Angie Thomas started writing her young-adult novel, “The Hate U Give,” in reaction to a fatal shooting that took place some 2,000 miles away. But to her it felt deeply personal.
Ms. Thomas was a college student in Jackson, Miss., when a white transit police officer shot Oscar Grant III, an unarmed, 22-year-old African-American man, on a train platform in Oakland, Calif., in 2009. She was shocked when some of her white classmates said he had probably deserved it. She responded with a short story about a teenage girl who is drawn to activism after a white officer shoots her childhood best friend.
That story grew into a 444-page novel, as shootings of unarmed young black men continued.
Ms. Thomas worried that no one would publish a young-adult novel about such a raw and polarizing subject. Instead, 13 publishers bid in a frenzied auction. Balzer & Bray bought it in a two-book deal, and Fox 2000 optioned the film rights.
When “The Hate U Give” came out last month, it became an instant critical and commercial hit, with more than 100,000 copies in print. The novel — one of several new children’s books that use fiction to address police shootings of unarmed black teenagers — debuted at the top of The New York Times’s Young Adult best-seller list, and has drawn ecstatic praise from critics, librarians, book sellers and prominent young-adult novelists. John Green, the author of “The Fault in Our Stars,” called the work “a stunning, brilliant, gut-wrenching novel that will be remembered as a classic of our time.”
“The Hate U Give,” which takes its title from a phrase coined by the rapper Tupac Shakur, is one of a cluster of young-adult novels that confront police brutality, racial profiling and the Black Lives Matter movement. Several are debut novels from young African-American writers who have turned to fiction as a form of activism, hoping that their stories can help frame and illuminate the persistence of racial injustice for young readers.
“For me, specifically for black teenagers, it’s a reflection of what we’re all facing right now,” said Jay Coles, a 21-year-old college student from Indianapolis, who sold his first novel, “Tyler Johnson Was Here,” to Little, Brown Books for Young Readers this year. Mr. Coles said he had started writing the book, which centers on a black teenager whose twin brother is shot by a police officer, as a way to process his depression and rage after Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in 2012.
This fall, Crown Books for Young Readers will publish Nic Stone’s debut novel, “Dear Martin,” about a black high school scholarship student at an Atlanta prep school who becomes a victim of racial profiling when an off-duty officer fires at him and his best friend during an argument at a traffic light.
In “Ghost Boys,” a middle-grade novel by Jewell Parker Rhodes, the ghost of a young black boy who was shot by a white police officer witnesses the aftermath of his death, and meets the ghosts of other black boys, including Emmett Till, the black teenager who was killed by white men in 1955. The novel, which Little, Brown Books for Young Readers will release next spring, was partly inspired by the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
Teachers and librarians across the country have embraced the new body of children’s literature dealing with racial bias and injustice. Hundreds of schools and libraries have ordered copies of “The Hate U Give.” Other recent young-adult novels about violence against black teenagers, including Kekla Magoon’s “How It Went Down,” have been used in high school classrooms to talk about racial inequality.
Some educators see fiction as a particularly potent tool for engaging with volatile topics and instilling empathy in young readers.
“Kids have so many questions, and they want to engage on these topics,” said Deborah Taylor, a youth librarian in Baltimore. “We kind of shy away from the notion that this is a fact of life for our kids.”
The cluster of novels is also arriving at a moment when the children’s book industry is struggling to address the lack of diversity in the stories it publishes, and the scarcity of children’s books by African-American authors.
While the number of children’s books featuring African-American characters has grown in the last decade, the number of books by black authors has barely budged, according to data collected by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. Out of some 3,400 children’s books published in 2016, 278 featured black characters, up from 153 in 2006. But only 92 of those books were written by black authors, roughly the same number as a decade ago.
The epidemic of police violence against unarmed African-Americans has been well covered through nonfiction, in books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award, and Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All.” But children’s book authors have only recently begun to tackle the subject in greater numbers.
“This isn’t a literary trend. This is an issue of our time,” said the novelist Jason Reynolds, who teamed up with Brendan Kiely to write “All American Boys,” a 2015 novel about an African-American teenager who is assaulted by an officer who mistakes him for a shoplifter at a bodega.
Over the last two years, Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Kiely have visited more than 100 schools around the country, speaking to some 40,000 students about the book. Mr. Reynolds said they occasionally encountered resistance from nervous school administrators. Scheduled talks at a school in Newark and a young-adult literary festival in Texas were canceled over concerns about the politically charged topic, Mr. Reynolds said.
The overwhelmingly positive reception to “The Hate U Give” has stunned Ms. Thomas, 29, a former teenage rapper who worked as a church receptionist in Jackson while finishing her novel. “I knew that while the topic was timely, it was also controversial,” she said.
“I say, ‘It probably will make you uncomfortable,’” she said. “I’m not here to give you comfort.’”
As a bookworm growing up in a poor neighborhood in Jackson, Ms. Thomas didn’t have many literary role models. She tore through the Harry Potter books and other series at the library after school, but characters whose lives felt familiar to her were scarce.
“For me, hip-hop was a mirror when young-adult books were not,” she said. “I could see myself in a Nas song more than I could see myself in a book.”
In her first year at Belhaven University, she took a creative writing class, and felt out of place as the only black student in the classroom. One day, her professor asked students to talk about their travels over the summer. Ms. Thomas, who was raised by her single mother and grandmother, had never left Mississippi. When she got to her car in the parking lot, she cried.
But her professor encouraged her to draw on her own experience in her writing. “He told me that my stories, and the stories of people in my community, mattered,” she said. When she turned in the story about Starr, the narrator of “The Hate U Give,” he told her that she could turn it into a novel.
“The Hate U Give” takes place in a neighborhood modeled on the community Ms. Thomas grew up in, where drugs and gang violence were inescapable but people looked out for one another. Starr shares many of the author’s traits — she loves basketball and Tupac, and shuttles between two worlds: her affluent, mostly white private school and her impoverished neighborhood.
