Teaching Cultural Understanding in Non-Diverse Settings

I am thinking back to my own high school experience today.  I found out that my (former) school district’s superintendent decided to cancel the high school student production of Kismet, a 1953 Broadway musical set in Baghdad, because “people might be a little more sensitive perhaps to the (play’s) content”, given the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  Apparently Kismet is about a poor street poet whose daughter falls in love with the wealthy Caliph.  I have many fond memories of playing my flute in the high school musicals when I was a student there.

United Flight 93 landed very close to my hometown on 9/11, so although it is far from New York City, people rightly feel a connection to the tragedy.  Still, I am baffled by the decision.  Beyond being set in Baghdad, the musical really has no political content from what I can tell, and it was written nearly sixty years ago.  A former classmate told me that the school put on Kismet in the 1980s when her older sister was in high school.

I sometimes wonder how schools that are racially homogenous can teach students to be culturally sensitive.  Usually the schools that come to mind are upper and upper-middle class suburban settings.  But, I can see from this instance how the issues are similar in small towns such as my own, as well.  How can we expect students to be culturally sensitive when the superintendent of their schools avoids mention of the Middle East for fear of sparking “sensitivity”.  One brave step the superintendent could have taken would have been to address the critics of the musical choice head on, and to start a community conversation on why folks were upset, and what their worries were.  I would hope that this kind of discussion would also draw supporters of the musical, who could hopefully allay their peers’ concerns.  Judging from the comments on the story in the local newspaper, many in town do not support the superintendent’s decision.

The almost comic irony is that the musical has apparently been replaced by Oklahoma!.  Hopefully that won’t spark protest over the connection to the Oklahoma City bombing.

Of course, Oklahoma! won’t, because the Oklahoma City bomber was white.  This is one way in which racial inequality operates.  White Christians who commit heinous crimes are simply people who have done something terrible, while Muslim Arabs who do something terrible are seen as representatives of all Muslims, and, in the case of Kismet, a particular region and its history get swallowed up in that identity as well.

Undergraduate Interracial Interactions: “It wasn’t about race,” but…

As I read through the data for my project on students attending elite universities in the United States and Britain, I am struck by how much race continues to play a role in the lives of American undergraduates. They speak of formative experiences marked by race, and they are deeply affected by some interactions in which they are racialized, and others in which others accuse them of racism. On the other hand, American students in other ways believe we live in a post-racial society—President Obama was elected when they were in high school, after all—and often talk about interracial experiences as “not about race”. There seems to be a strong desire to deny or minimize the salience of race in interracial experiences. I’m not suggesting that every interaction between individuals of different backgrounds is marked most significantly by those differences. But, I am struck by the repeated articulation that “the interaction wasn’t about race”, when the interviewer has not suggested as much. Students idealize a post-racial society, even if the reality in which they live is far from it.

Arab American Identity and Racial Categories

On this anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I have been thinking about the changing nature of Muslim American and Arab American identities.  Before the 2010 Census form was finalized, there was considerable debate over whether Arab American would be added as a racial category (it wasn’t).  Arab American advocacy groups were particularly frustrated with the elimination of the ancestry question from the 2000 to 2010 censuses, which removed the opportunity to indicate Arab ancestry.  How do we think about Arab identity vis a vis racial categories in the United States?  If the US government is in the business of creating racial typologies, then surely one should be Arab/Arab American.  Part of how we understand diversity and inequality in education depends on how we think about what the categories of analysis are.  If we don’t treat Arab Americans as a separate category, for example, how can we understand the extent to which Arab American youth succeed in education, experience discrimination, and more?  We don’t know.

Furthermore, not only do the boundaries of who is included in society’s dominant racial group (and nondominant racial groups) shift over time, but often groups actively try to shape those boundaries.  Just as Arab American advocacy groups today can see advantages with being recognized as a racial or at the very least ancestry group, in the past minority groups have often attempted to gain entrée to the “white” racial category.  In the 1920s, Bhagat Singh Thind, an immigrant to the United States from India, argued that he should be categorized as “white” and thus be eligible for naturalization (at the time, only whites could naturalize). The US Supreme Court disagreed, and hence the US government used to see South Asians as “white” or “Caucasian”.  But today, in an era in which official recognition of minority status can lead to some benefits, many minorities welcome the non-dominant label in official terms, because it can lead to a recognition of the unofficial disadvantages that come with certain labels in society.

The Post-9/11 Generation

This week the cover story of People magazine is “The Children of 9/11”, a story about children born to mothers who lost their husbands in 9/11. The children are approaching 10 years old. It reminded me that the cohort of students who have just started college in the US were just eight years old when the September 11th tragedy took place. The Bush presidency started when they were just old enough to understand what the President’s role is, and ended when they were 15—formative years, for sure. How does this affect their perspective on the urgent problems of the world and the United States today?

College students’ responses to the death of Osama bin Laden provide a glimpse of an answer. I was baffled in May when, after the news of Osama bin Laden’s death, spontaneous student celebrations erupted in Harvard Square. I was surprised by the students’ unabashed joy in another person’s death, however terrible that person was. But then, I realized that these students had grown up with the specter of 9/11, and the War on Terror; bin Laden’s death in this context must have seemed a victory over the anxieties of their childhoods, perhaps akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall for my own childhood’s Soviet threat.

