I must admit that I have struggled lately with what to write. Between a local school board here in Nashville that continues to be unresponsive to legitimate questions about the practices of the new administration, the state of Tennessee continuing to refuse to address real school financing issues, and the recent nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, things are feeling pretty grim, and I am questioning just how much impact I am capable of making. Being a public education advocate has always been like playing a game of three-tiered chess, and it often feels like as a parent you are relegated to the role of pawn. To exacerbate matters, right now it feels like I’m in check on all three boards and all that’s left are pawns.
There is one subject I have been meaning to write about for a while, but have never been able to find the courage or the right words to tackle it, and that is racial inequality. Having two children in a school as diverse as Tusculum Elementary School for the last three years has really been an education for me about how race and poverty still color our world. We like to say that we’ve entered a post-racial world, but nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that whether we are willing to admit it or not, racism shapes our perceptions on a daily basis. We make assumptions about people’s intentions, expectations, and motivations based on the color of their skin while we try to tell our peers that we don’t see color.
As a middle-aged white male, I have struggled with talking about race. Lord knows there has already been enough written about the subject from the viewpoint of a white male. I wrestle often with my own thoughts on the subject, trying to evaluate the depths of my own bias until I came to the realization that it’s not mine to evaluate. Everyday I try to live the best I can and treat people as equally as I am capable of doing. If some of my actions strike others as racially motivated, all I can do is honestly listen, evaluate, and if possible, make adjustments.
Macklemore has a song on my running playlist called “White Privilege 2” that has a line that goes as follows: “It seems like we’re more concerned with being called racist than we actually are with racism.” It’s a simple line that lies in the midst of a lot of other powerful lines in the song, but I’ve spent many a run contemplating those specific lines. We get so outraged if someone even implies that we are acting in a racist manner that we are quick to dismiss any actual racist actions. Instead we need to stop, evaluate, and possibly adjust our actions or behavior. What is the possible harm in admitting that your actions might be colored by race? We have ample evidence of the harm manifested by not accepting it.
There is a line in “White Privilege 1” where Macklemore states that “Hip hop started off in a block that I’ve never been to, to counter act a struggle that I’ve never even been through.” As a white male, that’s something I really need to remember. I am evaluating my actions based on my experiences. To get a true evaluation, I need to put them up for inspection by those who have actually felt the hurt of racism. In doing so, I risk discovering parts of myself I may not like, but without that discovery, growth becomes an impossibility. There’s a poem by Mary Lathrap that was written in 1895 called “Judge Softly” that perceptively makes these points and concludes with the line, “Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.” The idea of seeing things through someone else’s world view is one we really need to consider.
I want to share a personal story. It’s a story that has shaped my beliefs on racism for almost 35 years. It happened when I was just a teenager, and it was a lesson imparted by other young men who had no idea that they were teaching a lesson that would impact me for the rest of my life. This is a chance for me to say thank you and attempt to share some of that lesson. If my story comes off as superficial or offends others, I’m sorry, and please know that it is only offered so that the conversation can be furthered. So without further ado, here it is:
First, a little background information. I grew up a military brat. My father was a noncommissioned officer in the Air Force, so we lived predominately in military housing or housing right outside military bases. The military is made up of a lot of the poor, and therefore, all races are represented. My world was one of color and diversity right from birth. Because of this, I assumed that I understood what it was like to grow up a child of color and that I had no prejudice myself.
In the summer of 1982, I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts. These scholarships were only awarded to 220 students per year, with 30 going to my discipline, which was theater. For 6 weeks, I was thrown together with other talented high schoolers from across the state. To say the whole experience was life altering is probably an understatement. It was the first time in my life that I was surrounded by people who truly understood me. Words can never express the joy of that summer. My fellow students at PGSA, or Govies, as we called ourselves at the time, would offer similar testimony.
Among the student population that summer was a handful of young African-American boys who naturally gravitated to each other. They didn’t exclude anybody, but this was 1982 and the world wasn’t nearly as integrated as it is today. However, that didn’t prevent me from spending a fair amount of time with them. They were talented and a lot of fun. Since I had no issues with race, why shouldn’t I spend time with them? Race issues were for other people, right?
We’d spend hours together cutting up. A lot of our jokes were far from politically correct and often played on stereotypes. I had a straw fedora hat that I’d taken to wearing, and they christened me MacDaddy. We created caricatures to amuse ourselves. We were all so enlightened until I made a joke that stepped outside the boundaries. I have no idea what that joke was. I don’t know if it was funny or not, nor does it matter. The only thing that I remember, and therefore mattered, was that it deeply hurt my friends. Intentional or unintentional, the pain caused was the same.
One of the people in this group of African-Americans was a young man named George Russell. George was a talented piano player and a man of grace even at the age of 17. I’m blessed to be able to keep up with George via Facebook and witness him continuing to live with that grace. Luckily, George wasn’t willing to just write me off that summer. George came to me and in plain terms informed me that I’d offended the group, and as a result, the group didn’t want to have a lot to do with me. I was crushed. I loved these guys and was mortified that I’d hurt them.
