Independent Schools Face Campus Racism

Photo [Boston Globe]

I am currently serving on a student diversity committee chaired by the Director of Admissions and co-chaired by the Associate Director of Admissions at Houston Christian. Our meetings have been good and full of interesting student anecdotes; I suspect matters such as race is not a huge problem at HCHS since we fail at discussing it. Our head of school assumes we live in a color blind society. That seems to be the case for white men in power.

According to our stats, HCHS student population this year is made up of 19% students of color, while next year’s entering class is at 20%. Still, highly affluent independent schools, must contend with a much smaller racial and socioeconomic group of students.

As an independent religious school with no denominational ties, religious and non-religious students engage fairly well. We have atheist students, Muslim students, and in the past a Buddhist student (a favorite of mine). With tuition being what it is at many schools, minority students often cannot afford the tuition. This creates a sense of conformity in a homogeneous environment. Often students of color feel isolated in white private schools. At times, as is the case at HC, many of our students of color are the most popular students. As for faculty of color here at HC — the community for some reason is not interested in addressing such concerns. It is hard being one of a few in a very conservative white school. Often I am exhausted.

There are complicit acts committed by some private schools that naturally promotes codes of de facto racism. Some of the nations most elite independent schools are dealing with matters of race, as they look to promote a sense of cultural vitality and intellectual curiosity among their students. My first teaching appointment put me in a private school, in which I believe I was the first black male teacher; I was not surprised when students would often challenge my intellect and knowledge of subject, regardless of academic success or degrees. Better yet, before I went on the market I was warned by an advisor that I would face this if the school was not very diverse. It did not take too long before students were more concerned about my exams than my skin color. The Boston Globe published an article addressing how independent schools were going to address this topic. Here are a few examples of what students reported:

  • In September, a black female student discovered a racist comment scraped into the door of her dormitory room at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. A week later, the faces of six black students were crossed out with a magic marker on a photograph hanging on a dormitory bulletin board at Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Conn.
  • At St. Paul’s, where 8 percent of the 524 students are black, tension over racial divisions surfaced last week after news of the hate letters surfaced. Some white students approached their black peers to offer sympathy and express shock, but some African-American students responded angrily, saying such gestures should have come before the letters arrived.eek since at least 23 black students at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., received letters in the mail that students said read, “bang bang get out of here,”

Click [here] to read the rest of the article. h/t: Phil Sinitiere

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12 thoughts on “Independent Schools Face Campus Racism

  1. You were the first black male teacher. However, we had a black female teacher before you were hired and we had had a black male board member for years. Also, I don’t recall anyone ever mentioning the fact that you were black. It just never seemed to be an issue for any of my friends. We talked about the fact that you were pompous and arrogant and that you had a bit of an unhealthy obsession with cats (which we remedied, if you remember correctly), but we were never concerned with your blackness.

  2. We still haven’t figured out a good way to talk about race and issues of race in the classroom, have we?

    I spent the last week in my favorite unit of my public speaking class – the point where we get to talk about the First Amendment and the idea of the intersection between free and ethical speech.

    I am white. VERY white. I’m almost exclusively of Scots descent. I grew up in white neighborhoods; I went to white schools (there was ONE African-American girl in my graduating class in high school and so few that I don’t even remember any black faces at either of my college graduations). My point is that there’s not a lot about me, at least, on the surface, that would clue someone in to my level of acceptance and racial sensitivity.

    This term, we were talking about the Kelly Tilghman, Tiger Woods, Golf Week incident that happened earlier this year. The conversation was rich with the ideas of how important it is to understand the history or race and race relations in this country, how one’s personal history and intent come together to create an impression of the speech that they use, and about how, as Michael Wilbon wrote, if there had been more racial diversity on the staff at Golf Week, the noose on their cover that got them in so much trouble would never have been approved for print.

    I told my students that I was offended by the idea that only black people would have taken issue to the image on the cover of the magazine; it is an absolute certainty that little white me would have stood up and loudly vetoed that particular artistic and marketing decision. I have three black students in that class, and two of them agreed – it’s not about the color of one’s skin, they said, but about how much education and compassion one has, and how well one is able to use those tools to interact with the words and images that are still hot-button triggers for so many people.

    One student, though – who happens to be male and very invested in his status as an oppressed person – told me that my whiteness (whatever THAT means) IS a block to my being sensitive about this and other issues. I can’t be TRULY understanding, he went on to claim, because I’ve never been called a nigger or I’ve never been denied this or that opportunity because of the color of my skin. By the same token, he went on to say, I can’t really be an effective ally to gays and lesbians because I’m happily married and have two children. It seems, in his paradigm, that one can’t be a genuine advocate for oppressed people unless one is or has been oppressed.

