Six reasons why we shouldn’t worry about the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria

kids in a cafeteriaDr. Beverly Tatum just released (September 5th) a 20th anniversary version of her ground-breaking and well-informed book Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria: And other conversations about race.  She discusses the phenomenon at Michigan’s National Center for Institutional Diversity.  This is a topic I think about a lot as the mother of a Black child.

In my son’s small, private, predominantly White school I noticed that in his particular grade all the Black students are in one classroom and all the East Indian students are in another classroom (those are the two major non-White groups in his particular school). This got me thinking. School has begun and at public and private schools – elementary through high school – the Black students, the Latino students, the Asian students, etc. are probably sitting together in the cafeteria as I write this.  And on that note, so are the band students, the drama students, the athletes, and so on…AND here are some reasons why school social workers, teachers, or administrators should NOT be concerned:

  1. Yes, they are sitting together and it is o.k. We like to sit, play, live, and work with people who make us feel safe and comfortable and the fact is, that is often people who look like us. If I spend all morning and all afternoon in situations that make me feel unsafe and/or uncomfortable or with people who are different than me and I am the minority in numbers, then I want to be able to share a meal (a sacred joyful time in many households) with people who make me safe and comfortable.  Usually, this means being with people with whom I share some values and beliefs based on our identity. We have to remember that students, particularly those in middle and high school, are figuring out their multiple identities and how those identities intersect. Students are navigating a complex world both internally and externally. To help promote student wellness, let the girls sit with the girls and the drama students sit with the drama students and the Black students sit with the Black students…if they want. Now, this does not mean that you should tolerate purposeful exclusion, discrimination, or mocking, but rather accept that students (like adults) need to create their own safe spaces. AND you and your colleagues should think about how you can systematically and intentionally create spaces for cross-cultural dialogue that may bridge any gaps at lunch tables or on playgrounds.
  2. Forcing students to sit together in some orchestrated inclusion situation will always back-fire. Let it happen organically. You cannot force people to like each other just because it is a rule in a student handbook. Rather, you can teach students to talk to one another and to hear each other’s stories. You can create spaces and facilitate times for dialogues and learning. Cultural competency is a value and a skill that should be integrated into our schools’ academic curriculum and co-curricular activities. The dialogues about this should be ongoing. Cultural competence should be reflected throughout every aspect of our schools. Students may still choose to sit together by identity group and with ongoing dialogues there will be more awareness and understanding of why.
  3. Have you paid attention to what the students’ other needs are? The Brookings Institute estimates that 1 in 6 children come from food insecure household. Add to that the fact that at least half of our school-aged children have a mental health need. And these are just two examples of need.  Our students have a multitude of needs and obstacles that need addressing before we can even get them to attend to sitting and playing together. If a student is struggling at home, in their personal life and space, it is even more challenging for them to be ready to discuss and embrace sitting with people different than them.  A student may be worried about what others know and think of their situation. Or, a student may be too distressed to attend to their neighbor. Just think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – individuals need food, shelter, safety – basic necessities before they can begin to think about and get situated in belongingness and love for others.
  4. The guilt or discomfort we may feel about students sitting together based on identity groups or shared interests has nothing to do with them. How you or I or our peers feel about race relations or interacting with groups of different social identities is not how the children of the 21st century feel. Not a scientific study with proven significance, but still worthy of mention, Good Morning America has done a series called “Black and White,” in which Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts interview children about their thoughts and feelings about race. When Roberts asked them if their different skin color makes them different from each other the children answered in unison “No.”
  5. We should not place our expectations, guilt, hurt, anger, etc. on them. Students have their own emotions to deal with as it relates to equity, inclusion, and social justice. They don’t even always use the same language to describe it. We need to see them and hear them and let them develop their own space and ways of facing race relations in the 21st century. Inter-racial friendships may be challenging for some kids to form as Nadra Kareem Nittle points out. Children, and especially young people are navigating their own identities and navigating someone else’s adds some sort of pressure or complication to their lives. When your school begins to create a cultural competency plan, include the students and the parents.
  6. Diversity work in schools and anywhere is best done when it becomes part of the integrated fabric of the school and is not just an add-on 1 day or 1-semester program.   If you want the students to sit together in the cafeteria or anywhere else, then the school needs to have an ongoing, comprehensive, effective, and impactful plan that begins on day 1 and never ends. The National Education Association has great resources that schools can utilize as a starting place. Teaching for Tolerance is another good place to look.  Remember too that cultural competence needs to be shown in who is hired at the school and who holds leadership positions. Diversity and cultural competence needs to be seen in photos, posters, and textbooks year-round. And parents and guardians (as extensions of the schools) need to also have the tools to facilitate such conversations at home and with their families.

So, I am okay with the fact that my son is in the same classroom with the other 3 Black students in his grade. I know that he has always played and sat with all the children in his school, and vice-versa. In reconsidering our concerns about all of the Black children sitting together, social workers should help teachers figure out why this is or is not okay for each child, and administrators should think about what will work best for each school’s culture.  The famous Black scholar W.E.B. Du Boise wrote that the “problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” It is now the 21st-century and we should ask ourselves what are we doing if this problem still exists? We also need to think beyond the dichotomy of the Black and White binary and make sure we pay attention to the diversity and intersectionality within our schools and neighborhoods and speak to that specifically, and not just speak to Black and White students

In the coming decades, the population of our country will continue to become increasingly diverse. Soon, we will need to ask ourselves “Why are the White students sitting together in the cafeteria?” And then we must be prepared to answer that question and do something about it.