I explained to George how terribly sorry I was and that causing harm was never my intention. I asked what I could do to make it right because these guys were a big part of my world at PGSA. George was kind enough to facilitate me making an apology to the group, and the guys were gracious enough to accept it. We continued to hang together, but things were never quite the same. A line had been crossed, and it would take more than just an apology to erase it and more time than the summer had to offer. It saddens me to think of all the opportunities missed out on due to my insensitivity.
The lesson I learned was that just because I thought I had no racial bias did not make it true, and that just because I didn’t find something offensive did not mean others didn’t. If I wanted to have a diverse set of friends, I needed to try and become sensitive to their experiences and to own up to it when I fell short. Taking into consideration other’s experiences and how those experiences affect them is vital to forming relationships. Just because I’d never been discriminated against didn’t mean discrimination didn’t exist and that my friends hadn’t felt its ugly sting.
The lesson I learned from this experience has extended into many other situations as well. Just because I’d never been sexually assaulted didn’t mean that sexual assault wasn’t real and therefore should be fodder for jokes. Just because I hadn’t been denied basic human rights because of who I loved didn’t mean that it didn’t happen to others. Just because someone had deeper religious beliefs than I had didn’t give me cause to judge others for their beliefs. Over the years, I’ve found that having friends from different backgrounds has greatly enriched my life. This enrichment has only been possible through greater sensitivity on my part.
Have I been 100% successful? Of course not. Friends will tell you that I am still capable of the uncomfortable joke. That I sometimes say things with the potential to offend. What can I say? Like all of us, I am a work in progress. It’s important, though, to be willing, when confronted, to try put yourself in other’s shoes. Try to validate their life experiences instead of rejecting them because they don’t match yours. As I go through life, I try to keep that feeling from the summer of ‘82 close. Everyday I strive to never allow my actions or words to hurt people I care about in that manner again. That’s something I will continue to strive for no matter how many times I fall short.
I suspect over the next four years it’s going to become more important than ever for us to step out of our skin and become more accepting of others. We need to collectively resist falling for stereotypes. We need to understand that saying Black Lives Matter doesn’t marginalize white lives. We need to embrace the common ground between all religious faiths instead of allowing fear to cause us to focus on the differences and isolate us more. We need to understand that every immigrant and refugee does not have the same story, and in fact, many of their stories may resemble our own experiences. In short, we need to become more concerned with the effects of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia than being labeled as such. The work needs to start with our schools.
In a recent blog post, blogger and educator Russ Walsh points out three recent articles on race and schools that resonate with him. He states that these articles illuminate “how the public school can play a role in helping us improve this long-standing stain on the America of all of our imaginations. These articles suggest that what we need more than anything else to combat prejudice is to connect, to talk, and to deliberate.” I couldn’t agree more, and that belief plays out daily in our lives. Our public schools offer us the opportunity to let the the seeds of equity take root.
Some refer to Tusculum ES as a high needs school, but for us it’s been a high rewards school as well. My children have had the benefit of learning right next to children from every fabric of society. My son’s teachers have told me that he has a highly developed sense of empathy towards new children who come into the classroom, and he takes it upon himself to make them feel welcome. That is a direct result of his experiences at that school, and it fills me with a sense of pride, but more so, with a sense of relief. To put it bluntly, it’s more important to my wife and me that our children don’t grow up to be assholes than it is for them to amass academic accolades. The world has a surplus of the latter and not enough of the former (the non-assholes, that is). Albeit, we should not have to sacrifice one for the other. Often though, unfortunately, that becomes the challenge.
Like many of our high need schools, Tusculum has a high number of portables, lacks technology, and suffers from a number of other resource shortcomings. My wife and I are often forced to try and evaluate if we are hitting the proper balance or not. To be honest, it’s not an evaluation we are adequately qualified to make. If my wife wasn’t an educator herself, we wouldn’t be aware of the high level of instructional quality. By forcing parents to evaluate their children’s schools, it takes the onus away from the government to provide equitable educational resources and places it on the backs of parents. That shouldn’t be acceptable. As retired teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools Lisa Haver notes, “Parents don’t want to go school shopping any more than consumers wanted to pick an electric company. They want districts to distribute resources equitably, so that children in every neighborhood have access to safe and stable schools.” I say amen to that. We should be able to trust districts to do so.
District and state leaders tend to get a little defensive when challenged about the inequity that exists at a school like Tusculum. In the case of Tusculum, they are quick to point out that students will be the beneficiary of a soon-to-be completed, multi-million-dollar construction project. As if the act of finally providing an adequate facility should somehow serve as an act of absolution for years, and in some cases, decades, of neglect. As if the arrival of a new building will suddenly make up for lost educational opportunities and level the playing field.
The new school will be very welcome, but I’d question why it took so long and why things were able to deteriorate to such a level before building actually started. I would also like to point out that being a high needs school means that there is a lot of mobility in Tusculum’s student body, so how many students will have sacrificed a year of their lives in an inferior facility for one in whose halls they’ll never walk? There are 138 students at Tusculum who speak English as a first language, which means there are over 600 for whom English is a new language. I can’t help but think that this played into why the facilities weren’t updated sooner. I can’t help but believe that the color of these children’s skin made it easier to ignore them longer and therefore fail to provide them with an equitable education experience. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the kind of honest conversations we need to have with ourselves. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Even if it means admitting that we’ve been wrong. We owe it to all our kids.