One night after a party, Starr watches as her friend, Khalil, is pulled over, shot and killed by a white police officer. She struggles with the risks of coming forward as a witness, as protests erupt in her neighborhood.
“I wanted to make this as personal as possible, so that people can understand why so many of us are so hurt and so angry,” Ms. Thomas said.
Since the book’s release on Feb. 28, Ms. Thomas has been touring the country, and has had emotional discussions with young readers. At an event in Jackson, a group of girls in middle school told her that they had never met an author who looked like them.
On a recent afternoon in Philadelphia, Ms. Thomas met with 41 teenagers from local schools who had gathered in a basement at a library. She wore a camouflage jacket covered with buttons bearing slogans like “Resist,” and put on a flower crown that one of the students had given her.
The students laughed when she described how she had to send her book editors links to the Urban Dictionary definition of “lit,” a slang term, and cheered when she told them that the novel was being adapted into a movie.
One student asked who inspired her to keep writing when she faced so many obstacles. A young man asked her about a central character modeled on Tupac. Others asked her about the challenges of writing about such a contentious topic.
“I want you to realize your voice matters,” she told the students. “Writing is a form of activism.”
Recent studies show lack of racial diversity among educators in America.
By Robert Bittner
Principal, January/February 2017
Several recent studies have explored the issue of racial diversity in American education. “The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce” (2016), developed by the U.S. Department of Education, uses cold numerical data to underscore the fact that, despite some very modest gains, today’s education workforce is nowhere near as diverse as today’s students. The report cites a handful of programs across the country that are working to correct that deficiency. Yet, like most studies, the focus is on reporting current conditions, with questions of why and what can be done left unanswered.
A study by The Education Trust, “Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers” (2016), by Ashley Griffin and Hilary Tackie, puts a human face on the data, at least where black educators are concerned. (A separate report on Hispanic teachers is forthcoming.) While acknowledging that “building a diverse teacher workforce is complex,” the authors’ interviews with black teachers across the country emphasize the need to do just that and to help point the way to solutions.
During the 2012-2013 school year, 51 percent of all elementary and secondary public school students were white, 16 percent were black, and 24 percent were Hispanic. Among teachers, 82 percent were white, 7 percent were black, and 8 percent were Hispanic. As for principals, 80 percent were white, 10 percent were black, and 7 percent were Hispanic.
The “Racial Diversity” Study Summarizes The Key Findings In Three Main Points:
- Racially speaking, elementary- and secondary-school educators in the United States are relatively homogenous and not as racially diverse as their students or the population in general.
- Diversity decreases at multiple points across the teacher pipeline through which teachers progress in postsecondary education, teacher preparation programs, and retention. (See infographic on page 17.)
- Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and alternative routes to teacher certification—including online institutions—tend to enroll a more racially diverse population of teacher candidates than other colleges and universities. For example, the study notes that 16 percent of all black teacher candidates attend an HBCU; however, that number represents a mere 2 percent of all of those preparing to teach.
There are signs of very modest improvement. For example, the survey points out that, although a large racial imbalance between educators and students remains, educator diversity has increased over time. In the 1987-1988 school year, 13 percent of public school teachers were teachers of color compared with 18 percent in 2011-2012, a 5 percent increase over more than 20 years. (During the same period, the proportion of black teachers actually decreased slightly.)
In 2011-2012, the percentages of new black and Hispanic principals were higher than the percentages of experienced black and Hispanic principals, suggesting growth here as well. But, again, gains were modest: 11 percent of black principals were new versus 8 percent with prior experience; similarly, 8 percent of Hispanic principals were new versus 5 percent with prior experience.
Of course, students of any race and background can be taught well by teachers of any race and background. But “The Importance of Minority Teachers,” a study by Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng and Peter F. Halpin, published in the October 2016 issue of Educational Researcher, suggests that teachers of color may have an edge in the classroom—at least in urban schools, the focus of the study. “There is consistent evidence that students have more favorable perceptions of minority teachers than white teachers,” the authors write. “[Hispanic] teachers are more positively perceived by students … Students perceive black teachers more than their white peers to hold students to high academic standards and support their efforts, to help them organize content, and to explain clearly ideas and concepts and provide useful feedback.”
Although Hispanic students didn’t have particularly favorable perceptions of Hispanic teachers, black and Asian students had particularly positive perceptions of black teachers. In addition, “students in the ‘Other’ racial category also report that black teachers are particularly caring.” These perceptions are critical: “Students’ perceptions of teachers are associated with motivation and achievement,” the study notes.
Cherng and Halpin touch briefly on why teachers of color may make such a positive impression in the classroom. They found, among other conclusions, that Hispanic and black teachers simply are “more multi-culturally aware than their white peers,” significant because “higher levels of multicultural awareness are linked to better classroom environments.” As a result, these teachers are uniquely equipped to “help empower youth of all racial/ethnic identities.”
Such findings echo those of Griffin and Tackie, authors of the “Through Our Eyes” report. “Teachers of color bring benefits to classrooms beyond content knowledge and pedagogy,” they report. “As role models, parental figures, and advocates, they can build relationships with students of color that help those students feel connected to their schools. And they are more likely to be able to enhance cultural understanding among white colleagues, teachers, and students. Acting as ‘warm demanders,’ they more frequently hold high expectations for all students and use connections with students to establish structured classroom discipline. Furthermore, they are more likely to teach in high-need schools that predominantly serve students of color and low-income students.”
Whether they are driven by personal concern for students and community or a perceived need to go the extra mile simply to prove themselves (as both educators and role models), black teachers, in particular, are likely to experience workday pressures beyond those faced by their white colleagues. In fact, “Through Our Eyes” focus group respondents acknowledged a sense of overarching obligation toward their students that extends far beyond academics, leading them to act as “parent, hairdresser, chauffeur, advocate, counselor, and cheerleader.” And because they are more likely to teach in high-need environments, those added pressures take an even greater toll. Neither the “Racial Diversity” nor the “Through Our Eyes” study pinpoints direct causes for teachers’ decisions to leave the profession. But the fact that black teachers leave at a higher rate than white teachers suggests that there is a personal price to pay for striving to be an educator, role model, spokesperson, disciplinarian, mentor, and parent all rolled into one.
