Sorry Breitbart--White People Should Talk About Race

Two teachers standing in front of high school students giving instructions for project
Two teachers standing in front of high school students giving instructions for project

This year, my high school is doing something different for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Instead of a regular day of classes at New Trier High School, students are attending a variety of seminars on racial justice. The student body and faculty has generally been supportive, but there's a few haters out there, including Breitbart. The conservative news source lambasted the day, accusing New Trier of forcing students to attend guilt-inducing sessions. Much of the content came from anonymous concerned parents, who fear a "political agenda" at play.

Quite frankly, I'm mad about these comments. Here's why:

1. It's necessary. New Trier is overwhelmingly white and affluent--over 80% of students are caucasian, and just 3% of the student body is low-income. This has enabled instances like the cringe-worthy irony of discussing milestones like legally desegregating schools in my 100% white American Studies class. Breitbart is criticizing the day because "[Students] are supposed to be a neutral environment." Our learning environment never was neutral. I can name every black or hispanic classmate and teacher I've ever had on one hand. We're missing diverse voices in our education, and although one day of discussions isn't nearly enough, it's a good place to start.

2. It's not guilt--it's history. Breitbart accuses New Trier of "pushing all this 'white guilt,' using our kids for their own agenda." The seminars New Trier has created are based in straight-up evidence and history. Guided discussions like "Disney and the Creation of Racial Identity," or "The Truth about Ferguson: The Investigation into the Death of Michael Brown" aren't shoving guilt down students' throats, but telling us sides of the story that our textbooks are consciously ignoring. Why do we reflexively presume that talking about race means guilt? Why is telling the history of racial minorities' representation in literature and science "racist," but my sophomore English class that read works exclusively by white authors is business as usual?

3. Even if it is guilt, why is that bad? New Trier students live in a bubble that needs to be popped. We don't need another day of school off to watch even more Netflix; we should honor Martin Luther King Junior's legacy by forcing ourselves to have difficult conversations. If we feel guilt, so be it. That temporary feeling is nothing compared to the histories of inequality and current discrimination faced by many racial minorities--and avoiding these exchanges because of "guilt" only breeds ignorance that recreates oppression. Guilt will fade. Understanding social location and different perspectives on complex issues is lasting.

I'm proud of my high school for celebrating Martin Luther King Day meaningfully. While this day of seminars may not be perfect, it's certainly better than letting another day pass where we refuse to acknowledge racial injustices, and our role in ameliorating them.