E7 Episode Seven
In Episode 7, the students at Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRFHS) experience a series of thrilling victories (Kendale’s overtime win and Charles’s rise in spoken word) and crushing blows (Terrence’s graduation news and Ke’Shawn’s home situation). As they fight to achieve the “American dream,” we begin to see the white cultural origins of that dream and how it impacts everyone’s lives at OPRFHS.
WHAT IS WHITENESS?
Whiteness is a social construct based on White cultural norms (habits, practices and ways of being). These norms are valued and privileged as the standard that all individuals and institutions are expected to embody and aspire to.
Where and how do you see whiteness showing up in OPRFHS, and how is it valued by the administration?
One place we see whiteness is in the board meetings; it would be a fascinating exercise to witness (and participate) in a board meeting that is not “white”, or in other words, dominated by White cultural norms. Although we don’t get a full taste of a white Board Meeting from the documentary, the entire process tends to be quite rigid and emphasizes “efficiency” over and above human relationships. But what we do see are, essentially, two groups of white people who are so concerned about parking versus an Olympic-sized swimming pool that they aggrandize and trample over each other. Board Member Dr. Moore brings it back to reality, talking about educating kids, especially kids that are really in need.
Another example is when Diane Barrios-Smith has a critical and pivotal exchange with Ke’Shawn; Diane identifies bi-racially as American (white) and Mexican (brown). Yet she realizes she is very white looking. Ke’Shawn, who repeatedly means no disrespect, questions how she can possibly understand or compare her experience to that of his own people (his words, speaking for those in the classroom). Diane makes the point, especially later in a one-on-one with Ms. Stovall, that her own experience is still valid, even if it not the same experience as those with darker skin.
This exchange was very similar, in my opinion, to when Mr. Podolner (physics teacher from first few episodes) talked about “understanding” the black experience and some of the push-back he received from that mindset.
How is this valued by the administration? I have no idea.
At the end of Episode 7, we see Paul Noble talking to Kendale McCoy, where Kendale, speaking of a different exchange he had, is saying “I understand you not understanding my [black] experience, but don’t take that away from me.”
These vignettes remind me of a take-away I had when I started watching the documentary; white people really don’t get what black and brown people are going through (painting with a wide brush, here). And sometimes, our good, white-people intentions are more problematic and more oppressive.
What does it mean that Brendan’s dad does not want to be referred to as white?
Brendan’s dad makes a big point about being “human” as opposed to being labeled as white. The obvious irony is that all of us are human. That is the singular problem with an artificially created social construct like race. It seems that most white people don’t see the “whiteness” all around them, and what that does to others who are not white.
Consider the ways that Caroline’s mother and Thelma Dye’s daughter experience Thelma’s relationship to her own family and the family she worked for. What seems to be visible and invisible to Caroline’s mother? What’s the impact of the relationship on Thelma Dye’s family?
This was a very interesting exchange as well. And it is hard not to judge what is going on in this scene, as there is a lot of context we don’t have access to. But my first impression was that I felt bad for Thelma’s daughter, especially when she shared that Thelma was not really a mother to the family because she was gone so much trying to make ends meet for her own family; she “used up all her mothering skills” with Caroline’s mother’s family. I also got the impression that Caroline’s mother was trying, hard, to say “look, we’re not racist, this black employee is seen as an equal to her white employer and we love her.” The term “indentured servant” came to mind. I don’t think Caroline’s mom saw that – at least, it was not demonstrated in the scenes we were allowed to see.
How did this episode broaden your perspective of the social construction of race in America?
Both Episode 6 and 7 have given me more reasons to ponder my own whiteness. I have learned about white privilege in the past, and white fragility at the start of the “America to me” season, not to mention the previous Episode Guides, which make me think about my race.
What really boggles my mind is “how did we ever come to the place where we make snap judgments of people based solely by what they look like?” Worse, this behavior has become socially acceptable! Why?!? And what can we do to not just slowly erase the social construct of race, but wipe it out entirely? By that I mean we also remove the mechanisms currently in place that give preference to white people, white males in particular (systemic and institutionalized biases).
