Monday, July 09, 2007 • 9:38 AM Comments (2)

Addressing Race in School: Thoughts on the Evolution of the Black and White Discussion in the American Classroom

posted by Mervan Osborne

In June of 1990, five hundred recent college graduates convened at the campus of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles to participate in Teach For America’s inaugural Summer Teaching Institute. Over the next ten weeks, these idealistic and energetic young people participated in education classes and workshops taught by an all-star roster of instructors from around the country and worked as teacher’s assistants in some of the most challenging schools throughout the greater Los Angeles area. Upon completion of the summer program, the first ever TFA Corps was dispatched to schools all over the country, eager to fulfill the two-year commitment each member had made. More than a decade and a half later, though some of the inaugural corps members have moved on to other professions, an impressive number has remained committed to education, with accounts of their innovations and contributions proudly described on the organization’s website.

Many powerful ideas were shared over the course of those ten weeks- commitment to service, inequity of educational opportunity, cooperative learning, the power of words- but none resonated more clearly than the importance of multicultural education; as a member of that inaugural corps, I participated in countless workshops designed to address this principle. New teachers were encouraged to move beyond Black History Month and to validate both the struggle for recognition and the accomplishments of writers, mathematicians, scientists and artists of all ethnicities, particularly, given Beacon Academy’s school district's ethnic profile, the African American examples; every Edison reference would be accompanied by a substantive mention of Benjamin Banneker, or George Washington Carver, etc. (As one of a just over a handful of Black students who attended my independent boarding school in the mid eighties, I remember feeling fortunate and appreciative of the existence of the Afro-Latin Association. Black people in this country hadn’t yet fully embraced the term “African-Americans”; I continue to be fascinated by the evolution of the lexicon of race. And, while my alma mater has come incredibly far in recent years in terms of both admissions and curriculum, in the days when I attended, a sprinkling of Langston Hughes and two weeks spent with Ellison were the extent of my exposure to Black American writers). At TFA, we were expertly led through the process of creating engaging lesson plans imbued with elements of multiculturalism, a focus that greatly informed my approach during the subsequent two and a half years spent teaching in Compton, CA and continues, to a great extent to influence my teaching today.

Several years later, while a member of the faculty at a Massachusetts independent school, I participated in an extensive professional development program that focused incorporating into the culture of the school a new emphasis in the academic arena: diversity. Diversity and the celebration of its virtue and salience in the school community had, by the mid nineties, supplanted “multiculturalism.” Following hours of purposeful committee meetings, the school’s mission statement was revisited and now includes strong language in support of the institution’s ardent commitment to establishing a healthy and diverse community; the school now “celebrates the diversity of our community which enriches our daily experience.” The school’s responsibility to addressing the diversity agenda expanded to include religious and sexual identity considerations. What had once been the school’s single cultural support group, the Multicultural Student Alliance, a haven for the school’s small number of African American students and one or two of its students of Asian descent, was soon joined by the Asian Cultural Society, the Gay-Straight Alliance, the Islamic Society and many other student affinity groups.

In the classroom, the new focus on diversity was primarily demonstrated through the incorporation of a diversity co-curriculum, a series of academic blocks designed to, as stated in the new mission statement, “celebrate” the community’s diversity. Lesson plans dealing with homophobia, bullying and religious tolerance were devised and presented; with some controversy, Christmas vacation and specific references to the iconography of the season were largely proscribed as students began to learn about Ramadan, Kwanzaa and Chanukah in non-religious multi-faith assemblies. Students and faculty alike began attending powerful workshops led by support groups such as GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. Anti-racist education was broadly addressed as students participated in numerous Teaching Tolerance modules generated by the Southern Poverty Law Center. This school and countless other institutions around the country had plainly moved beyond the outdated and largely superficial Black History Month model. As the diversity movement in education has grown and flourished in our schools, what had once been a campaign for recognition has evolved into a celebration.

Irrefutably, the focus on diversity in our schools has enhanced many aspects of our students’ lives. Where diversity is emphasized, Jewish and Muslim students feel far less marginalized as their classrooms and hallways are no longer festooned with the kitsch of Christmas; many gay or questioning children now make coming-out statements or form on-campus Gay/Straight Alliance groups with far less fear of an intolerant community response; student organizations providing support for students of Asian descent help children struggling with issues pertaining to assimilation and cultural maintenance.