Teacher Diversity Diminishes At Each Point.
All states require a bachelor’s degree as the first step toward teacher certification. Yet even at this early point the demographics have shifted: the racial composition of college graduates is already less diverse than it is among public high school graduates. In 2012, for example, 62 percent of all bachelor’s degree students were white, whereas only 57 percent of those graduating from high school were white.
Enrollment in Education Programs
In 2012, 73 percent of students majoring in education at colleges and universities were white. The study acknowledges that this is not the only path for potential teachers. Teacher preparation programs—which may or may not be provided in association with an established college or university—deliver state-approved curricula that give enrollees an initial teaching credential. Even in teacher preparation programs associated with a college or university, the study found that enrollees were less diverse than the larger student body.
The “Racial Diversity” study notes that bachelor’s degree completion is lower for black and Hispanic students than it is for white students. For students beginning college in 2008-2009, 42 percent of black students and 49 percent of Hispanic students had completed a bachelor’s degree after six years, compared with 73 percent of white students. Graduates have become more diverse over time, but it is happening very slowly. In 2000, 77 percent were white, 11 percent were black, 8 percent were Hispanic, and 3 percent were other. By 2012, 73 percent were white, 12 percent were black, and 11 percent were Hispanic.
Entering the Workforce
Among those beginning postsecondary study in 2007-2008, 82 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients certiﬁed to teach K-12 by 2012 were white, 4 percent were black, and 9 percent were Hispanic. Citing a 2011 study, “Racial Diversity” suggests that the low numbers of black and Hispanic certiﬁcations may reﬂect licensure exam performance; teachers of color, on average, score lower on licensure tests and pass at lower rates than white colleagues. Nonetheless, the authors note, “the racial composition of new teachers entering the teaching profession is more diverse than the racial composition of all teachers,” hinting that, once teachers of color embark upon a teaching career, retention becomes the greatest challenge.
Teacher retention data follows a familiar pattern: there are more white teachers in the same position from one school year to the next than teachers of color. There are many reasons why this is the case, with “Through Our Eyes” data suggesting teacher burnout, lack of administrative support and understanding, unrealistic expectations (from administrators, colleagues, even students), and more. In addition, “Racial Diversity” notes that most black and Hispanic teachers work in urban schools, which tend to be high-stress, high-turnover environments.
The reasons go beyond high-need students. The lack of diversity among teachers and administrators increases the likelihood that teachers of color work alongside white colleagues and bosses. At best, this situation can enrich the work environment for everyone. According to “Through Our Eyes,” however, “best” is not the typical black teacher’s experience.
“[Black teachers] face racial discrimination and stereotyping that leave them feeling alienated and restricted from participating in the school community, impacting their ability to be effective and ultimately their desire to remain in the profession,” the report says. “Despite their feelings of alienation, they take on extra responsibilities and are often assigned additional duties because of their unique strengths, leaving them burdened and taxed. These same abilities and attributes can often leave black teachers stuck in such rigid positions as the school disciplinarian. These unyielding categorizations often limit their opportunities, advancement, and abilities to hone their craft.”
The report concludes, “The issues that stifle the development and empowerment of black teachers are so deep-seated that it will take honest and critical examinations of school cultures and systemic processes in order for school and district leaders to develop the trust, support, and collegial working environments needed to recruit and retain teachers of color.”
No Easy Fix
Neither study is intended to be prescriptive or to recommend practical steps to move past “deep-seated” issues. “Racial Diversity,” though, highlights three diversity program success stories from across the country. Developed independently, these programs take similar approaches, fostering future educators from within the community.
- In Boston Public Schools (BPS), 37 percent of teachers are nonwhite, with black teachers representing 25 percent of new hires in 2015-2016. The district’s commitment to improving diversity is bolstered by the BPS “High School to Teacher” program, which identifies city high-school students with teaching potential, provides mentors and college prep courses, pays half of students’ college tuition, and, if they are successful, funnels them into teaching jobs. Eighty-seven percent of program participants are black or Hispanic or both.
- The Call Me MiSTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) Initiative, sponsored by Clemson University in South Carolina, is expanding the pool of teachers in the state with local initiatives, drawing from among the state’s underserved and at-risk communities. The program provides tuition assistance, a support system, and help with job placement.
- The Teach Tomorrow in Oakland program in Oakland, California, also recruits from the community. It seeks out Oakland Unified School District alumni, community members, middle- and high-school students, paraprofessionals, out-of-industry professionals, and student teachers. It then provides educational and financial support, including training, tutoring, interning opportunities, and classroom resources.
These efforts are creating change, but they remain the exception. According to the “Racial Diversity” study, “All stakeholders must do more to support teachers of color throughout the teacher pipeline. From getting more students of color into postsecondary education, to ensuring teachers of color are placed and supported in their roles in the classroom, improving each step in the process can help capitalize on the diversity of our nation.”
There is no one, decisive moment when the demographics of the classroom suddenly break down and a diverse student body is no longer reflected by a relatively homogenous group of teachers. The fact is, the “Racial Diversity” study finds, “diversity diminishes at each point along the way to becoming a certified teacher.”
Robert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist.
(CNN)Children rarely forget the moment when a teacher might inadvertently display a racial bias.
Trust linked to success in school
Is there a flaw in the education system?
‘We can have more influence than we think’
Tips to help teachers build trust
- Develop assignments that allow students to share aspects of their lives inside and outside of school.
- Build powerful discussion opportunities for students to share their point of view across all subject areas.
- Attend some extracurricular activities of students, such as a school or community play, sporting event or band concert.
- Visit local community sites of students, such as churches, synagogues, mosques, beauty salons or community centers.
- Interview or talk directly to students themselves, rather than talking about them.
“I hate it when we talk about Martin Luther King and everybody stares at me,” a second grader said.
