Editorial Cartoon: Melissa Nie
Beginning with a post titled “Conservative Lives Matter,” the Opinion Board this past December exploded with comments and in-depth responses, most concerning the insensitive title, and provoked discussions beyond the board. In one English class, students talking about the post noted that this was the first time they’d talked about race with their peers at school. After Winter Break, the board had been cleared and discussion died. Being able to so easily forget and end this discussion is indicative of a larger problem at SPA: white students don’t know how to talk about race. There are two defining reasons for this.
First, SPA is an extremely white school. According to the school’s website, only 25% of students are students of color. White students, by the nature of their race, are unequipped to talk about racism. Furthermore, SPA’s low diversity rate ensures that white students can have minimal contact with students of color, and therefore can learn and talk even less about what it means to be a person of color. At a majority white school, this skill should be especially important to develop.
SPA’s culture of striving towards achievement and knowledge while balking at ignorance minimizes talk about race. White students who have grown up removed from discussions about race and who, as a result, may be terrified of saying something offensive, simply don’t talk. The internet tactic of “canceling” people (shunning and unsubscribing to internet celebrities so they lose their online community), who say something offensive often makes white students fearful that saying the wrong thing will lead to them being “canceled” by their friends and peers. To clarify: saying something offensive is not okay. Mistakenly saying something offensive on one occasion and then learning from that mistake to prevent it in the future is okay.
Second, the school administration does not provide an environment for white people to learn how to talk about race. After assemblies discussing race, such as the MLK assembly, there is no scheduled time to talk with peers, and the conversation is rarely carried over into classrooms. This fosters an environment where assemblies come across as lectures instead of an effort to provoke discussion between students and their peers.
Classroom discussions about race are also minimal and prevent white students from learning how to talk about race in an academic setting. The English Department has only one class that focuses on race (Asian Literature). While classes such as American Literature have diverse authors, the class itself focuses on discussion of symbols and themes, rather than frank analysis of how race ties into the text. The History Department has many more options for discussions about race (History of Refugees, US History, History of Race, Israel and Palestine), but the very nature of talking about history distances the issue and places racism in the past, allowing students to remove themselves from their responsibility, rather than addressing it as a very real problem of the present.
The administration needs to establish a structural change in the curriculum to provide a space for students to talk about race. In terms of assemblies, there needs to be a structured, discussion-based extension of the assembly that every student attends. Furthermore, the administration should add discussions that directly address race to grade retreats and the Wellness course. This way, students can learn to talk about race with their peers in a non-academic and more personal setting.
The English Department also needs to offer more electives that can talk about race and integrate discussion into its regular classes. Starting with Journeys in Literature in 9th grade, teachers should make room for discussion about how race influences the text alongside the already extensive discussion surrounding gender. Through this process, teachers can establish minimal expectations for what conversations about race look like early on in students’ high school experiences. In American Literature, teachers can build on the diverse authors to talk more in-depth about how race influenced the authors’ lives and therefore the text.
Students also have a significant role to play. White students need to accept the fact that they will be uncomfortable, make mistakes and occasionally say things that are offensive. However, white students must learn from those mistakes, and learn to not repeat them. This goes both ways. Everyone needs to respect the fact that white students are (hopefully) trying their best to learn how to talk about race. This means not “canceling” people, and instead correcting them when they say something offensive—but only to a certain extent; if someone refuses to learn from their mistakes, they can’t be taught.
Teachers, the administration, and students are all contributing to the current state of how we talk about race. To support a better system, these three groups need to work together. The world is incredibly more diverse than SPA, and SPA graduates need to be prepared for discussions about race that will inevitably happen outside the walls of this school.
This post was originally published in the February issue of The Rubicon.