In my project on students attending elite universities, I’ve similarly been surprised by the lack of complex discussion of or sympathy for racial inequality. Many students like the fact that affirmative action brings diverse perspectives to their classrooms—in fact, this is the leading reason that they give in support for race-based affirmative action (and many if not most of them do support it). But, I then remember that this is the post-post-Civil Rights generation, and might even be characterized as the War on Terror generation, or the post-racial generation. They haven’t heard about or experienced the angst that I and my peers did as college students in a society where the entire political landscape was changing because of changing racial politics. If the Soviet threat and desegregation hovered over my childhood, then bin Laden and Obama’s election hovered over theirs. One of my earliest memories is of the day before of the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan; children in school were chanting “Rea—gan!! Rea—gan!! Rea—gan!!” in my school, where most of the population came from working class white families. They were Reagan Democrats, lured to the Republican party in part due to racial resentment. So I am trying to understand how children of the War on Terror make sense of diversity in society, when many of them truly believe they are living in a post-racial society, most obviously defined by the election of President Obama while they were in high school. I am starting to realize just how long ago I myself was a college student!

Back to (private versus public) School

Much has been made of the increase in charter schools on offer to low-income families whose default neighborhood schools are notably low-quality. Some see charter schools as bastions of innovation, and others point out that they drain resources from the schools that serve the vast majority of children, and because of their small scale will never serve as systematic levers for major reductions in inequality in education. But the school choice decisions that are rarely talked about these days are those made by families with financial means.

My daughter starts kindergarten next week, for which we are all very excited. The past year has been an interesting one as we’ve watched friends and other acquaintances grapple with the decision of where to send our children to school. I have spent countless hours myself investigating the public schools in our city to figure out which ones to list as our top choices. For many of my peers, deciding on kindergarten involves some choice—moving to another town with a “better” school system, thinking about private schools, figuring out how to get into one’s public school of choice if it’s not the neighborhood school. For others, the choice was made when they bought a property in the “right” town or neighborhood, in anticipation of their children one day making use of the area’s public schools. This lever for increasing inequality in education is rarely discussed, because we are so focused on thinking about inequality as some families’ lack of resources, rather than others’ maintenance and compounding of advantages. But both are important drivers of inequality in society.

Before I was a parent I was a public school teacher, and I swore I’d never send my future children to private schools. I believed that public education in urban, diverse schools was good for society, and good for the kids who see that many children’s lives are different than the ones they have already encountered. But the past few months have brought much self-doubt in my belief in urban public education, as I’ve watched friends leave the city or its public schools. I don’t blame my friends and acquaintances for the choices they have made—we can’t expect parents to do anything but pour their hearts and resources into what they consider to be the best education for their children. But, I do wonder how it is that we’ve become a society in which, as my colleague Deborah Jewell-Sherman has said, the quality of one’s education is determined by one’s zip code or lottery number. And I also wonder about what we can do to change that, so that all children can experience the joy of a high-quality education in environments that expose them to peers with a range of life experiences, family circumstances and structures, and interests.

The class and racial segregation of our schools is damaging not just to the children whose families and local schools lack financial resources, but also to those children who grow up without a real understanding of how those with fewer resources live.  In my study of students attending elite universities, I’m finding that many find it difficult to talk about class and race, in part because their neighborhood and school experiences before college were so limited in terms of who they encountered.  This lack of exposure seems to lead many to a lack of understanding of what it means to grow up as a racial minority in American society, or to grow up without the kinds of resources that were available to them and most of their peers.

What’s race got to do with it?

On August 4th, British police shot Mark Duggan, a black British criminal suspect, in Tottenham, London.  A peaceful demonstration of Duggan’s supporters demanding to know just what happened and why policed fired at him quickly turned into violence and looting that spread to all major cities of England.  Much of the media coverage of the events in Britain and abroad suggested that race was driving the malaise felt by looters and rioters across the country.  However, soon writers could not ignore the diverse faces of rioters and looters on the streets of London and beyond, most obviously demonstrated by the London Metropolitan Police’s flickr.com site devoted to identifying criminals caught on camera.  In a twist on the recognition of the multiracial nature of the 2011 riots, British historian David Starkey, in an interview aired on BBC, suggested that “the whites have become black”, attributing a negative, anti-society culture to black Britons that is now spreading to the white working class.  Although Starkey’s racist comments were simplistic and offensive, they demonstrate that those on the left and right in Britain now understand that conflicts between police and young men in Britain are not limited to or even preponderant among black young men.

Aside from socioeconomic conditions, repeated police encounters like Duggan’s anger young men.  However, in contrast to the United States, young white working class men in Britain also frequently experience random “stop and searches”.  In my research with teens attending diverse secondary schools I found that both Afro-Caribbean and white working class young men in London were frequently stopped by police.  In Chapter 4 of Balancing Acts: Youth Culture in the Global City, I describe how these encounters usually happened on the student’s public housing complex, and students perceived that their style—especially hoodies—had something to do with police perceptions.  This finding contrasted with what I heard in New York, where black young men were overwhelmingly more likely to have been stopped by the police than their white and Asian peers.

The politics of race in Britain and the United States differ sharply, and those differences come into sharp relief in Balancing Acts.  I found that students at a New York high school were much more racially divided than Londoners.  They identified their school’s social groups by race and ethnicity, they were more likely to share friendships and date in-group peers, and they identified who they were comfortable with and uncomfortable with in racial and ethnic terms.  Londoners, in contrast, were more likely to think about race-based styles and tastes. For example, one young woman in London told me this about the social groups at her school:

It’s like, there is all black in my group…There is one mixed race person and there is one white person, but the white person…she is more, like, you know, black.  The way she behaves is like a black person, and she likes black things….And then you have the all white girls group.  It’s mixed—it’s got, oh you might get a one black girl in it.  She behaves like more like a white girl….

Race absolutely matters in Britain, and has played a role in social exclusion, for sure.  But, it doesn’t always explain social phenomena the way we think it would from the vantage point of the United States.