Diversity in a Progressive Forest: Personal Reflection
If a tree falls in a forest...
"Alan is crying!" I hear from my students. Our orderly boy-girl-boy-girl line for recess dissolves into a sea of limbs and bodies. I rush over, and the line parts to reveal Alan. His hands hang at his sides, his tears fall unabashedly, and his face is angled down with the weight of his sorrow. Surrounded by his beloved best friends, some of whom he has known for his entire life at this small progressive independent school, he is thankfully safe - but utterly alone in his experience as the single African American male in the classroom community.
Moments before we were reading an award-winning text of historical fiction about pre-colonial America. The author had implicitly linked black with evil in the dialogue of one character, and in that moment I made an impulsive choice. My class of fifth graders, mostly white with a sprinkle of Chinese and Latino, and one African American student, dutifully listened as I repeated the phrase used in the text and asked my class to identify the inference made by this author. Eager hands shot up, and the selected student demonstrated his ability to see that the color black had connected the mean behavior in the words 'black heart' and the race of one character. Surrounding students were visibly uncomfortable until a few seconds later, when I labeled it racism.
I wrapped up our work with a reminder of "our" responsibility as readers developing as critical thinkers, and then I ignorantly asked my children to line up for recess. Now one packaged reader had burst open, releasing a torrent of realization.
"Alan, would you like to stay in class with me for a bit before recess?" He nods, and we do, and after a few moments I ask his teacher from last year, an African American, to join us. She asks him one question, "Are you identifying with something you heard in the book?" His second nod gives voice to his awakening understanding of himself and his society. Later I seek guidance from his parents, who explain to me his nascent racial self-awareness [meanwhile helping me to realize my own].
And no one is around to hear it..
Alan's tears were a turning point that ignited in me a sense of urgency. A child had openly revealed his inner turmoil, and his emotions tore into me. Usually these fleeting moments dissipated into foggy, emotional memories without germinating into change in my practice.
This time I decided to begin classroom research around identity development and race. My question was, "What messages about identity do children receive from each other in a predominantly white educational environment?"
My school is, in many ways, a standard independent K-8 progressive school with fewer than 500 students. Parents are heavily involved and supportive. The school sits nestled on the border between low-income and newly gentrified neighborhoods. The majority of our teachers and supervisors, including me, are white women with interesting mixed heritages and progressive work histories.
I invited colleagues to contribute their stories to this simple research. Here is a sampling of these stories, and my reflection on the larger narrative that they tell.
Does it make a sound?
Seven teachers submitted forty stories over the course of four months. Progressing from kindergarten to eigth grade, two themes emerged as pervasive in the children's informal and academic behavior. The first theme was that the assumed audience was racially white, and the second was an identification of 'otherness' that eclipsed empathy.
In the following two examples from kindergarten, the white children label the black children:
One white boy takes to calling his friend 'chocolate'. The black boy seems bothered, but says he doesn't mind. Obviously he is feeling conflicted. His friend doesn't understand what's wrong with calling his friend 'chocolate' since he is merely remarking on his friend's skin color, and who doesn't love chocolate?
In this interaction, the 'nickname' of chocolate implies that the label will suffice to identify the difference between the black boy and the majority. The dominance of white culture prevents the black child from reciprocation.
This kindergarten example occurs during a conflict:
Two best friends are fighting, and one friend calls her African American friend a 'brown faced giant'. The remark is devastating to her.
This insult has identified her by race and distinguished her from the racial majority, just as the compliment had done in the previous example. Both examples show the white children's internalized dominant racial norm. They show a level of understanding about and a lack of empathy for using race to isolate the 'other' from their community.
This trend progresses as children become attuned to their peers, to their social context, and to society. In this third grade example, the teacher notes a child's discomfort in discussing race. It seems to signify a lack of previous experiences safely doing so, and a growing awareness of how context shapes racial language.
Today when we discussed the primary election candidates, one white student said, "Obama has brown skin, and he could be our first president with brown skin." He seemed unsure of the correct or appropriate way to say that Obama is black.
These next three anecdotes from fifth grade show how children use humor and attend to peer relationships while becoming increasingly aware of social cues.
Alan returned after winter break with his hair grown and picked out. Students smiled and responded, "Look at Alan's hair!" Some approached him and patted his hair. Alan smiled, then began to blush and recoil as the attention continued. A student called out, "You're not even going to need a helmet on the skateboard pretty soon!"
The public comments racially identify Alan because of the nature of his hair. Additionally, the implication is linked to a racial generalization made to make others laugh. The students have a vastly different awareness of their distinct racial experiences and of the historical context of their identities.
The level of awareness and empathy shows also in their academic work.
Students are working on vocabulary homework. One word is 'racism'. A white student says, "It's hard to write a sentence about racism without sounding racist," implicitly limiting his understanding to that of the perpetrator. An African American student notes, "Well, it's a little easier for me."
In numerous writing examples from white students, the authorâ€™s voice is addressing a white audience.
An essay about Benjamin Banneker reads:
Do you have any black friends? If you do, the next time you see them, say a silent thank you to people like Benjamin Banneker, who made it possible for them to go to the same school as you."
By middle school, students are knowingly using a wider variety of oppressive humor. They show awareness of the ramifications of their behavior, and justify it. Their primary motivation is acceptance by their peers â€“ who are of the dominant norm that their informal social interactions reinforce and affirm. An eigth grade white teacher reports:
My girls start telling jokes that stereotype speaking English with a broken accent, and I say, "A lot of people would think that was really hurtful." A girl responds, "Oh, we know. We'd never say this in certain situations."
This seventh grader spoke his conclusions in the presence of his Chinese-American teacher:
A white 7th grader's joke to another student, in front of the teacher but not the class: "If you're going to have sex with someone of a different race, wear a condom." The student clarified in his defense that he was only saying what some people think.
In this example, white middle school students cajole their African-American friend for entertainment:
In morning care, some middle school girls came to be amused by Jared, the only African American kindergartener. Many girls think Jared is cute and they give him a lot of attention. This morning two girls went to grab Brian [the only African American middle school student] in order to stand the two boys side by side, already amused and amazed by how similar they imagined that the two brown-skinned boys looked. Brian seemed reluctant and confused, and Jared was oblivious and uncooperative, so the desired moment never materialized - but Brian grew increasingly uncomfortable and walked out, saying, "Uh, can I go?"
The girls implicitly stripped away Jared and Brian's identity to group them in a generalized racial category that was not of their choosing or approval. They enjoyed doing so in the face of Jared and Brianâ€™s distress.
Learning to Listen
Within months, my colleagues and I had specific data about how our school shaped children's identities and perspectives. I believe this research has broad applications throughout the independent school system. Our children of every color are falling into isolating and racist frameworks. Independent school communities must hear the racial experiences of our children, and prioritize creating environments of diversity that build a history of interactions and relationships with a wide variety of people.
Tamara Weiss has been teaching for six years, and graduated in 2003 with an MA in Curriculum and Teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is member of Teachers as Authors, a project of East Ed Collaborative.
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