As a further consequence to the advancement of the diversity agenda, an interesting phenomenon began to take place among students of African descent, one that confronts our teachers, particularly White teachers, with exceptional though largely veiled challenges. In addition to its undeniable aforementioned benefits, the universality of the diversity initiative in schools makes it an inherently more accessible conversation for students and teachers, people of all stripes. In majority White environments, immersion in the diversity curriculum may, however contribute to a culture of denial; a disavowal of institutionalized racism concurrent with an adoption of a ubiquitous celebratory identity and a reluctance to address the state and fate of Blacks in this country. The difficult issues about race and prejudice in America were formerly raised around late January and summarily managed with a few episodes of Eyes On the Prize. These already challenging themes have been integrated with other relevant cultural topics and progressive approaches.

In this environment, the Black students, particularly those whose forebears were raised in the civil rights era, often suppress their responses to the impact that racism continues to have on their own lives or they seek support from others with shared experiences. The inevitable result is a truly progressive community that enthusiastically celebrates its own diversity but is powerless to make sense of the Black table in the cafeteria.

The importance of the continued discussion of race in America cannot be over stated. In a society grown weary with the issue, we would do well to continue to address the condition of the Black in America-- if only to further a larger appreciation of the growing diversity within Americans of African descent; the growing class chasm within the race; the decimation of the young Black male population; the rising intensity of both the struggle and startling achievement gap between African Americans and the growing number of recent West Indian and African immigrants.

These are hard but essential issues, and their exploration must continue in our classrooms. Simply replacing discussions of racism in our country with the broader diversity debate may ultimately serve to drive a deeper chasm between many Americans. Due in no small part to the participation of parents in my school’s diversity initiative, many parents and teachers alike have been convinced of their own color-blindness. At the independent school where I taught, the faculty was given a thick blue co-curricular binder filled with activities, lessons, role-playing exercises and readings, all designed to ease us into the diversity program of studies and stimulate conversations with our students. Parents were encouraged to continue these conversations in their homes where, given the results of the parent organization’s feedback, they met with a fair amount of success. Importantly though not surprisingly, many Black families described numerous unambiguous discussions about racism and discrimination that regularly took place in their homes; many of the White parents expressed concern over the difficulties they faced when the topic of racism was raised. Why the difficulty or resistance? Some parents proudly point to their own color-blindness or claim they are raising children who do not see color. The difficulty may involve shame, guilt or mere disinterest, and the impact continues to resonate at classrooms across America.

In schools our students must be encouraged to focus on the causes of their behaviors and those of other groups, today and in the past. Our teachers must be strong enough to fight the reluctance to tackle the difficulty and intricacy of race in America. Discussions of racism and prejudice evoke passion, anger and shame and can be frightening--they are, however, essential. As educators, we can reach out to parents and hope they will support our initiatives, but our primary responsibility is to our students. Educator and writer Herbert Kohl says that teachers who avoid confronting racism risk losing students’ respect and turning them into passionate “not learners.” I agree.

--Mervan F. Osborne, Dean of Beacon Academy, Boston

Comments (2)
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This is a truely remarkable piece. It's wonderful to see one of my previous educators so articulately putting the "race issue" into words I better associate with than "colorblind" and other ignorant terms.
Posted by bravo on 7.10.07 at 14:19
Mervan, Great post. A few things occur to me.

You're obviously well-trained, and well-suited, to conducting these very complicated discussions of race in America, and I would look forward to a discussion that was being led by you, but I do wonder, having suffered through some very awkward and counterproductive sessions on diversity, how many of our nation's school teachers are sufficiently well-trained and mature to lead such discussions. And what happens when you have well-intentioned programs run by insufficiently sophisticated educators?

Also, just out of curiousity, which independent school did you attend? (I'm a graduate of Loomis Chafee.)

And finally, I'm wondering what issue has been the most difficult to navigate, in your experience, when working to bring students of different races together?
Posted by Dan on 7.11.07 at 8:50
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