These words weren’t shared in a classroom. The girl who experienced this emotion revealed her feelings to students who knew firsthand what it meant to be a child of color in a predominantly white school. In the safe zone of her affinity group, she shed light on a classroom dynamic that might otherwise have remained hidden.
Even in the most progressive independent schools, issues of race often lie just below the surface of children’s daily experiences. In the relative security of an affinity group, these realities come to life. Affinity groups are places where students build connections and process “ouch” moments from their classes. Children talk about the isolation they sometimes feel. The relationships students gain through race-based affinity groups enable them to feel less alone with their emotions and help them build a stronger sense of self. At the same time, faculty facilitators gain valuable insights into ways their school’s curriculum and culture can support children on the road to identity development.
So, why isn’t every school clamoring to promote affinity groups?
When Do Children See Race?
I (Kimberly) am the director of diversity and multicultural practice at the Gordon School (Rhode Island). One early May morning, a faculty member of color walked into my office. Her son, who happens to be one of the few African-American children in his kindergarten class, was told by a classmate that he wasn’t invited to a party because he is brown.
The boy’s teacher handled the interaction between the children with gentleness and care, using it as a learning opportunity for both students. Nonetheless, the encounter stirred worries for the boy’s mother, stemming from her own childhood and school memories attached to race. She had hoped her son would not have to hear those words of rejection so early in his school journey, if at all.
I remember the stinging feeling of such an event. When my own daughter was in third grade at another independent school, she shared how it felt to hear another classmate say, “I hope I can dance with a normal white boy,” as her class was preparing for a colonial day re-enactment.
These are not isolated events.
Many adults believe that children see race only when it is pointed out. But as Beverly Daniel Tatum makes clear in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, children as young as three years old notice physical differences such as skin color, hair texture, and the shape of facial features. The research shows that, even in infancy, children demonstrate in-group preference. Consider the experiment conducted by Rebecca Bigler at the University of Texas.1 Bigler randomly gave four- and five-year-old children red or blue T-shirts. She observed them while they played with each other freely at recess. Afterwards, when she asked children in red T-shirts, “How many reds are nice?” they said, “All.” When children in red T-shirts were asked how many students in blue T-shirts are nice, they said only “some” are nice, but other blues are dumb or mean. Bigler noted that children “form these preferences on their own and naturally categorize everything, and the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible.”
|Racial identity is being shaped from the outside and constructed inside, meaning that children struggle to understand the connection between their external experiences and their internal feelings and reactions they have to observed differences.|
The physical features that children see — such as eye shape, skin color, and hair texture — are connected to our society’s description of race. In their book, Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards describe this physical recognition as children’s first encounter with racial differences. They conclude that racial identity is “being shaped from the outside and constructed inside, meaning that children struggle to understand the connection between their external experiences and their internal feelings and reactions they have to observed differences.” The authors describe four interacting factors that affect children’s racial understanding: the larger society in which they live, their families and other significant people, their individual life experiences, and their stage of cognitive development.
A longitudinal study entitled “Race and Sex as Factors in Children’s Classroom Friendship Choices” further supports this notion of preferences.2 A friendship nomination questionnaire was given to 80 boys and 65 girls in grades one through four and six. The results showed that race played a significant role (though less pervasive than gender) in children’s friendship choices, particularly when considering same-sex friendships.
Identity and Success in the Independent School
How does current research inform us about the experiences of children of color in schools where the dominant racial culture is white? A 2003 study by Edith Arrington, Diane Hall, and Howard Stevenson examined the variables that lead to success for African-American students in independent schools.3 Of the students interviewed, 75 percent reported making a special effort to fit into their school communities, 82 percent reported that they had negative school experiences, and 40 percent did not believe the school treated all students the same. The authors concluded that, “for black students, success is best defined by a strong sense of connection to the school community; a positive sense of self across contexts, but especially in the school; social and emotional health; and a racial identity that would serve as a resource as they develop, but particularly when students encounter racism.”
Another Independent School article by Michael Thompson and Kathy Schultz (2003), focusing on the “Psychological Experiences of Students of Color in Independent Schools,” highlights the fact that students of color, because they are in predominantly white schools, often experience intense social loneliness.
In Can We Talk About Race?, Beverly Daniel Tatum writes that it is essential for schools to actively address the “continuing significance of race and racial identity in ways that empower and motivate students to transcend the legacy of racism in our society.” She defines the ABCs of creating and maintaining an inclusive learning environment: A is for affirming identity; B is for building community; and C is for cultivating leadership. In this article, we emphasize “affirming identity” because we believe that one’s racial identity — reflected in the curriculum, faculty and staff, and/or classmates — helps to avoid what Tatum describes as “invisibility or marginality that can undermine student success.”
Facing the Tough Questions
The research is there. The need is there. So why do many schools hesitate to establish affinity groups? It’s mostly a matter of institutional will — and a willingness to take on critics and skeptics.
For any independent school that makes an effort to establish affinity groups — whether your school is deeply invested in multicultural education or just starting to examine the possibilities for your institution — you are bound to encounter resistance. At the Gordon School, which earned the Leading Edge award from the National Association of Independent Schools in 2004 for its work in equity and justice, one board member anticipated the response from the community when learning of the need for affinity groups. She knew it would be difficult for all school constituents “to come to the understanding that children of color can still be hurt in our school, even after we have done what feels like so much incredible work on diversity and multicultural practice.”
Introduce affinity groups and, on cue, some concerned parent will say, “I can’t believe you’re promoting segregation at our school, in this decade, in this post-racialized country. For goodness sake, we have a black president!”
You may even be accused of segregation or reverse racism. “My child tells me she wants to participate,” says a parent. “She thinks it’s not fair because white kids can’t join. My white student is being denied this opportunity.”
Undoubtedly, some of the most complex questions about affinity groups will be presented to you in the hallway or at pick up time. Sixty seconds, surrounded by other students or parents, simply isn’t enough time, nor is it the place, to consider these issues thoughtfully. However, this is a good opportunity to tell the parent that it is normal for a young child to question race in this manner, and to commend the parent for having a dialogue about race with his or her child. The latter point is important because too many in our culture avoid the topic, as if they believe it’s incendiary.
