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Wanting to be Educated: It goes beyond Race or Class

May 16, 2012

Education doesn’t just happen in the classroom: it can happen anywhere, from anyone. Another key fact about education? You have to want to open your mind to be educated. You can continue your education through college and even graduate school and not become a truly “educated,” or enlightened, person, in the sense of the word. 

N.R. Kleinfeld’s New York Times article, entitled ‘Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids?’ underlines such ideas and truths that, while uncomfortable to mention or discuss, are nevertheless there and should not be ignored. Kleinfeld delves into a New York City charter school, which happens to be 92.7% Black and has not a single white student attending, intending, as one assumes his agenda was, to expose the horrible segregation that goes on in the NYC schools. The article, while eyecatching, is also extremely tired: the rhetoric, facts and anecdotes all seem so stereotypical (isn’t that what racism is?? Reducing people to stereotypes?) The students are from broken homes: most of the children mentioned are missing a fatherly figure. They’re all poor, kids from the “wrong side of the tracks.”

In short, what Kleinfeld’s reporting on is nothing new: minorities have lower test scores than white children. Minorities are less privledged financially overall. But there are some ideas thrown in that one doesn’t always hear in stories that touch on race. One of the problems, I found, with this article is that it’s not the school’s fault neccessarily that these kids are doing poorly, although that’s what the author wants you to think. Yes, the charter school mentioned is underfunded, but just because a student doesn’t have access to high-tech computers doesn’t mean that they won’t learn or get good grades. Children don’t just get an education at school: what about their parents? What about their friends, or the activities they do outside of school?

What do they know of our lives? They may be good teachers, but what do they know? You’re coming from Milwaukee. You went to Harvard. 

The parents, such as the one quoted above, as well as the students complain that the predominantly white staff can’t relate to the students because they’re from different places and got top-of-the-line educations. But at the same time, they also complain that there aren’t any white students in the school to provide diversity! This contradiction can perhaps only be explained by the fact that the teachers might be seen as “patronizing” or “ruling” (even though, technically, teachers are supposed to guide and lead). Would the parents prefer teachers who were Black but perhaps less qualified? If the students are supposed to be exposed to the real world, then having white teachers is a step in the right direction in making them feel more comfortable with diversity.

“When I came here and started to talk about myself, the students were shocked that I was here. I started to wonder, did they really have role models?” -Ms. Augustin, a white teacher at Explore.

 When considering the whole white-teacher, black-student set-up I couldn’t help but think about my own experience with school and race. I had a black teacher in elementary school and I don’t ever remember thinking, what can she teach me? At college my first advisor was a woman from China. Did I sit there thinking, what does she know about American universities, she’s Chinese? How can she understand me? No, I did not, because I looked past the color of their skin to who they really were: smart, educated women.

Is it the student’s mindsets themselves which are stopping them from being educated? After all, true education is not rote memorizing but “a broadening of the mind,” (this was what college was originally meant to be before it was opened up to anyone with a checkbook or student loan, but I digress). The young girl who gets teased because she “speaks like a white person”-that is, not in slang-is a great example of this. Since when was speaking proper English considered “white?” Every language has it’s slang vernacular and verlan, but in professional settings everybody-whether you are white, black, Hispanic or what have you-is required to speak in a more proper way. This is nothing new; it is a more refined way of speaking, and it doesn’t have to be “learned.” So why does the young girl who speaks “proper” English have to be teased? Is it wrong to speak properly?

 “We’d like to hear from other races. How do they feel? What’s happening with them?”-Ashira Mayers, 7th grade.

 While it is admirable that this young lady is interested in interacting with other people, her comment is sad and disturbing. An invisible sentiment I felt across the students and parents comments was that white people were ‘aliens,’ a different species. Talk about a reality check! Why can’t we just erase color or, if you must mention it, why can’t it just be that-a color, a way to simply describe a person’s appearence? Why does the color of our skin also have to describe our personalities, our likes and our dreams? Even the name of the do-good organization that helps teachers address race in the classroom, ironically (?) titled  ‘Border Crossers’ reinforces this idea that we all live in tightly sealed worlds separated from each other. It made me consider the upbringing and schooling I had prior to college, and how although I grew up in a mostly identical environment (only all-white instead of all-black) it did not have a negative effect on my relationships with people of different cultures. 