    We’ve still got a long, LONG way to go with questions like these. My dearest hope is that someday, and someday SOON, we’ll be able to get beyond the idea of difference – racial, sexual, gender, religious – and learn to play nicely together. I hate the idea of “us vs. them,” and the only way I can see out of it is to continue to push for inclusive education with compassionate teachers.

  3. mrs chili – We should not fear a discussion about race, sexual orientation, religions, etc in an academic setting. mrs chili, I am thinking that your student believes that you cannot understand is social coondition because of your race. I think he is right iin that no one person not a part of a group can fully understand matters of others.

    As a black academic who believes in affirmative action programs, I cannot understand the frustration of a white male who believes he is the victim of race. I disagree with your student in that you or anyone else cannot create an alliance with members of different sexual orientations, race, or faith. That is simply not true.

    If we are all oppressed, than which group will be the agent for change?

    Kristi — I agree with you. Carson can be a bit arrogant

  4. You are a woman though, Mrs Chili. And while you may have never been denied anything because of that, I have been and countless other women have been, even here in 21st century America. I’ve also been called horrible things because of my status as a Christian. Please bear in mind that I am absolutely not trying to minimize the suffering of minorities in America. It’s true, it happens every day and it’s deplorable. I’m simply stating that sometimes minorities might do well to remember that other groups that are not in the minority are oppressed too.

  5. “I was not surprised when students would often challenge my intellect and knowledge of subject, regardless of academic success or degrees”
    Eddie – all smart (G/T) students do this to all new teachers. It can be unnerving. I know it made me buckle down and study more.
    disclaimer – large, white, male

  6. Kristi, I will admit that I had a bit of an ego when I first landed at CAC. But, I wish as Jim mentioned, it was just smart students testing the new kid on the block. Many came around by the end of the year, though they thought my class was too difficult; I must say I was actually hard that year. Students here have it made. I am not even close to what I used to be; if I were, I would have far fewer students in my advanced courses.

    Oh, I went to school with Mrs. Brown (other faculty of color member). I did not know about the board member.

  7. The black board member is Dr. Rufus Thrower, a prominent Little Rock gynecologist. I remember him being a rather nice man.

  8. I don’t mean to sound arrogant in anyway possible but I must admit that at my days at HCHS I felt rather isolated. I’m not going to sit here and exaggerate, saying that every single student of caucasian descent is prejudice toward anyone different, but that was not the case in anyway whatsoever. However, comments that could have been better left unsaid were spewed and I forgive a large portion of these students because from their middle school days, many of them simply don’t know any better. Many people who review this problem from the other end of the spectrum must realize many of these prejudiced students are born into a society in which certain assumptions made concerning various cultures are just simply a norm and have either not truly heard any objection to it or they’re now so used to what they believe that they simply choose to ignore what they’re told and be rather closed-minded about it; however, again I must put emphasis in order to deny the assertion that I’m in any way, shape, or form concluding that they’re prejudiced. But in a school where 20% of the student body doesn’t have the ability to express themselves freely without fear of judgment, I personally can understand where they may feel they don’t stand in what they may believe to be a bland society in which the non-white population can be counted in one hand. It will be rather difficult to promote social equality in a serious manner at a school such as Houston Christian but with a slowly growing population of students of other ethnicity, who knows?

  9. I think the students at HCHS are very open-minded and like associating with students of different ethnic or religious backgrounds. People should not simply be judged by the color of their skin or what they believe in, but rather what is on the inside.

  10. I attended nine years of public school before coming to HCHS and literally found little difference in the student populations. I have never heard any racist comments being made toward students of other ethnic groups while at HCHS or in public schools. I believe being racist and mean toward others of different nationalities is rare according to my experiences.

  11. This is all very interesting as I went to a large PUBLIC high school. My first serious (for high school) long term relationship was with an African-American girl. She was one of only 3! My school was on the outskirts of town, and very very red neck. We got a ton of harassment (including–strangely–swastikas painted on my locker).

    Racism is likely whenever you are in a homogeneous group. Many kids I knew who were generally nice, but subtly racist, didn’t really understand why they were. And I’m convinced it’s because their only real exposure to people of color was from TV and Music and Sports. And that’s a fantasy land. It would be as if the only representatives of white people were Tom Cruise and Angelina!

    The quickest cure to an individuals racism is to get them acquainted on a human level with someone different.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if private schools are more white than public schools. But there are plenty of public schools that are just as white. It’s an education-wide problem. Kids need interaction with people who are different. All the class room learning in the world can’t make up for face to face conversations.

    Having you for a teacher gives your students that automatically. maybe that alone could help the problem. Integration is probably harder than simply hiring more teachers of different backgrounds.

  12. Dear Ed,

    Thanks for connecting with a brother. Great conversation going on here. After spending a year at CA, I’m sure that we will have a lot to discuss.

    max

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