Lastly, I have used “black and brown”, racial labels, in this space to refer to African-Americans and Latinos, which are ethnic categories. I wonder, what about folks from southern India who tend to have darker skin? Or those who are Polynesian or Middle Eastern? Racially, it does not seem that other ethnicities enter into this dialogue. Why is that? There is a wide berth of racial identities that get to be confusing to me (what about the white person that identifies as black?).
Ke’Shawn says that “people are confusing peace with quiet…” Who benefits from the quiet? Is your community quiet or vocal when it comes to issues of race? What does this show about your community? How can you create peace?
Ke’Shawn is intelligent beyond his years.
Who benefits from the quiet? I get the sense that their is an implication that the right answer is “white people”. However, more generally, anyone who wants to maintain the status quo will relish and benefit from the quiet.
Is my community vocal or quiet on issues of race? I don’t know how to take the measure of the entire community as a whole. However, I do know there are a number of community groups that are quite vocal on several different topics concerning race, including the injustice of mass incarceration (with a strong following of white people). There are also a number of groups that are pointedly quiet about race, like the major local news media outlets and police (I am glad we have a number of outlets that are not quiet).
How can I create peace? I truly think creating peace comes from building relationships, of getting to know each other, maybe even to the point of sharing each other’s burdens. I think one of our biggest obstacles is a mish-mash of whacked out priorities. I refer back to the parking lot versus swimming pool debacle in Episode 7. Our community voted several times on a very large school referendum, the last time voting in favor of $184 million for capital projects. We still have homeless kids. We still have kids who struggle to get enough to eat, receive proper health care and not enough attention to emotional health. But at least the buildings will all have A/C and be ready for the 21st century (even though nobody seems to really know what that popular phrase really means). I ask myself, how can we, as a community, align our priorities and show that we truly care for each other?
How is race predictable in your school, community, neighborhood, and housing practices? Are there interventions? How are people interrupting those predictabilities?
We have touched on this in previous Episode guides. Our schools and community, unfortunately like most other schools and communities, have racially identifiable trends: private schools mostly have affluent, white students; in public schools and the criminal justice system, blacks and latinos are overrepresented in areas of discipline, while being underrepresented in higher social strata; a majority of our blacks and latinos live in the north end of town and tend to be in lower-income housing.
The bigger question of how people are interrupting these predictabilities is an excellent question. In regards to urban planning and diversifying living demographics across all income levels, I am not sure anyone is. But I hear that is one of the first places to start if one wishes to address over-busing and the logistical nightmare in public schools that are a result of segregated communities. In regards to interrupting predictabilities in the area of discipline, there is a bit of movement to get away from zero-tolerance and move towards restorative practices. Just recently, Urbana 116 made big news by suddenly ditching their deans and implementing new discipline policies that focus on restorative practices. The bold move certainly raised eyebrows and caught the ire of the board president. Was it worth it? Did they move the needle? We have to wait and see now.
The Privilege Walk from Paul Kivel (30 min.)
Read and guide your group through Paul Kivel’s Privilege Walk exercise on class and race.
I have done one of these before; right now, I don’t have a willing group to do it with. And participating solo in a Privilege Walk is rather antithetical, isn’t it?
What I did appreciate about my previous experience is that even if a well off white person does take a couple steps forward, it doesn’t compare to the number of steps our black and brown brothers and sisters take. It just isn’t the same. It becomes much more clear to me (and anyone participating) that there is a world of difference, and we white people typically have things stacked in our favor.
BaFa’ BaFa’ (2-4 hours)
Read BaFa’ BaFa’ and guide your group through this face-to-face learning simulation designed to help people understand the impact of culture on our behaviors and the behaviors of organizations.
I have not yet had the opportunity to participate in something like this. However, I know that Laura Taylor at Champaign Unit 4 has done a couple of these within the social justice task force. I think one of them may even have been recorded.
Salt & Light has done something similar, but not quite as provocative or difficult (eg, more comfortable).
I believe these are excellent exercises for white people; the eye-opening and subsequent discussions can play a key role in helping our community understand and address racial issues.