14 November 2008

Classrooms

A few years ago I taught a class entitled "Final Conversations on Race in America." I knew that we (Americans) were, and remain, a long way from our "final" conversation; but the conversations to date had been circular and ineffectual in terms of eradicating racism and bringing sanity, humor and celebration to the relationships of our multicultural village. My aim in the class was to introduce a level of honesty and candor in the conversation in hopes of effecting some real and lasting healthy transformation.

It was an experiment. I hadn't done sufficient research. The discussions in the class were not markedly different from those I'd witnessed and participated in in the decades preceding the class.

I wish I'd known about this book -- White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son -- as I designed the class. Given the students in my class were predominantly "white," Wise's book might have spoken to them in a way I failed to. His personal stories and commentary are shared with uncommon naturalness and humor. And, being a "white guy," he is privvy to what "white" people say to each other when Black people aren't around and can speak to that private field as I could not and cannot.

It's powerful and impressive how much light White Like Me is shedding on my experiences as an African American woman. Through his discussion of "white denial," for example, I am coming to understand why conversations about race with seemingly enlightened "white" people have been unexpectedly difficult. Denial operates at such deep, unconscious levels that it trumps the intelligence and creativity they show in other contexts.

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Something didn't feel right at the job I just left.

Our offices were housed in an elementary school. I didn't work directly with students but the mission of the non-profit I served sought the remaking and rejuvenation of New Orleans schools. There's a huge project underway city-wide to remake and rejuvenate New Orleans schools. On the surface, an admirable mission.

There was something about most of the teachers being "white" and all of the cooks and maintenance crew being black....and 99% of the kids being black...and all the kids being dressed alike...all that lining up and standing quietly in lines...all those dark student faces and white teacher faces...and how, once inside the building, I didn't feel like I was in New Orleans. Admittedly, I have no formal training as an elementary educator. What do I know? I can only report how it felt to me. Like conformity was more valued than originality. Like the power resided in white hands. And for me, that's troubling.

These days I work in a different middle school, this time directly with students as a piano tutor. I love the work. Here, too, the kids are all in uniform and there's a lot of lining up going on. To the positive, most of the faculty and staff appear to be people of color. But, again, the regimentation seems to be killing self-determination and originality. I think sometimes the only outlet available to students for critical thinking or originality or creative self-differentiation is acting out.

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I'm observing. Saving my criticism and questioning for private conversations and around the blogosphere. I have a lot to learn. Best not to rush to judgment. Wise's analysis suggests white people have a lot to learn--or admit--as well. Do they know they have a lot to learn?

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