You can validate parents’ concerns by confirming that, yes, sometimes things do feel unfair, especially in the eyes of a seven-year-old. Make a plan with the parent to continue the conversation with you when everybody has more time to talk. Get the voices of dissension through the door, because if you don’t, those voices will go underground and undermine your efforts to create affinity groups.
Building relationships with skeptics is an essential step in the process of creating affinity groups. A bit of listening and friendly discussion goes a long way. If you can help parents understand racial identity development and clearly express the goals of your affinity groups, you may in fact create newly empowered allies.
|Research indicates that starting a program in the younger grades can allieviate some of this peer pressure while providing the opportunity for students to practice discussions about race.|
How do you define racial identity development? Tatum describes it as “the process of defining for oneself the personal significance and social meaning of belonging to a particular racial group.” Children internalize aspects of racial identity from the adults and peers around them. For students of color in predominately white independent schools, resisting negative stereotypes and affirming carefully considered definitions of themselves are critical to counterbalance the limited number of role models who mirror them racially.
Over time, in our experience, more members of the school community will come to understand that well-facilitated, racial affinity groups are gatherings that facilitate positive identity exploration, where people can pose questions and process issues. As a learning base, affinity groups offer affirmation of identity, empowerment of the individual, and empowerment of the group within the learning community — all things worth fighting for.
Planting the Seeds of Change
Nearly a decade ago, Gordon School developed a Strategic Plan for Racial Diversity and committed itself to multicultural and anti-bias education. Two adult race-based affinity groups developed at this time: Parents of Students of Color (POSOC) and Faculty and Staff of Color. POSOC began meeting in the evening, with childcare provided. The informal get-togethers in the childcare area became the first school-supported opportunity where children of color from nursery to eighth grades could gather — even though the primary meeting was for adults. Children who participated began asking their families when the next POSOC night would be and demanding to go to childcare “so they can be with their friends.” The desire for students of color to gather and play in a majority experience did not go unnoticed.
In 2004, the school’s diversity committee created a task force to research student affinity groups in school settings. Committee members visited exemplary elementary school affinity group programs at Shady Hill School (Massachusetts), Nashoba Brooks School (Massachusetts), and The Orchard School (Indiana), as well as programs located at independent secondary schools and colleges. At the same time, Gordon also embarked on its first Racial Climate Assessment — “racial climate” deﬁned as the current perceptions, attitudes, and expectations that inform the educational experience of various racial/ethnic groups at an institution.
The assessment included data from division directors and middle school students. Broadly, perceptions of the students’ needs and experiences were as follows:
• Students live in two worlds, both of which are critical of them.
• Students of color continue to sit alone within some classrooms.
• Middle school students were asking for affinity group meetings.
• Students of color felt an affinity with each other already.
• On their own initiative, students of color sought out faculty of color for support.
• The curriculum was driving some racially linked feelings.
• Students of color reported feeling socially lonely, isolated, and devalued.
• Race was used as one element in creating classroom groupings and cross-grade “buddy” pairs.
In 2006, based on these findings, Gordon created Common Ground, a race-based affinity group for the lower school (grades one to four). The task force decided to start with lower school students because the research reveals that it could be difficult starting affinity groups in middle school, especially an affinity group that can point directly to difference. Developmentally, middle school students feel the pressure to “blend in,” and middle school programs in other schools found it a challenge to recruit students based on this fact.
Research indicates that starting a program in the younger grades can alleviate some of this peer pressure while providing the opportunity for students to practice discussions about race. The hope is that, when they reach middle school, the students who have participated in an affinity group in elementary school will feel more empowered and positively informed about their racial identity.
Common Ground met for one hour, once a week, after school, for eight sessions a season. It was a free and voluntary program for families of color. The school decided it would not be appropriate to charge for a program that exists because the greater institution was, in effect, broken.
Although participants included children of various races and ethnicities, and they belonged to several different social circles, they found commonality when they discussed their experiences as minorities in the school. During the first few years, nearly 50 percent of eligible families participated.
Learning from Experience
While working as a Spanish teacher at an independent school in the early 1990s, Zenaida Muslin observed a peculiar phenomenon. Her school would admit intellectually talented students of color, but by the end of the school year, academically, they would fall to the bottom of their classes. She concluded that her school was not prepared to support students who are linguistically, racially, and socioeconomically different from the majority. This realization inspired her first effort to create affinity groups for students of color.
|Can a White Teacher Facilitate an Affinity Group of Color?
When Gordon School launched its Common Ground affinity group, there were no teachers of color in the lower school, due to maternity leaves. This presented a dilemma. Could a white teacher facilitate an affinity group for students of color?
After some deliberation, I volunteered to co-lead the affinity group with a fifth grade faculty member of color. My logic was simple: I didn’t think that all diversity work should be on the backs of faculty of color, and I thought it would be beneficial for students in Common Ground to have a white adult ally they could identify with.
Like other affinity group facilitators, I participated in ongoing identity development. I also had some experience leading a white affinity group among interested faculty in my school. I engaged in dialogue and activity on numerous occasions at the White Privilege Conference and took part in a weeklong dialogue at the Social Justice Training Institute.
Six years later, I’m still at it. Common Ground now serves over 70 percent of Gordon’s students of color, who comprise approximately 30 percent of the student body. The program is facilitated by four women — one who is white and two who are faculty members of color.
White teachers who are thinking about leading race-based affinity groups in their schools need to think deeply and ask themselves some difficult questions, such as:
• What do I understand about my racial identity as a white teacher/person?
