the author of the article clearly buys into 110%. There is much to be said for the 'colorblind', 'judge everyone as an individual' perspective of traditional liberalism that is getting criticized here. It doesn't definitely doesn't address all the complexities of inherited identities and the way oppression works on the larger societal level, but it's a good way for real human beings to live together and observe the golden rule on how to treat others. When you demand that each individualize internalize personal feelings of either guilt or victimization due to centuries of actions by other people, you are going to create all kinds of weird forms of fear, apprehension, and resentment. The author keeps referring to how racial discussions are 'fraught' and hard to have but they don't seem to realize that this because of how loaded we are making them. They are very high stakes too -- if there is one thing I will teach my kid, it is NEVER to say things about race in a public setting that might offend someone else or be misunderstood. That is the wisest way to approach these things given the climate we have created, but it is hardly conducive to having discussions that are not 'fraught'.
posted by zipadee at 3:21 PM on May 21, 2015


"When you demand that each individualize internalize personal feelings of either guilt or victimization..."

That is not what this program is doing and this characterization of it is toxic. If I never hear another claim that talking about racism is really about making white people feel guilty or teaching non-white people to be victims, it'll be too soon.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:54 PM on May 21, 2015 [9 favorites]


There is much to be said for the 'colorblind', 'judge everyone as an individual' perspective of traditional liberalism that is getting criticized here.

Colourblind doesn't mean "judge everyone as an individual" it means "not see race" (hence the blind part). The idea is to not see race for the goal of allowing one to judge people as individuals, but the method is flawed. There are two flaws with the method:

First, if you refuse to see race you refuse to see something that fundamentally influences people's daily lives. How can you empathize with a person if you refuse to acknowledge a key part of what it means to experience the world as they do?

Second, refusing to see race, especially on the part of the dominant group, tends to implicitly mean "assume they experience the world as the dominant group does." because the dominant group has the privilege of not having to think about race, treating race as a non-thing in someone else's life seems to assume they have that same privilege. That means you can't properly "judge everyone as an individual." Not making an attempt to understand the circumstances of people's lives means not understanding the context of their actions. If you don't understand those circumstances you are vulnerable to funamdental attribution error, which results in misjudging them as individuals.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:23 PM on May 21, 2015 [8 favorites]


Not seeing race means not acknowledging the ways that racism impacts the lives of people of color.

As a white person, it was very helpful to learn about that, not solely via statistics but also by listening to the experiences of people I know. I don't think there's nearly enough listening and hearing on this topic, and this program seems designed to help that.

With a skilled facilitator, you quickly move past guilt to action, to how you can try to make the world better in your own small or large way.
posted by salvia at 9:11 AM on May 22, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'm Jewish and totally consider myself white. Jews are a white European ethnic group that has historically been scapegoated and victimized by other white European ethnic groups. Not the only white European ethnic group that has faced that situation but Jews faced it on the most sustained basis.

Oh, absolutely. Understand that I grew up in some pretty astoundingly super-lily-white enclaves. In the community where I went to high school, even the small Italian-American community didn't quite see themselves, and weren't quite seen by many others, as totally fitting into the "white" circle on the Venn diagram. I had lived in a sightly more diverse community before moving there, and I was shocked at the creative portmanteau of the "n" word and the "w" word to which they were referred by themselves and others.

I mean, this was a town where we had one Black kid and one Hispanic kid in our entire K-12 school - and it was the same kid.

If I was a religious person, I would get down on my creaky, so-WASP-I-sting-myself-when-I-walk knees and thank a God for the Internet, because it's given me so many more opportunities to engage with, and learn from, people of different backgrounds than I would have had without it. There's only so much you can grok from reading and audiovisual media because of all the filters involved.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:00 AM on May 22, 2015


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