On July 1st, the New York Post published an article by Paul Sperry titled, "Elite K-8 school teaches white students they're born racist." The "elite K-8 school" is the Bank Street School for Children on Manhattan's Upper Westside. Evidently inspired by complaints from anonymous parents, the article viciously disparaged the school's diversity program.
Among the article's claims: "(The school) . . . is separating whites in classes where they're made to feel awful about their 'whiteness,' and all the 'kids of color' in other rooms where they're taught to feel proud about their race and are rewarded with treats and other privileges."
The school I lead, the Calhoun School, is mentioned along with several other schools as among those offering affinity groups as part of similar diversity programming. I'm proud to be in such good company.
Mr. Sperry's clear disdain for our work is apparent in various ways, including the choice to enclose these terms in quotation marks: "kids of color," "social justice," "voice their feelings," "systemic racism," and "institutional racism," among others. I suppose the "political correctness" of this work is unbearable for Mr. Sperry and the New York Post.
It is ironic that the piece was published on July 1st. Subsequent events gave ample opportunity for the Post to demonstrate its true colors.
On July 5th, Alton Sterling was shot to death by Baton Rouge police, leaving behind 5 "kids of color."
On July 6th, Philando Castile was stopped for a broken taillight and shot to death because police "thought" he was reaching for a weapon.
As many of us mourned for Sterling, Castile, their families and our troubled country, the New York Post headlines read:
(July 5th) "EAT YOUR HAT," about a Trump supporter being asked to leave a Mexican restaurant
(July 6th) "HILL SKATES," describing the decision to not indict Hillary Clinton
(July 7th) "FBI DID ME A FAVOR," describing Donald Trump's preference to face Hillary rather than Bernie Sanders, therefore his gratitude for no charges being filed.
Neither the headlines nor sub-heads on the front page on any of these days acknowledged the police shootings.
But today, July 8th, the Post's headline reads, "CIVIL WAR - four cops killed at anti-police protest," describing the horrid events in Dallas.
The Post's editorial choices speak for themselves.
But I need to further comment on the crude caricature Mr. Sperry created. It is the good, courageous work that schools like Bank Street are doing that holds the only possibility of addressing the racial violence and tension that are ripping our country apart. The article demonstrates that Mr. Sperry knows as much about racism and diversity work as I know about nuclear fusion. At least I don't dabble in nuclear fusion.
White privilege is neither an indictment nor a fantasy. It is simply fact. I and other white folks in America have benefitted from several centuries of advantage. We had the opportunity to chart our own destiny, to accumulate capital, to own property and to live in relative safety while generations of black women, men and children were enslaved, raped, lynched, denied the rights of citizenship, redlined, blackballed, blue-shielded and otherwise denigrated. It's easy to declare that the playing field is level when you built it on a slope and you're standing on the top of the hill.
The assertions in his article about kids "being made to feel awful about their whiteness" are nonsense. My colleagues and I at Calhoun, and our friends at Bank Street and other schools, have done this work for years. Anshu Wahi, Bank Street's Director of Diversity and Community, was singled out for criticism in the article. Mr. Sperry apparently made no effort to learn about Ms. Wahi, who is deeply respected and has never made a child "feel awful" about anything.
It is true that children may initially feel uneasy in these conversations, but it is the uneasiness that unlocks the door to understanding. Acknowledging white privilege is not assigning guilt. Guilt is not useful. White people, including students, work toward equity when they feel empowered, not guilty. Compassion, empathy and understanding are the goals of any good diversity work. It is a liberating experience to understand one's privilege and to embrace the opportunity and accept the responsibility to be part of necessary change.
Mr. Sperry describes " . . . all the 'kids of color' in other rooms where they're taught to feel proud about their race . . ." I won't dignify the mindset that would find this problematic.
We are deeply divided in America. Some people believe racism is a thing of the past, that black folks are playing the victim, that affirmative action is reverse racism and that the answer to racial tension is for people of color to shut up and work harder.
Others recognize the corrosive effects of racism and poverty, the ongoing reality of mass incarceration, the barriers to employment, chronic despair, stop and frisk policies, racist taunts directed at the President of the United States and yes, the shameful litany of boys and men of color shot by police without provocation. My colleagues and I in progressive, diverse independent schools hope to raise a generation of these "others."
In New York Post land, down is up and up is down. In America, who exactly is being made to "feel awful about their race" and who is "rewarded with treats and other privileges?"