Post 7 – Working Towards Diversity in a Predominately White Private School

Here’s the prompt for the week:

The Cultural Competency Initiative was created to facilitate interactions between our student body (mostly white) and other cultures that represent the full scope of Austin (Latino, black, Asian).
Are you incorporating our work to move toward a school that truly embraces diversity and fosters empathy in other ways?
What do you do and how’s it going so far?

I wrote a little bit about this last year in my blog about experiences talking about race in the classroom.  A little bit of context: a lot of these discussions have been coming up as we’ve explored what our school’s purpose statement is:

We cultivate identity formation, foster empathy, and embrace diversity to bring more peace to the world.

HOW DO WE BECOME A MORE DIVERSE COMMUNITY?

We’ve been asking what does it mean to cultivate identity formation, foster empathy, and embrace diversity.  The embrace diversity piece has been a challenge.  We have a predominately white student population and I’d say that our staff demographics are more diverse than our student demographics (but still predominately white).  We have a group (somewhere between 10-15) of international students from predominately asian countries.  It seems the biggest way to embrace diversity is to have a diverse population of students.  The challenge there is our school’s tuition is around $15k/yr.  Most minority families can’t afford that.  In Austin, about 125,000 white households make more than $75k/year.  In the hispanic community, there’s about 23,000 households making that much.  In the black community, less than 6,000 households. (source : city-data.com)  The pool of minority families who can comfortably afford to send their child here is small.

There are some private schools that have adopted a ‘pay-what-you-can’ approach with some success.  That could be the answer to getting more diverse families in the school.  Once they’re here, the next challenge is fostering an environment where self-segregation doesn’t just happen.  I see this already with our international students and I can’t blame them; when you’re in class all day in a culture not your own, you want to steal away any time you can to speak your own language and be around your own people, or at least others who can empathize with feeling like an outsider.  How would you keep white students from seeing minority students as a charity case or ‘the poor students?’  I think this would be easier to do in earlier grades, and it’s what Manhattan Country School is doing with their early elementary students (same school doing the ‘pay-what-you-can’ linked above).

WHAT CAN BE DONE NOW?

Of the things that can be done now, I think our ‘city as classroom’ initiative, tied to the diversity piece of our purpose is a great start.  The ‘city as classroom’ initiative is working to find a way for our students to engage the city in a meaningful way.  This year as part of my Pre-Algebra class, I’ll be revising my statistics project.  Last year they just asked each other questions and analyzed the data.  This year, I’d like to partner with another 7th grade classroom in Austin ISD and perhaps have one question my students ask them and one question their students ask us.  Maybe we can all answer both questions and analyze the data.  Include gender in the results and discuss potential bias in the questions/results.  I’d even like my students to manipulate the data to make it say something it doesn’t necessarily say so that they can see how easy it is to do that.  I’d then have them explain to the class how they chose to manipulate the data.

I don’t know what kind of questions we’d ask or what I’m hoping they see in the results.  For example, perhaps they’d see that students in our school spend more time on social media than students from lower-income families…or maybe they spend the same amount…or maybe the lower-income families spend more…my hope is that they will begin to wonder why the results are the way they are…are there definite conclusions that can be made or just assumptions…could the question have been revised to make the data more clear…should there have been follow up questions…was our sample size too small…etc.

One of the things I feel it’s lacking right now is the human interaction piece; we could email the questions and results back and forth but I feel embracing diversity involves being around people who live and see the world differently than you do.  Still pondering on how to make that happen.

RACIST REMARKS & MICROAGGRESSIONS

We recently had an incident where a student made a racist remark to another student, which prompted more discussion into our school culture and this diversity piece.  We generally take a more restorative approach in discipline in most cases and punitive for extreme situations of violence and aggression.  Racist remarks fly in the face of what we’re trying to achieve as a school and community.  Our discussion as a staff revolved around hate speech and microaggressions.

The big question mark for me is when does a microaggression move into hate speech.  On one end of the continuum, you have a remark such as ‘what are you?’ when inquiring about someones race and on the other end is malicious, racial/sexual/gender related slurs.  A microaggression is often a subtle, perhaps even unintentional, slight towards someone’s gender, race, sexuality, etc.  In many ways, it illuminates a bias that the speaker may have, whether they know it or not.  I feel the words we choose when we speak to people matter and that subtleties matter.  I feel it’s important to ask the question ‘how may this comment be perceived by others?’  In my classes, I’ve moved from saying ‘are there any questions’ to ‘what questions do you have?’ because the first almost implies that perhaps there shouldn’t be any questions.  Words matter and subtleties matter, but what’s worrisome is that the whole intent of the speaker is often disregarded and working to avoid microaggressions can sometimes create a culture of fear around offending others.

A friend shared with me that their family was hosting an international student from Korea and her son (middle schooler, super sweet) wanted to learn how to say hello in Korean, but then he asked ‘actually, could that be considered racist?’  We laughed about it and I’m glad this boy was trying to be mindful of his words and how he’s perceived but how unfortunate that he feared a genuine attempt to welcome someone could be considered aggressive / racist.

In Mandarin class, one student shared how she went to a China market over the weekend and wanted to interact with some of the people there.  She asked one person in Chinese if they were from China.  The person was Korean.  They laughed but she even noted that while she was coming from a place of wanting to connect, she wondered if it was appropriate for her to ask them that.

I’m biracial (mom is from Panama) and all my life people have asked me ‘what are you?’ and I don’t think once I ever took that as a slight that someone felt I wasn’t an American…they were just curious.  I have thought of ways to ask people this in a manner that wouldn’t imply that I think they’re foreigners.  I’ve settled on ‘did you grow up here?’ or ‘are your parents from here?’  According to this document on microaggressions though, that seems to be off limits as well.  On the same token, depending on where I’ve been, people have assumed I Spanish, Italian, or Greek.  I wish I spoke all those languages but again, I don’t understand how those assumptions can imply offense unless the asker is doing so in some mocking sort of manner.

I know my experience isn’t the same as others and I don’t want to take a “well if I don’t have a problem with it, neither should other people” approach, but I think the intent portion around the microaggressions conversation is missing.  When being on the receiving end of a microaggression, I think the receiver should take that opportunity to correct this misconception or bias.  My wife has shared with me how often she’s asked if she’s a nurse at the hospital (she’s a doctor).  She finds it annoying as it shows the bias others have that men are doctors and women are nurses.  Her response is generally just ‘oh no, I’m the doctor.’  To be clear, I’m talking of more subtle, unintentional microaggressions here, not overt racist remarks (which I know some comments can end up being both).

A big challenge with avoiding microaggressions is working through the question ‘could someone find this offensive’ regardless if the offense is reasonable.  In The Coddling of the American Mind, the author writes “Because there is a broad ban in academic circles on “blaming the victim,” it is generally considered unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone’s emotional state, particularly if those emotions are linked to one’s group identity.  The thin argument “I’m offended” becomes an unbeatable trump card.  The leads to what Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor at this magazine, calls the “offendedness sweepstakes,” in which opposing parties use claims of offense as cudgels.  In the process, the bar for what we consider unacceptable speech is lowered further and further.”

I think we should teach our kids (and ourselves) to be mindful of how we speak to others.
I think we should stop to consider how our words may be perceived.
I think we should work to become aware of our own biases.
I think we should learn how to work through things that others say that makes us uncomfortable.
I think we should have a little social grace for those around us.

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