 

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My unedited Op-Ed piece on cultural bias and politics

Facilitating learning

Facilitating learning

I am sure that I am slowly getting black-listed in my city, but oh well. My profession and my role as a mother demand that I speak up. Here’s hoping I can get myself positioned to actually make real meaningful change.

This piece (waiting for my personal editor to edit so I can send off), is a follow-up to this piece:

http://www.lowellsun.com/opinion/ci_28916236/cultural-competency-is-necessary-skill-and-policy-our

Taxation with representation: Unraveling cultural bias in schools from the top down

It is election time. Our neighborhoods are cluttered with placards of candidates’ faces and slogans of individuals running for a variety of positions.  Politics in Massachusetts can be confusing especially to someone who did not grow up here.  One key question that voting individuals should be asking themselves is “Am I being taxed without being represented?”  Being taxed without being represented in government is an idea that dates back to the beginning of our nation’s founding.  This sentiment can be extended to parents who have children in school districts that do not have school committees that visibly represent the people who live in the district and attend the public schools. Cultural bias in our schools is often perpetuated because our Superintendents and the individuals on our school committees do not represent the rich diversity of our cities.  In order for our schools (policies, curriculum, events, etc.) to be culturally competent the people who are elected to represent and lead our schools must visibly represent those who attend our schools.

The Commonwealth reports having 408 school districts with a total of 1,860 schools (1,154 elementary schools; 313 middle/junior high schools; and 393 secondary schools).  The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) reports that in 2014-2015 there were 955,894 students enrolled in those schools.  Based on student enrollment, Massachusetts has eleven school districts that rank in the nation’s top 1,000 school districts.  From pre-kindergarten through high school we educate a large portion of America’s students.  Nine of those districts will hold elections for open positions on November 3, 2015.  School committee elections in this state matter a lot.  Of our ten largest schools districts Boston and Springfield, which are the two largest school districts do not have any seats up for election this year.  Worcester, the third largest school district has six seats up for election.  Brockton, the fourth largest school district has seven seats up for election.  At fifth, sixth and seventh largest Lynn, Lowell, and Lawrence respectively each have six seats up for election.  The eight largest school district, New Bedford has three open seats, Newton at number nine has eight seats, and Fall River, the tenth largest school district has six open seats.

Out of the eight districts with seats up for election the five most diverse cities (by U.S. Census numbers) are Worcester, Brockton, Lynn, Lowell, and Lawrence.  ESE 2014-15 report on enrollment by race (just the highlights on the highest numbers of non-Caucasian students) shows that Worcester has 39.6% Hispanic student enrollment. Brockton is 55.2% African American, Lynn is 56.4% Hispanic, Lowell is 30.1% Hispanic and 29.4% Asian, and Lawrence has 91.3% Hispanic student enrollment.  We know that Census numbers and reports by social identity are incredibly useful but not 100% accurate as not everyone fills out the forms. However, the numbers are a good indication of who is attending our schools.  Massachusetts is not lacking in racial and ethnic diversity. The Commonwealth is 51.5% percent female.  Because sexual orientation is not assessed by the U.S. Census, the more difficult social identity statistic to calculate is that of the LGBT population.  Based on data for same-sex households, Massachusetts reports approximately 20,000 same-sex households and an adult LGBT population of 4.4% (which is 7th in the nation).  All those numbers to illustrate that Massachusetts is diverse on paper and if you live here you know that in reality we are more diverse than that.

In terms of race and ethnicity most of the school committees in the Commonwealth appear to be unbalanced, especially in proportion to the number of students of color served in those districts. Examples of that include the city of Lowell where students of color make up approximately 69.3% of enrollment in the district’s schools but the school committee is composed of seven Caucasians.  This was highlighted in the recent incident where a student was racially bullied.  Lawrence has a school board that is ethnically representative of its city.  Lynn has a public school website that is culturally competent in that it can be translated into other languages for ease of use.  The other diverse cities with open seats do not appear to have school committees that are representative of the diversity they serve.

Why does it matter that our school committees be representative of the student population being served?  One, because we are a nation founded on the ideal of representation.  Two, because committees help to guide policies and curriculum and hire Superintendents.  Three, because policies and curriculum and Superintendents need to be culturally competent and responsive to the needs of students and families of color who are in the majority.  Yes, Caucasians can be culturally competent and respond to the needs of students and families of color. However, in our own state and throughout the nation we have seen instances in which predominantly Caucasian school boards have not been responsive to students of color and their families.  Public schools and school committees should follow the lead of colleges and universities.  Hiring only takes place when a diverse pool of candidates has been achieved.  Diversity is not just written on a piece of paper for the accrediting bodies to see cultural competence is an active practice.

I hope the state and cities consider sponsoring forums to educate more people of color on how to run for elected offices.  I hope more candidates of color step up to be candidates.  I hope our school boards become as diverse as the students they serve.  This November vote to make our school committees look like the students and families they serve.  This November vote for cultural competency and taxation with representation!