Penn State’s Center for Education and Civil Rights (home of this blog) recently hosted a conversation between Genevieve Siegel-Hawley & Courtney Martin about their two fantastic books: Genevieve’s “A Single Garment” & Courtney’s “Learning in Public.” It was a great conversation- sort of like friends reconnecting over a meal and some drinks (full video here). In this #KnowBetterDoBetter series, white parents and educators have been reflecting on the role that white people can play in contemporary school integration, sharing what we’ve learned from each book.
Karen Babbs Hollett wrote about choosing a school for her soon-to-be kindergartener. Katie Dulaney wrote about her parents’ choice to send her and her brother to a racially integrated magnet school. In this post, there’s elements of both- trying to understand how my parents’ decisions affected my experience of school and then thinking about what that means for my kids as my oldest gets ready to start kindergarten next year.
A big part of my family’s story was that we had one foot in dominant culture – Whiteness – and one foot less so in that dominant culture – we vacillated between lower and middle-ish income in an affluent town. Our Whiteness seemed to be the overriding determinant of opportunity, though. In our case, my mom’s cousin owned an apartment in Fairfield, CT that they rented to us to ease our transition from Long Island, NY where my parents had left just about everyone else they knew. After a few years in our new place, they both found jobs and we were able to buy a house on the street where we were renting. It was right on time for me to start kindergarten.
Despite high ratings for schools in my hometown, my k-12 experience was…mixed. On GreatSchools.org today, my high school is rated 10/10 and it has a “College Success- Gold” award. And, sure- like many (all?) schools with that rating, it was well-resourced and offered a variety of challenging/AP courses uncommon in segregated schools that serve students of color. Social connections were important, as well- friends’ parents, for example, encouraged me to apply to college and helped me with admissions essays.
So, that’s the positive. Especially as I’ve gotten older, though, it’s been at times painful and awkward to realize that there’s so much about American society – and about my white racial identity – that I did not (and could not have) learned in overwhelmingly white schools. Genevieve’s book is helpful in pointing out the socio-emotional learning opportunities unique to diverse schools. Specifically, the first chapter of “A Single Garment” is a summary of the literature on benefits of racially diverse schools for all children, and it includes some of the best detail available on benefits for white students. (That second part is an update of a 2012 research brief that Genevieve wrote for the National Coalition on School Diversity.) There’s a lot in that chapter, but here are a few key points:
- In diverse schools, students of all races report feeling “safer, less victimized, and less lonely.” Research has also connected school diversity to “less bullying and improved power sharing among peers.”
- Students who attend diverse schools are more likely to seek out racially diverse spaces beyond their k-12 experience.
- When done well, diverse schools can help students develop skills necessary to help save our very fragile democracy, such as navigating difference and solving complex problems. This is in part because students are encountering peers from different backgrounds where they learn not only about how others might struggle but also about how they might view the world differently given their different social position in it. And, heaven knows that white people need some perspective these days.
The first post in this series has a similar and more detailed list towards the end. Anyway, I didn’t get any of that at my majority white school. And, in place of diversity and cross-cultural understanding, I learned (and constantly measured myself against) cookie-cutter white normativity. I see echoes of this in the increase in racism and hate incidents in majority white schools, and, as I said in an earlier post on that topic, students in these settings too often face a choice of fitting in and sacrificing individuality or facing ridicule (and worse) for not fitting in. I don’t want my kids to face that choice.
She wasn’t an advocate of integrated schools; nonetheless a lot of my thinking on this topic comes from bell hooks’ notion of “education in the practice of freedom.” In my majority white town, school was a place that promoted conformity. Relatedly, teaching was socially-disconnected dullness- all of which is connected to the logic of Whiteness that structured social interactions, curriculum, etc. Learning can be more freeing, can support genuine self-actualization, when there isn’t so much pressure to be one way. I realize hooks might not say this, but I believe that diverse schools offer students more ways to be, especially schools that embrace a holistic definition of integration.
It’s going to get worse as CRT-related book bans continue their chilling effect on curriculum and teaching. Especially in majority white schools, there will be few places for non-dominant students to see themselves, either in who they are learning with or in what they are learning. (Related, there’s a great discussion of the CRT frenzy about midway through the event with Genevieve and Courtney.)
Some advocate for socio-economic integration either alongside or instead of racial integration, and I guess my story is one example of that. But, when I think back on it, my experience more prominently illustrates the limits of SES integration, especially if that just leads to lower income white kids learning alongside higher income white kids.
Courtney’s book, meanwhile, offers a vision of what the alternative could be. There are a lot of fascinating, thoroughly-detailed characters/storylines woven throughout “Learning in Public”- the school tour season and related anxiety of white parents (as discussed in Karen’s post), the development of cross-racial trust with a Black educator (as discussed in Katie’s post), the merger of majority-Black Sankofa with the more desegregated Kaiser (and rich with connections to today’s battle over closing more Oakland schools), the know-it-all white savoir portrayed in the Blair character. What gets me though is Courtney’s relationship with Andre and the so sweet, yet exceedingly uncommon, relationship between their kids, Maya and Darius.
For most of the book, both families live in the same neighborhood, Maya and Darius are in the same class. Even before the pandemic hits full force, there’s a sweet bond between the families that clearly goes both ways. In a scene that got me teared up, Courtney needed to make an emergency run to the doctor’s office for her youngest daughter, and she had no one to take her oldest to school. When she reached out to Andre, he and Darius came immediately. Sensing Courtney’s worry, Darius assures her that “everything will be okay” and Andre’s similarly simple, yet gut-punchingly compassionate statement ends that section of the book: “Don’t worry about Maya. We got you.”
As the pandemic picks up, both families look out for each other. Ultimately, for me it was these moments where the learning part of learning in public was most raw and compelling. We see Courtney navigating the complexities of building cross-racial trust, of caring for Andre and Darius while aware of (and responsive to) the pull towards a sort of white saviorism. Importantly, for Maya, the racial dynamics of the relationship seemed entirely superfluous. Despite all the boundaries that we’ve set up between white and Black in America, the families find a relationship that is based on compassion and mutuality.
In conversation with Genevieve at the CECR event, Courtney starts out by saying that this question – “Can we love each other’s children?” – is foundation to the division we’re seeing in schools and society: “We’ve created a country where we behave as if we can’t actually love each other’s children, and I don’t think that’s worthy of who we are actually capable of being.”
Clearly all kids benefit from this kind of world. Yet, it’s hard to imagine how we get there without “getting proximate” as Bryan Stevenson has said– living near each other, going to school together, or at least learning about the history and social contributions of people of color. There’s a stat in Genevieve’s book that’s directly relevant here- she cites research from 2013 which found that 75% of white people report zero people of color in their social networks. If it’s changed much since then, I haven’t noticed. No different than anywhere else, access to housing and schools in Massachusetts (where we live now) is shaped by more than a century of racist and segregationist policy. When we bought our first home last year, we could have found a place in suburbs that look a lot like the one where I grew up. Instead, we intentionally sought communities that are both diverse and reasonably affordable. As I watch my daughter at our playground now, I think about Maya and Darius. Sure, I’ll likely be awkward in conversations with their parents, but no matter. Look at these kids, at how they form bonds so much easier than adults, at how solutions to complex problems can begin in effortless joy.