Can Racism Be Stopped in the Third Grade?

Lisa Miller, NY Mag, May 19, 2015

The form arrived in an email attachment on the Friday after winter break.“What is your race?”it asked. And then, beneath that, a Census-style list: “African-American/Black,” “Asian/Pacific Islander,” “Latina/o,” “Multi-racial,” “White,”   and “Not sure.”

The email, signed by the principal of Fieldston Lower School, urged parents to talk about these categories with their children at home because the next week, in school, the kids would have to check the box that fit them best.

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“I was like, Wait. What?” remembers one mother. Another quizzed her 11-year-old daughter as they were driving. “We have to go in our race groups” was how the girl explained it. The mother hoped her daughter had misunderstood.

In recent years, under the direction of its principal, George Burns, Lower has come to look a lot less like the white, mostly Jewish Riverdale neighborhood that encircles the school and more like the Bronx in general. Just fewer than half the kids at Lower are white.

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Lower has always been a progressive place, and in 2015, many are happy to see it as a kind of racial utopia, too.

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The program, which was also put in place this school year at Ethical Culture, Fieldston’s other elementary school, would boost self-esteem and a sense of belonging among minority kids while combating the racism, subtle or otherwise, that can permeate historically white environments. It would foster interracial empathy by encouraging children to recognize differences without disrespect while teaching kids strategies, and the language, for navigating racial conflict.

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It would be mandatory rather than voluntary, and built into the school day itself; it would compel participation from children of all races who would at first be separated into racial “affinity groups”; and it would start in the third grade, with 8-year-olds, an age when many of the kids have only an inchoate sense of what “racial identity” means.

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To all these ends, the third- , fourth- , and fifth-graders at Lower were to be divided once a week for five weeks into small groups according to their race. In 45-minute sessions, children would talk about what it was like to be a member of that race; they would discuss what they had in common with each other and how they were different, how other people perceived them, rightly or wrongly, based on appearance. Disinhibited by the company of racially different peers, the children would, the school hoped, feel free to raise questions and make observations that in mixed company might be considered impolite. The bigger goal was to initiate a cultural upheaval, one that would finally give students of color a sense of equal owner­ship in the community. Once the smaller race groups had broken up, the children would gather in a mixed-race setting to share, and discuss, the insights they had gained. Then–after all this–their regularly scheduled school day would continue: math, English, social studies, science, gym.

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Mariama Richards, the director of progressive and multicultural education at all Fieldston schools and the lead architect of the program, is herself black–an “equity practitioner,” her Twitter bio says, in public and private schools. In 2013, she had been wooed away from Georgetown Day, where she had done similar work for nearly a decade.

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White parents who objected to the program felt discomfited, fearful that if they voiced their concerns, they would be tagged as racists. They wanted their kids to talk about race, they insisted. But, as with most white liberals, they seemed to prefer to conduct the conversation on an intellectual level, considering it as a problem of history, policy, or justice–the kind of conversation unfolding already in Fieldston’s mandatory ethics classes. The much more intimate, idiosyncratic, lived experience of race–that is a harder discussion to have, especially when it probes reflexive reactions to difference (fear, disgust, mistrust, anxiety, curiosity, eagerness, attraction, admiration) that are sometimes heated, irrational, and not always pleasant. These are feelings the average white Fieldston parent was raised not to mention. This same parent who sends her children to Lower because she values diversity tends not to dwell on the fact that she has few close friends of color; that her neighborhood is almost entirely white; that her nanny or housecleaner or doorman has brown skin. The program at Lower was designed, and is supported in large part, by people who have spent their lives on the other side of that well-meaning silence and can testify that it’s no way to thrive.

On January 14, ten days before the new program was to launch, Burns, who is white, invited all the Lower parents to a meeting at Fieldston High School to meet [black multicultural education director Mariama] Richards and air concerns. About 65 people showed up. After short introductory remarks by Burns, Richards began her presentation, clicking through PowerPoint slides.

The meeting quickly grew tense. Parents took sides, and though the opponents were not divided, exactly, by race (the parent body is far too mixed for that), alliances for or against began to emerge. Antagonists interrupted Richards, asking to see more hard research on the benefits of racial separation and calling into question the qualifications of the 20-odd teachers and staff Richards had tapped to mediate the groups. By some accounts, Richards was shouted down. Others say she grew defensive and dismissive of parents’ concerns. “It was like, ‘Oh, you silly parents, you just don’t understand,’ ” said one mother who was there.

A Jewish parent raised his hand, according to another parent who was there. He grew up in the South, he said, where Jews were seen not as “white” but as something categorically different. When he was a child, the Ku Klux Klan attempted to burn down his synagogue. To lump Jewish children together with other white children is to ignore centuries of history, he said.

“When you walk in the room, I see you as white,” one person there remembers an African-American parent interjecting. “Your child needs to go in the white group.” Another parent remembers it this way: “You have the privilege of hiding behind your whiteness. And my child doesn’t.”

