23 July 2008

Beyond "Black in America"

Issues of race are nothing new, but the depth of some of these issues go deeper than most white Americans are willing to acknowledge.

I remember asking myself questions about race and ethnicity as early as kindergarten. You know, questions that only a child both thinks in their head AND verbalizes. The questions that usually result in your mother's face turning beet red, and then she's off like lightning, running as far away from the epicenter of the question bomb, your hand in hers so tight, you wonder what you possibly could have done wrong. After all, it was only curiosity, and we're taught to ask questions when we don't know the answers.

e.g.--Was Michele white or black? Can she be both? How long ago did Charlie move to America from China, and does he eat Chinese food every night? Do all white kids have both mommies and daddies?

My questions nowadays are more complex. You'll see them threaded throughout this blog...

I grew up in a diverse community. The PJs were across the street from my high school. There was a large growth in the minority population in schools from the '80s to the '90s. Many of my friends were (and still are) minorities. As I settle into the happiness that is found in relationships with my heterogeneous peers, there are still folks who might say: Well, a lot of 'em ain't black.

Since when am I supposed to have a certain percentage of black friends before I can be considered tolerant or understanding of other races? Should I only be seeing my friends' color? Or should I be seeing them for their character or ambition or positive influence over me?

To an outsider, though, it would be easy to see the social divide in my former school district. The county's school system had strict district policies, which meant you attended your neighborhood school. If you lived in a poverty-stricken district, you went to school with other poor kids. One of my childhood friends and I attended school together right through 6th grade, but the county redrew the district lines (mind you, we lived only a couple of miles apart). I stayed in the same district as before: culturally, racially, and economically diverse, and becoming more so by the minute. She attended school in another district: about as diverse as a bowl of white rice with a fleck of pepper in it. If it wasn't already obvious, race and SES went hand-in-hand in the county. My friend's school--mostly white. My school--if we're going to stick to the rice metaphor, think of it being kind of like fried rice...a little bit of everything.

Here's a link to the school district where I grew up: http://gwinnett.k12.ga.us/gcps-mainweb01.nsf

In Clarke County where I have taught for the last 4 years, the district policies are loose and our students' families take full advantage. Rumor has it that by the time a child reaches the 5th grade in our county, he will most likely have attended 3 or more different elementary schools. We only have 13. Classrooms are transient for most teachers, never having the same roster from Day 1 through Day 180. The reason why the county doesn't have stricter policies on these districts: because they are afraid of discriminating against the poorer communities. The reason why kids change schools so often: they don't perform on grade-level, the parents blame the school/teacher/community, so they try a new school.

Here are my next questions: If it worked in my childhood school, why can't it work for Clarke County schools? Would it be better for children to have a neighborhood school K-12 for consistency and stability, or to be able to attend a new school when things don't work out? Does neighborhood schooling even have a direct effect on a child's success in education?

A lot of my friends don't realize that Clarke County schools are considered inner city. Most students--black and white--are from families below the poverty line. A high number of black children have behavior issues and a negative outlook on education. PTO meetings are usually attended by the few white, middle-class parents while the black, lower-class parents can't attend because they don't have a means of transportation. While there are many single-parent households in our schools, a large number of them are black females.

After watching "Black in America" (http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2008/black.in.america/) earlier tonight, I thought about my students and what it must mean to them to be black in our country. Some of my kids would not even know the definition of "country" or be able to locate North America on a globe. Others would tell you to be black means that you talk and dress a certain way. Only a couple of them would say that it doesn't matter what color you are, that we're all brothers and sisters in God's eyes (yes, I have had students say this to each other--tear jerker, I know!). I'm very open with my students on issues of race. A classroom is a safe environment, and children should not have to worry about asking the questions they have on this topic.

I may not ever understand what it's like to be black or member of any other minority, but it doesn't automatically make me ignorant or intolerant. I'll just keep asking questions, so don't mind me when I do. I simply want to know.

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