There is no perfect pathway or map to arrive at the answers to these questions, but it is important that we engage in conversation and collaborate with colleagues, administrators, parents, and board members to think about ways to address, affirm, and support all students around racial identity development. — Julie Parsons
In 2000, Muslin moved to the Bank Street School for Children (New York), where she serves as diversity coordinator. Here, she founded lower school race-based affinity groups that start in first grade and meet once a month for 45 minutes, facilitated by two teachers of color. At the same time that students of color work in their affinity groups, white children also discuss issues of race and identity. A follow-up lesson for the full class takes place during the same week of the affinity group meeting, allowing for cross-racial dialogue. The majority of students of color participate in the affinity groups, which encompass 70 to 80 percent of their student-of-color population.
Muslin describes experiencing “push back” from a handful of parents — primarily white parents, but also from those who have children of color, and from a smaller number of parents of color — but she also notes the value of the program.
“Our families need to be more forward thinking,” says Muslin, “and realize that race continues to be an issue in the 21st century and is a part of our human condition — and that our children need to understand the importance of this fact.”
Several schools have been doing this work for 10 years or more with clear success. Randolph Carter, a diversity consultant and director of the Eastern Educational Resource Collaborative, started a lower school affinity group at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School (Virginia) in 1999. Carter’s group initially started in kindergarten, but he soon felt that second grade was a better starting point, as children of this age could understand the purpose of the group. The program ran from September until May during the lunch period, when he met with students by grade, once weekly. Eventually, the groups morphed into what he described as “multiracial groups,” as students were allowed to bring friends. Carter recognized the need for white children to engage in dialogue about race. He emphasizes, however, that racial affinity groups alone are no substitute for the broad institutional change that needs to take place in schools.
Even after 10 years of diversity and inclusion work at their schools, Elizabeth Denevi of Georgetown Day School (Washington) and Sandra Chapman of the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School (New York) indicate that they still experience pushback from some parents around the issue of race-based affinity groups, but they also see the clear value for students.
Chapman encourages parents and colleagues to recognize that the white members of their community already spend much of their time surrounded by other white people. “For families of color, the affinity group experience can be profound,” says Chapman. “It creates that safe space inside the school building.”
Both Chapman’s and Denevi’s schools begin affinity work in lower school with informal meetings of children while their parents participate in parents of color meetings. More formal affinity groups for children begin in fifth grade.
Schools considering affinity groups can explore approaches taken by schools in various stages of race-based affinity work by visiting the websites of Shady Hill School (Massachusetts), Friends School in Baltimore (Maryland), The Hamlin School (California), The Village Community School (New York), and The Orchard School (Indiana). Even better, see if you can visit these schools to observe the positive impact of affinity groups on the entire school community.
Where to Begin
Schools interested in launching affinity groups for elementary age students of color can draw from the experiences of those who have been traveling this path now for several years. Although every school may bring unique challenges to the table, this short list of goals can guide educators in their program development.
• Conduct a Racial Climate Assessment to obtain useful data about students’ school experiences.
• Facilitate positive identity exploration, self-awareness, pride, and self-esteem through books, games, discussion, and structured play activities that connect students to each other.
• Provide students with the opportunity to discuss topics of race, identity, and diversity in a safe space that will enable students of color to develop their voice.
• Encourage and develop leadership skills.
• Develop accurate language and vocabulary to describe themselves and others.
• Increase the school’s ability to recruit and retain families and teachers of color.
• The purpose of the affinity group is to provide a majority experience for students regularly who are in the minority at school.
At Gordon, we have also learned to be flexible with regard to each student’s needs and the group’s desires. We want Common Ground to stay dynamic and to be fun. Ours is essentially a play-based program. Our third and fourth grade students receive more formalized programming around race and identity.
Some schools choose to focus on a theme for each season. Fall can be a time for building a sense of group identity and community. Winter weather makes a good time for projects such as scrapbooks, dance, and cooking that provide opportunity for more in-depth identity work. Spring is a good time to focus on closure, on celebrating what you’ve learned.
Every group creates its own traditions, whether it’s celebrating the graduation of our fourth graders into middle school or sharing our goodbyes to our friends moving into new schools. Many resources exist to help facilitators with social and emotional learning activities, including Open Circle (www.open-circle.org); Tribes Learning Community (www.tribes.com), the Roots and Wings Foundation (www.rootsandwingsnj.org), and various education and diversity-related websites.
Past participants are another valuable resource. These middle school mentors can have a profound effect on the developing identity of an elementary school child.
As we worked to establish our lower school affinity group at Gordon, we had board approval, and also met with lower school faculty to educate them about the nature of the affinity group structure. We encouraged faculty to connect with the facilitators about the experiences of students of color in the classroom. In addition, we shared strategies with teachers that aid in addressing parents’ concerns and questions about the purpose of the program. We have since learned that it is not a one-shot deal, but that we need to be continuously engaged with school personnel about how to talk about common ground with students and parents. Children will have developmentally appropriate questions and teachers need to respond accordingly. In 2008, Gordon School provided a forum for the school community to learn about Common Ground and voice questions. Voices of dissension were welcomed. In Spring 2012, we will be having a panel discussion about the value of affinity-group programming in elementary school.
Building a Common Language
First graders may not fully understand why they join an affinity group. By third or fourth grade, however, students often can articulate what the affinity group means to them and why it’s important.
This confidence becomes especially important when they feel scrutinized by other students who want to know what they’re “doing in there.” Affinity groups help to reduce the pressure on these children by giving both students and adults in the school community a common language in which to discuss not only the program, but also larger issues of race and diversity. Affinity groups are a present-day Band-Aid for the conditions and experiences children of color are having in predominately white affluent schools. In the larger context, schools must be prepared to examine systemic changes in their institutions to provide a more equitable space for all students. All students — not just students of color — must be engaged in examining and clearly understanding the multiple facets of identity.
Eventually, “positive racial identity development” may become a standard element in the school lexicon, fitting seamlessly along terms like “developmentally appropriate” or “academically rigorous.”
Julie Parsons is a kindergarten teacher and affinity group facilitator at the Gordon School (Rhode Island). Kimberly Ridley is director of diversity and multicultural practice at the Gordon School. The authors wish to thank writer Cindy Elder, a parent of two children at the Gordon School, for her generous assistance in editing this article. For more information about the Gordon School’s affinity groups, visit www.gordonschool.org.