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Hort was one of a number of parents who in February posted a petition online protesting the program and citing possible “irreparable harm” to the kids; putatively a defense of the school’s traditional values, it also expressed a fear I frequently heard from this group, that the program would introduce a victim mentality to some children who might not otherwise have dreamed of it–and, by extension, a sense of guilt to others. On March 11, Hort sent a scathing letter to the parents with kids in grades two, three, four, and five at Lower. “The discussion of race should certainly be a part of our children’s education, but segregation of any kind is regressive, and separate is not equal as defined by the Supreme Court in 1954.”

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At no developmental age are children less racist than in elementary school. But that’s not innocence, exactly, since preschoolers are obsessed with race. At ages 3 and 4, children are mapping their world, putting things and people into categories: size, shape, color. Up, down; day, night; in, out; over, under. They see race as a useful sorting measure and ask their parents to give them words for the differences they see, generally rejecting the adult terms “black” and “white,” and preferring finer (and more accurate) distinctions: “tan,” “brown,” “chocolate,” “pinkish.” They make no independent value judgments about racial difference, obviously, but by 4 they are already absorbing the lessons of a racist culture. All of them know reflexively which race it is preferable to be. Even today, almost three-quarters of a century since the Doll Test, made famous in Brown v.Board of Education, experiments by CNN and Margaret Beale Spencer have found that black and white children still show a bias toward people with lighter skin.

But by the time they have entered elementary school, they are in a golden age. At 7 or 8, children become very concerned with fairness and responsive to lessons about prejudice. This is why the third, fourth, and fifth grades are good moments to teach about slavery and the Civil War, suffrage and the civil-rights movement. Kids at that age tend to be eager to wrestle with questions of inequality, and while they are just beginning to form a sense of racial identity (this happens around 7 for most children, though for some white kids it takes until middle school), it hasn’t yet acquired much tribal force. It’s the closest humans come to a racially uncomplicated self.

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The paradise is short-lived, though. Early in elementary school, kids prefer to connect in twos and threes over shared interests–music, sports, Minecraft. Beginning in middle school, they define themselves through membership in groups, or cliques, learning and performing the fraught social codes that govern adult interactions around race. As early as 10, psychologists at Tufts have shown, white children are so uncomfortable discussing race that, when playing a game to identify people depicted in photos, they preferred to undermine their own performance by staying silent rather than speak racial terms aloud.

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The fourth affinity-group session met on April 15, a cool morning that held the wet beginnings of spring.

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“I get to be with people I can share my race with, and I don’t feel uncomfortable about it,” says one third-grader, in the black group, who tells me the only other times he’s surrounded exclusively by black people are when he’s at home or with his basketball team. “We talk about how it’s important to know what your race is. We talk about the difference between being prejudiced and being racist. So I can know when someone’s being racist to me, and I can help other people know that, too. I can say I’m proud of being black. I remember my friend saying that the affinity groups are racist, but they’re not. They put you in a group of what race you are–I don’t think that’s racist at all. We get to make jokes and stuff, and comments. When we’re talking, we get to draw, we get to laugh.”

“It’s so fricking boring,” said a fifth-grader in the Asian group. “We do the same thing every week. The conversations we have are mostly about the tensions between whites and blacks, and never about Asians or Hispanic people. It annoys me sometimes that people are like, ‘Oh my God, people are so segregated.’ But we are never mentioned. It’s just frustrating, I would say.”

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George Burns likes to compare the program to sex education. If you teach children the clinical terms early and divide them into same-gender groups to enable frank talk, then by the time they’re ready to explore sex for real, they’ll have words for what they do and don’t want to do, causing minimal damage to their self-esteem.

I was not permitted to see the race-groups themselves–the school cited the privacy of the kids–but I watched as about 40 fifth-graders, full-blown tweens, participated in the mixed-group debriefing. A classroom teacher, Hazel Hunt, stood before them and encouraged members of the individual race groups to “share out” with their peers. The Asian group wanted to say that if you are Asian, you get lots of questions about your religion, and they wanted to mention that Asians come from all religious backgrounds: Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim. The black group wanted to say that people assume that if you’re black, you must live in a bad neighborhood; also that people are sometimes surprised that they go to Fieldston. The multiracial kids shared that what people thought about them depended on where they were–on the Lower campus or off it–and what they were wearing.

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The first time I meet Mariama Richards, she is smiling. Sitting in a small office at the Ethical Culture School, she appears confident and impassioned; if she feels any stress at her role at the center of a private-school tempest, it does not show. She sees it this way: At Fieldston, kids get very good at talking about justice. But unless the school gives them real tools to feel comfortable having difficult conversations about race, those innocent elementary-school friendships that the parents so cherish will inevitably dissolve. Those best friends in elementary school will by middle school cease to be friends, and no one will quite understand why. “They’ll end the friendship rather than wade in and have a dialogue,” Richards says. “It’s hurtful to a lot of the white students. It’s hurtful to the students of color. I like to talk about it as a loss. But we don’t understand where that loss comes from. We just know that we used to have this friend one time, and she was so cool, she was the world. And then something happened.” What happened, Richards says, was race.

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It is absolutely not her intention, she says, to lay on 8-year-olds a burden about white privilege or white guilt. “They have done nothing–nothing,” she emphasizes. All she hopes to do is to get a bunch of white kids in a room to recognize that they’re white. And perhaps to ask themselves, if they’re ready for it, “Hey, what does that mean?”

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