#AmericaToMe : Part 2

Right off the bat, my two take-aways are (briefly):

  1. White people really don’t understand what blacks (or other minorities) are going through
  2. What do I do about this? (And coming up with an answer is not a further obligatory responsibility to weigh down the black person with)

 

I watched episodes 3 (“There is no pain that compares to the struggle”) and 4 (“There’s nothing funny about Race!”).

 

Episode 3 is titled after a line in then-senior Kendale McCoy’s poem; a personal story about how his life could have taken a much different turn as he grew up with troubled parents, but his life now is “dope”, raised by his mother’s aunt and uncle. I think that line was chosen to highlight the daily struggles (pain) black folks go through as they journey in a white dominant majority environment. Later in episode 4, Ke’Shawn laughingly jokes about how he got in trouble “walking while black”, a reference to any number of racial profiling examples with perhaps the most infamous one being “driving while black.” That a teenager can make a devastatingly apropos joke about that tells me how messed up things really are. Another aspect is the attempt by several faculty to bring racial and cultural awareness to a higher level within the administration and they are met with “white male silence.”

Episode 4 might be highlighted by a physic teacher’s (Aaron Podolner) attempt to build rapport with a couple black students, whereby he shares his memoir on racial experiences; the student’s responses are quite polarized, with one (Charles) laughing and saying he has no problem with race, while the other (Jada) pointedly chastises Charles and Aaron.

On some level, I feel I can somewhat relate to Mr. Podolner – here you have a white guy who puts himself in front of the camera and thereby judged by everyone. He thinks he is doing the right thing, and at least he is trying to be different than “other white people.” But I had to cringe during his exchange with co-teacher Jess Stovall in episode 4, when Aaron falls into the pitfall of saying he “understands” the black experience – you can almost hear Jess, who grew up bi-racial in a practically all white Wisconsin town, say “wait, WTF did you just say?” but instead her response is much more gracious and she inquires how he understands.
In episode 3, Glenn E. Singleton, founder of the Pacific Educational Group, said of white liberal people “[their] liberalism only goes so far until it challenges their situation personally.” “And that is what you have at OPRF.” It is obvious that this statement applies to the white males in power within the administration. I am curious, how does it apply to folks like Podolner, or Peter Kahn of the Spoken Word Club, or football coach John Hoerster? How does it apply to me? Is liberalism really that sacrosanct in the first place? (Note I ask because I believe Mr. Singleton is correct, but I have yet to understand how, like an ocean lapping up on a beach, liberalism goes so far until.)

 

What really boggles my mind about these “America to me” stories is how much pressure these kids, their parents, and their teachers are under. I recall Behavior Interventionist Michael Byars, and how it seems like he is one of the better things going on in Ke’Shawn’s educational experience (aside from Jess Stovall), a model of respect and mentoring – and yet Mr. Byars tells us that Ke’Shawn has been told not to talk to him.

 

On a more local level, for those that are familiar with Unit 4, I invite you to participate in a simple experiment. There were two board meetings back in April, one on April 9th and one two weeks later on April 23rd. In both we have a presentation by African-Americans, both basically putting forth ideas (really amazing, neat, fascinating ideas) for ways to address the achievement gap and racial disparities. And yet the environment in which these two presentations were made are radically different. Your task is to comment on the differences:

 

There are some really amazing things happening in Unit 4 right now, especially in regards to cultural awareness and addressing racial issues; from initiatives like Restorative Justice and A.C.T.I.O.N.S, to student-led R.I.S.E and “real talks” (mentioned in comments for the first post), to efforts to hire minorities and women, and further, programs like Operation Hope, Lead for Life, and other excellent partnerships. What is hindering the needle on the achievement gap from moving faster? Why is there still a significant racial disparity in discipline? And I have to ask myself, what is my role in answering those questions?

#AmericaToMe : Part 1

If the first two episodes are any indication, this is going to be a powerful, dramatic, raw, honest look at this thing we call “race” and how we white folks believe the myth of “equality”. Having watched both “What’s the Big Deal About Oak Park?” (episode 1) and “Stranger in a Room” (episode 2), I am struck by the potency of the real-life stories.

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One of the lines that sticks out in my memory is from the first episode (repeated in the second) and spoken by then Assistant Principal Challa Holland about how the school is failing the kids. One of the reasons that resonates with me is that I believe part of the focus of the documentary is on racial inequities and the achievement gap, a point made clear by several charts in episode 1. It isn’t the kids that are failing – we are the ones failing. The irony is thick, and very sad.