2. Graham, James A., Robert Cohen, Susan M. Zbikowski, and Mary E. Secrist, 1998. “A Longitudinal Investigation of Race and Sex as Factors in Children’s Classroom Friendship Choices,” Child Study Journal, v28, n4, 1998.
All-girls and all-boys independent schools face a unique moment of reflection as they consider policies to support openly transgender students. How might girls’ and boys’ schools stay true to their gender-specific missions while supporting students for whom that binary no longer applies? Join this online conversation with girls’ and boys’ school administrators and representatives from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS), and International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC) as together we reflect on current challenges and future opportunities for educators to support transgender and nonbinary students in all-boys and all-girls schools.
Synthesis of Breakout Discussion Groups:
Supporting Transgender Students in Girls’ and Boys’ Schools Tuesday, November 15, 1:00 p.m. ET
How might your school stay true to its gender-specific mission while supporting students for whom that binary no longer applies?
● Multiple breakout groups wrestled with the existential question: “What does it mean to be an all girls school or all boys school?” ○ Discussions raised the ideas of strong communities, and single-gender schools as safe spaces for students to explore their identities and grow intellectually and socially. ○ How do these ideas converge with gender fluidity or a non-binary concept of gender? Can schools still create a safe space for transgender students to explore their identity and find their voice? ○ Some schools emphasized our commitment to our kids and the value of each of them within our schools and beyond, and to consider how their transition will impact their continued growth and development into adulthood, college, returning for transcripts, and more. ○ Overall comments across all breakout groups emphasized the need to support the student and keep them at the center, as opposed to creating hard and fast policies.
● Another thorny question that was raised was “Can it be inconsistent with a school’s mission to have a transgender student in the school?” ○ Depending on where the student is in their school career, can the school better serve the student by keeping them in the community or by helping them find a school where the mission is better aligned with their transitioning identity? ○ Some girls schools reasoned that there was mission congruence in aligning women living in a patriarchal culture with transgender individuals in a dominant binary culture.
● Some groups focused on the wording or underlying meaning of the school’s mission ○ Specific words and phrases pulled from mission statements, such as “to be rather than to seem”, creating a caring and diverse community, affirming the worth and dignity of every individual, can be explicitly used to rally support for students ○ With a mission statement such as “build fine young men, one boy at a time”, finding space for a transitioning student is challenging, but language focuses on the individual needs of each student, which creates room for interpretation.
● Based on Tony’s narrative, some schools mused on the difference between supporting the transition of students who are existing members of your community versus encountering transgender students in the admissions process. Most attendees thought there should not be a specific question in admissions applications to screen for transgender students. What have been the primary challenges to confront in having initial conversations around supporting transgender students in your school? What have been the most rewarding moments?
● Challenges ○ Shifting from a binary view of gender. How we understand what a girl or what a boy is. ○ Parental perception and expectations. They send their student to a school and the paradigm shifts. Not ready to have conversations with their young students about gender and sex. ○ Education of and communication with the boards of trustees. Using outside resources from experts (Gender Spectrum) or religious organizations (Episcopal School) is beneficial. ○ Admissions process when a student has already transitioned and the school may not know at the outset. ○ Boarding schools. Housing. Which floor does the student live on? Based on a discussion with a lawyer, the students are living on the floor of the gender with which they identified.
● Points to Consider ○ Go through the student’s experience minute to minute and analyze every aspect of your school to ask what can affect them during a transition. If we backtrack and experience our school through students’ eyes, then maybe we can relate with them when they’re exploring their gender expression even before they make the decision to transition. We want to support our students fully, and maybe this starts sooner than when a student comes to us with a firm decision to transition. Maybe more students need our support as they are questioning. ○ Anecdotally, the largest groups of students who are talking about transitioning are ages 4 – 6 years old. When we started to talk about the process, we thought we’d work more with older, high school students. With this younger age group, it raises the question of whether we can continue to serve this student well years after they transition?
● Initial Steps of One School Shared ○ We are gathering groups of faculty, staff, trustees to start an ongoing conversation about vocabulary, transitioning and gender fluidity. We hope to proactively learn about the gender spectrum and think strategically about our approach now, so we will be ready to help a student when they need our support (rather than reacting to the situation when it does arise). We’re thinking about the series of concentric circles of faculty we’d involve and inform so that a specific student is supported but also so that their privacy is respected. The better we prepare ourselves as a school community, the better we can support all of our students.
On November 14, 2016, thousands of Seattle high school students took to the streets in protest of the presidential election results. The walk-out was an inspiring demonstration of the power that we as students collectively hold. And it was a painful reminder of our powerlessness as disenfranchised people inheriting the results of an election in which we had no voice.
Hours before students met in Capitol Hill and marched down to Westlake Park, a friend and I organized a rally for our own high school. As students of color at a predominantly white, independent school, we felt the need to carve out space and time to process recent incidents of racism in our own community and the ramifications of the election results. We needed to heal.
I witnessed my peers, teachers, and administrative staff come together in a way I had never seen before at my school. That day, students and adults in the Upper School circled together in the small courtyard as we extended the invitation to gather. Our invitation reached further than we expected, as middle school students filed in to join the crowd. Courageous truths were shared. Sage was burned. Arms were linked in unity. A moment of silence was held. Posters were made. And classes resumed two hours later.
For our small community, the two hour rally was not enough. For my city, one walk-out was not enough. But they both were necessary first-steps toward healing.
As a country we need to start taking second, third, and fourth steps. As people we need to use action as significantly as we do rhetoric. For the next four years, for time indefinitely, I need to know that the adults in my life support me. Below is a letter I shared with the faculty and staff at my school that afternoon, addressing the rally and city-wide walkout, and future plans for peacemaking in our community and the country. I hope that it serves to challenge all educators to act, assist, and grow.
