At New York Private Schools, Challenging White Privilege from the Inside

Kyle Spencer, New York Times, February 20, 2015

On a recent morning, 20 or so high school students, most of them white, milled about the meetinghouse at Friends Seminary, a private school in Manhattan. They were trying to unload on their classmates slips of paper on which they had jotted down words related to the topic “Things I don’t want to be called.”

Several girls tried get to rid of “ditsy.” A sophomore in jeans and a gray hoodie who identifies as Asian-American was seeking to unload “minority.” And several white students, including a long-limbed girl in a checkered lumberjack shirt, wanted to get rid of “privileged.” Under the rules of the exercise, no other student was obligated to accept it.

“It’s just a very strong word to use,” the last girl said. “I don’t want to be identified with that just because my parents can afford things. I think it has a negative connotation.”

The workshop was part of a daylong speaker series known at Friends as the Day of Concern. Students gathered in small groups to discuss a variety of social justice issues and participate in workshops; there were also talks about gender and the environment. But the overarching theme of the day was identity, privilege and power. And it was part of a new wave of diversity efforts that some of the city’s most elite private schools are undertaking.

In the past, private school diversity initiatives were often focused on minority students, helping them adjust to the majority white culture they found themselves in, and sometimes exploring their backgrounds in annual assemblies and occasional weekend festivals. Now these same schools are asking white students and faculty members to examine their own race and to dig deeply into how their presence affects life for everyone in their school communities, with a special emphasis on the meaning and repercussions of what has come to be called white privilege.

The session at Friends Seminary, on East 16th Street, was led by Derrick Gay, a 39-year-old diversity consultant who has led similar programs at Collegiate School on the Upper West Side, Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights and the Spence School on the Upper East Side.

Mr. Gay, who is black, says schools are increasingly drawn to conversations about privilege and race because they understand that “raising students to live in a bubble–a white bubble, a black bubble, a Latino bubble, whatever type of bubble you want to call it–is not to your benefit in a global society.”

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Educators charged with preparing students for life inside these schools, in college and beyond, maintain that anti-racist thinking is a 21st-century skill and that social competency requires a sophisticated understanding of how race works in America. In turn, faculty members and students are grappling with race and class in ways that may seem surprising to outsiders and deeply unsettling to some longtime insiders. And the term “white privilege” is now bantered about with frequency.

It comes up during schoolwide assemblies like a recent one held to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, also known as LREI, a progressive school in the West Village. It is explored at parent gatherings at the Dalton School on East 89th Street during broader conversations about racial equity. It is examined in seventh-grade social studies at the Calhoun School on West End Avenue, where students read “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” a 1989 article by Peggy McIntosh that outlines dozens of ways white people experience “unearned skin privilege.”

And at a few schools, students and faculty members are starting white affinity groups, where they tackle issues of white privilege, often in all-white settings. The groups have sprung from an idea that whites should not rely on their black, Asian or Latino peers to educate them about racism and white dominance.

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It may seem paradoxical that students at elite institutions would decide to tackle the elitism they seem to cherish. But private schools’ diversity consultants brush aside insinuations that their social justice work is inauthentic.

In recent months, for example, as the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner, on Staten Island, have prompted protests, schools have tried to make the conversation relevant for their students, taking them to Black Lives Matter marches and honoring white civil rights leaders in schoolwide assemblies.

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Every year, an increasing number of New York City private schools select students to attend the White Privilege Conference, founded 16 years ago by Eddie Moore Jr., the former diversity director at Brooklyn Friends. This year, the theme of the conference, organized by the Dalton School, is “Race, Privilege, Community Building.”

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For years, private schools in New York avoided conversations about race and class by remaining uniformly white and wealthy. They began desegregating in earnest in the 1970s and 1980s, as programs for low-income students like Prep for Prep and A Better Chance brought in minority scholarship students. Many white parents welcomed the change, worried that their children would be ill prepared for an increasingly multicultural world if they did not have exposure to people from diverse backgrounds. Today, for example, at LREI, Calhoun and Dalton, at least one-third of the student body is not white.

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At Brooklyn Friends, a controversy over the approach of Dr. Moore, the school’s former diversity director, ended abruptly when he left at the end of last year and did not return this fall. Many students, like Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond, a black senior, said Dr. Moore was a warm and stimulating figure at the school who talked openly about what he called “subconscious racial bias.” But several sources inside the school said some white students complained that Dr. Moore was a polarizing figure whose focus on white privilege made them uncomfortable. Both Dr. Moore and a school representative described his departure as “amicable.”

At LREI, Sandra Chapman, the director of diversity and community, said conversations about white privilege could be difficult, with some students and faculty members more willing to engage than others. “This is messy work,” she said. “But these conversations are necessary.”

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