I started to follow Kevin Shaw on Twitter, and it seems like he constantly asks folks what their take-aways are. Here is my response.

– Relationships are crucially fundamental to success and maturity

A good chunk of episode two is devoted to two language arts programs, one being the amazing spoken word club, and the other a much-needed reading program with a forward-looking, upbeat growth mindset. In both cases, it becomes evident that a sense of community engenders success and achievement. English teacher Jess Stovall exemplified how important this truth is to her via her actions and words as well. I am reminded of Lisa Delpit’s tribute to an Alaskan Native in her “Other People’s Children” book: “In order to teach you, I must know you.” Everyone has a story, and usually we only read the back cover. And yet because relationships tend to be inefficient, slow and flat-out hard, we tend to prioritize other quick fixes.

– Good intentions can sometimes be damn oppressive

Near the bottom of the AmericaToMeRealTalk website organizer page, there are links to further “Raise your awareness”. One of those references a paper by Dr. Robin DiAngelo entitled “White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement“. White fragility is new to me but it totally makes sense. My take away: this is why white people can’t handle the angry black man – worse, whites just don’t get it at all. White people just want everyone to be happy and get along. It makes me wonder, what pushed out a passionate, student-centric administrator like Challa Holland?

– White people don’t understand what systemic racism, institutional prejudice and racial inequalities really are

And yet black folks live it. And others, for sure.

I think, and I could be wrong about this, but maybe the intended audience of this documentary is the dominant majority – the ruling class with all the authority. The Spoken Word club is such a magnificent response because it gives a voice to those are otherwise mute, figuratively speaking. Another amazing aspect of the documentary (so far) is that we get to see some heroic adults who intuitively perceive that the decks are not “equal” by any means. These teachers, parents and staff members are fighting for the kids.

But the backdrop is much darker. There is a story about a mom reliving her short tenure in ’94; she tells the story of a teacher who refused to teach because the students weren’t going to learn anyway, and later another story about being abruptly kicked out of school. One staff person talking about the expectation of acting a certain way, and accounts from the security guards and what they have to endure.

– Let America Be America Again

As I was preparing for the first episode, my brother-in-law pointed out that the title comes from Langston Hughes. I had no clue, and no recollection ever reading it before, so thanks again to http://www.americatomerealtalk.com I found his poem.

The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine — the poor man’s, Indian’s,
Negro’s, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

 

 

Where to go from here?

I am reaching out to others in my area in an effort to start a conversation about this. I don’t know if I am doing it all wrong or not, but I feel compelled to do something. I have also reached out to local educators. I am grateful that we have some amazing people in Unit 4 who have been doing “real talks” and racial/cultural awareness for quite some time already.

There is too much violence, too much greed, too much oppression, too much harassment.

Kudos to folks like Kevin Shaw (@KevinShaw23) and Steve James and all the other folks who worked so hard to produce a high quality look under the racial covers at a modern high school. Thank you for enlightening us. Thank you for provoking and challenging us. May we take your warnings to heart and invest better in our kids.

Jon Greenberg: “Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism”

I recently received a forwarded email concerning an interesting piece about “White America”‘s responsibility on the issue of racism – I invite you to read Mr. Greenberg’s article for yourself:

http://citizenshipandsocialjustice.com/2015/07/10/curriculum-for-white-americans-to-educate-themselves-on-race-and-racism/

 

I am constantly reminded how important it is to focus on building relationships. What does that mean? If you want to help make the world a better place, that’s great, but the only way you can do that is by getting to know what other people really want and need. Otherwise you fall into the trap of “helping” other people your own way, and it may not be helpful at all. It might even be counter-productive. (recall Ernesto Sirolli’s “Shut up and listen” TED talk – long blog post here)

 

Our brothers and sisters of different skin colors are being oppressed. Are we helping to put the boots on, or take them off?

This is racism, and it is absolutely wrong

This morning I was forwarded a news article about the “cleansing” of Haitians from the Dominican Republic:

http://m.dailykos.com/story/2015/06/14/1393198/-Dominican-Republic-to-be-Socially-Cleaned-in-two-days?detail=facebook

 

Google shows me several other news stories along that line. And it makes me angry. How can you possibly treat other humans that way?!?

 

Is there even another lens to view this through? I mean, under what circumstances is this even acceptable?

 

Lastly, how does this tie into a Unit 4 blog? As the article starts off, we do have racism in America, just not quite as bad as the Haitians have it, apparently. So on the one hand I am glad we are not dealing with this level of crap. On the other hand, I am reminded that we need to look out for our fellow humans, our brothers and sisters.