I am incredibly grateful for today’s opportunity to organize and create the much needed space for our community to come together and speak their truths. It was humbling to hear the passion with which both students and faculty spoke about the need for action, change, and healing within our community and beyond. The gathering today, and the walk-out that thousands of Seattle high school students participated in, spoke volumes about what this moment in time means to us as young people. I would also like to take this opportunity to reiterate a few of the things stated and to add on to truths shared during our community meeting this morning.
In the past week, I have had multiple adults approach me and ask what they could do to support me and fellow students at this school. As faculty, fellow learners, and the mentors that students look toward for guidance, I would like to ask you to be especially mindful of a few things. Below are a few ways to move forward:
Understand that all students go through the healing process in different ways. As was stated by our Upper School Head this morning, some students take more time to “sit in their emotions.” This is crucial. This is a necessary part of the process. Let anger, sadness, fear, and frustration be. They are legitimate. You need only to look at the rhetoric and actions of emboldened Trump supporters to understand why.
Know that transgressions within our community and the breaches of trust caused by the actions of individual students reflect pain caused on a national scale. It is imperative that we recognize not just the emotional strain caused by recent incidents (i.e. use of racial epithets, micro-aggressions, stereotyping, erasure, etc.) within our community, but also the historical trauma that these incidents can bring up. For students in especially vulnerable positions, with marginalized identities, the election is about so much more than just Trump. It is about centuries of state-sanctioned violence against our bodies. It is about the systematic devaluing of our humanity, the othering of our cultures and differences. For some, it is a matter of life and death — and that is no exaggeration. Our lives outside the classroom are still real. Any attempt to make peace or heal also requires peacemaking and healing on a larger scale.
Acknowledge that this is not a surprise for many students. For white (and/or privileged) faculty members, in the words of Courtney Parker West:
“I get it. It’s awful. It’s terrifying. It’s devastating. But find yourself a white person and complain to them, then get past your feelings because if you really want to be an ally, we don’t need your posts or your shock or even your tearful apologies, but rather your organizing manpower. People of color have always resisted and you can follow us…And to my black and brown brothers and sisters reading this, I won’t tell you to not be discouraged, for I am discouraged. I will not tell you that we shall overcome, for I am tired of overcoming. I will not tell you to keep on keepin’ on like there’s any other option for us. I will only say that I will resist alongside you in love and justice because we come from a tradition of resistance.”
Be mindful of calls for “unity,” “mutual respect,” or “forgiveness.”Please understand that historically, calls for “unity” in the past were used as a subtle silencing tactic. While the current intent of most people calling for “optimism,” “unity,” or “forgiveness” is positive and ultimately necessary, its impact can be a painful reminder of historic, insidious attempts to censor dissent and return to the harmful status quo.
There is a time and place for optimism, for unity, and for forgiveness. Yes, they are necessary components of the healing process. But know that it is immensely difficult to embrace and empathize with someone who uses racial epithets, uses exclusive and hateful rhetoric, condones such rhetoric through their vote, or condones such rhetoric through their complacency. At the very least, unity will not directly follow the moment of abuse or the initial breach of trust. And that moment, or rather, the period of oppression extends far deeper than the night of November, 8th 2016.
Refer back to the first action on this list. Anger is part of the healing process and can take a painfully long time to work through. In the framework of peacemaking and restorative justice, people can only forgive when they are ready to do so. In a community, forgiveness and empathy are reciprocal, continual processes that occurs at different stages for everyone. They are not singular moments, they do not happen unanimously. Forgiveness occurs when the abuser(s) of trust indicate to the victim(s) that they have complied with mutually defined and acknowledged behavioral shifts, which ultimately moves both parties towards healing. That process takes time, is painful, thorough, and involves continuous action.
Acknowledge the necessity of self-care. In addition, someone notably articulated that, ‘“Don’t fight hate with hate’ is also a subtle example of gaslighting, in which our legitimate hurt and anger at the injustices we suffer is equated to the bigotry and abuse of our oppressors. For marginalized people, being angry does not mean you are being hateful, it means you love yourself enough to get upset at your own mistreatment.” In times like these, it is imperative that we prioritize the self-care of students in need, for self-care is inherently revolutionary in a society that fails to care for us.
Know how individual responsibility and identity is related to action. As I mentioned at the rally today, whether or not you chose to wear it, the safety pin symbolizes a promise that can be broken as easily as it is made. It is our collective responsibility to hold each other accountable to that promise. Let me be clear. A piece of metal, no matter how symbolic it is, will not save lives. It will not protect my peers and me from harm, from verbal and physical assault, nor from bullets. Wearing a safety pin is your personal commitment to action, which can actually protect us.
It is also necessary to examine and confront our own privilege, power, and difference in making that promise. The burden of education, peacemaking, activism, and facilitation, should rest on the shoulders of every single person. These processes are inherently uncomfortable and necessary. However, it was said today as well, that the ‘work’ is being disproportionately distributed. For underprivileged individuals, creating safe spaces, embracing difference, and communicating with the “other side” to dismantle insular bubbles are actions that have been ingrained in our existence. These are necessary skills we use to survive this world, and to ultimately make it a better place. And we have been bearing a weight too heavy, while others in positions to contribute have been slacking for far too long.
Listen. Process. Act. Create a culture that is intolerant of intolerance, both in and outside of the classroom. Check in with your students, give hugs, and listen to us when we need you. Also, understand that hugs can only go so far to provide safety. Listen to our truths. Recognize us and our leadership and know that leadership in inherently a relational process.
Renew your commitment to action daily. Support institutional programs that uplift underrepresented narratives, seek out marginalized voices and promote them in your curriculum. Give your time to student organizations on campus, be a participant and facilitator in safe spaces.
Resist. Fight for your students and their rights. Give your time and money to organizations, support movements like Black Lives Matter and NoDAPL.
Ask yourself what you’re doing. Then, ask yourself what you aren’t. Show up, because your actions speak louder than words, especially as adults in our lives.
I hope this list serves to initiate necessary conversations, help you lean into discomfort, and assist us as students in this fight for our future.
Power to you.
— Brady Huang, Class of 2017