In the mostly white world that is the Hamptons, New York, my school had one Middle Eastern family, only one or two Asian families, and only a handful of Black students. The number of Hispanic students grew as I got older, as more families moved into the area  to do the jobs no one else in that priveledged area wanted to do, such as gardening or housekeeping. In short, there was very little diversity, but the non-white kids weren’t singled out or forced to the sidelines: they were just students like everybody else, which is how it should be. Did they often hang out with each other? Yes, but they also associated with the rest of us.

“It’s more comfortable to be with people of your own race than to be with a lot of different races.” Shakeare Cobham, sixth grade.

Even though I grew up in such a “lilywhite” (to use a term from the article) town, I was still “racially prepared” to go into the real world, as evidenced when I went away to college. My roomate was a Bangladeshi girl (I had never met someone from Bangladesh before), and while our differences might have been superficial, our personalities clicked: what did it matter if she grew up in a poor Manhattan neighborhood with parents who couldn’t speak English, and I in the beautiful otherworldly bubble that is Sag Harbor? We had the same ambitious drive, the same love for education, and I liked learning about her culture.

Through my roomate I made friends and hung out with the other non-white students on campus: I participated in the Caribbean Student Union Fashion shows. I attended parties thrown in the Corey Lounge by organizations like BSU and M.O.V.E., and Asian Pacific Student Union (APSU) meetings during my freshman year in the Voice Office which, besides being home to a club for Jewish studentand the gay-lesbian-transgender-friendly club on campus also included Women of Color and La Familia Latina (LFL).

In short, I came from an all-white environment and got involved with one that was decidedly not, although my college campus was probably 90% white. I realize, now, that my situation is very strange; some would say abnormal. I remember one person from home saying to me, “but why can’t you make any white friends?” I wasn’t always accepted by the circles I ran in; most of the students ignored me, probably shocked that a girl like me wanted to hang out with them: like the article mentioned, the ‘minority’ students all hung out together at my school.They established their ‘alienness,’ their ‘otherness’ by forming clubs like BSU which, I felt, only highlighted the fact that the rest of the campus wouldn’t ‘accept’ them,which wasn’t true.

Many non-white and white students hung out together, but I did realize a trend which the NY Times article only confirmed: these non-white students had gone to non-segregated high schools in suburban towns, whereas the students who only participated in the Voice Office clubs were from inner-city neighborhoods and low-income families. Although they might have not dealt with too many white people or been in such a “white setting” (how else do you phrase what I’m trying to say? I realize my loss for words stems from the fact that no one ever wants to talk about race) I still feel that it was a personal choice that these students exclusively hung out together, not ostracism nor “social awkwardness:” these students were used to hanging out with each other, and possibly had preconceived stereotypes which they were either unwilling to challenge or simply didn’t want to.

Education doesn’t just happen. Common belief nowadays is that anyone can go to college and learn, that if you place a person in a classroom with an instructor that they will absorb the material and come out a changed person. But education, whether it’s the book or street kind, is what you make of it, and can only be absorbed if you truly let it and have a passion to let things in.

To conclude with a theory, let us consider one NY Times reader, ‘Upper West Sider,’ who commented on May 13th: 

Does a rising tide lift all boats? Can a better economy make all students learn better? “What is a good education?…That you scored well on a test?” – ” Dr. Mickelson

My theory is different races – and religions – have set cultural values on education and advancement in society. Going deeper is the question of what kind of society students dream to achieve.

Ask yourself how is it Jewish and Asian students seem to always do the best? Possibly, certain cultures deeply respect and hold in highest esteem the value of education.

Perhaps this reader’s ideas are unsettling to some people. I don’t think this reader is racist, and I don’t think one can easily pigeonhole different races into “ambitious” versus “non-ambitious,” but at the heart of the comment is the very point I am trying to make: what kind of society do students-in particular the students in this Brooklyn charter school- dream to achieve? Do they want one where everyone, black and white, work and live together? Do they truly want to learn?  



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