Whites Like Me

This essay is written to support my friend and colleague, Chala Holland. It is in direct response to THIS letter published in the Daily North Shore news outlet. Chala is being considered for the principal position of the Lake Forest High School, and her views on race and racism are being closely scrutinized.

First, I'll begin with where I began. I grew up Woodstock, Illinois. It was and still is a very white town. During my first three years of high school there was one black kid. I still remember his name. My senior year the school "diversified" when two more black kids entered as freshman. The town was more than 90% white, with a smattering of Asians and Hispanics making up the other 10%. I never had a black teacher, and I don't recall any Hispanic or Asian teachers, but from what I recall minorities seemed to try their best to blend in, so maybe I had one along the way. The most ethnic people I knew were Jewish or Italian, and even they seemed rare. At least one kid I knew was rumored to be a member of the KKK.

After high school I moved around and eventually joined the US Air Force. During my four years of service I had black roommates on two different occasions. I shared a small, two-person dorm with an African-American guy for nearly three months. After I was honorably discharged from the military I completed a master's degree from Chicago State University, a Historically Black College on Chicago's South Side, which is as black as my hometown was white.

I share all this because I lived and studied with black people, I felt comfortable around them and felt they accepted me, but I never had a conversation about race that made me uncomfortable. That changed when I met Chala Holland.

I was completing coursework for my Ed.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago's Urban Education Leadership program when Chala asked the professor why we were focusing so much on data and never discussed race. The professor, a white guy, turned red. Fortunately he was a very open-minded, intelligent human being, and opened the topic to discussion.

The class was small, maybe a dozen students. From what I recall there was an objection from at least one of the white students. I believe I was quiet in the beginning, since I was taught it wasn't polite to discuss race with people of different races. One Hispanic student agreed with Chala, while another seemed to dismiss her concerns. I distinctly remember one of the older black students with a look on her face that told me she was as uncomfortable as I was, realizing we were about to get caught in crossfire.

Our cohort of students talked with the professor and eventually it was decided that we'd add some articles to the coursework so we could discuss race, alongside data and test scores. It wasn't like race was never being mentioned, it's just that it was an analysis of test scores by race without any historical or cultural context.

The following class sessions were challenging on a personal level for everyone involved. People became defensive after feeling like they were being accused of wrong-doing just because they were white. Some black students became emotional, acknowledging they had never honestly shared how they feel about race and racism in front of white people.

Chala never said anything that was bombastic. Classmates would occasionally think what she said was outrageous, but after she calmly supported her ideas with research, I came to believe she is one of the most reasoned, well-read and thoughtful people I know. Her alleged claim that AP and Honors classes are a form of academic tracking can find support from respectable sources by simply Googling the words "academic tracking racism". None of her ideas are outrageous, if you simply dare to read and think about the ideas, rather than dismiss them on face value.

That course with Chala was one of the most memorable but challenging experiences in my life. I started the semester having spent a lifetime never feeling entirely comfortable saying the words "black" or "African-American" in front of African-Americans, despite having lived and studied with blacks. I finished that semester with the personal knowledge about who I am and what role I can play in our struggle for racial equity.

I am finishing my fourth year as the principal of a school on Chicago's southwest side. The school is almost entirely black and brown. If it weren't for Chala I wouldn't have had the knowledge or sensitivity to lead the school to the success it is today. According to work from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, when I began the school was "significantly disorganized", and when I leave in July, it will have flipped to the exact opposite. People who have worked on school improvement for decades told me they have never seen such significant improvement in such a short time frame.

Part of our success is because I could talk about race and racism with my students, their families, and our faculty. Some of our black teachers are upset I'm leaving for another school because they have never had a principal that fought for social justice in a way that addressed race. I began four years ago focusing on test scores and data, but leave realizing that what's most important as a school leader is to develop the culture and climate in the building, and that challenging people to acknowledge and try to understand other peoples' perspectives will lead to better student outcomes.

I still have family and friends in my hometown. Although the town is a tad-bit more diverse it is still very much the same. My white friends from my hometown are mostly silent in the recent debates about racism, except when a few of them want to put all the blame on blacks. I've had to "unfriend" many, after I realize they're so racist that I can't change them. Only a couple of friends from my hometown ever acknowledge the racial inequity in our country. In many parts of our country, it's still impolite to talk about race, despite racism proven to exist again and again through statistics and studies. They are silent, and that's part of white privilege.

Racial equity wasn't achieved after Martin Luther King gave an eloquent speech. Nor was it achieved after we elected a black president, or when Oprah made a billion dollars, any more than when Madam C. J. Walker made her fortune over a century ago. As white people we look to these milestones to convince ourselves the hard work is done, we can go back to the status quo and not forced to feel uncomfortable talking about race.

Chala helped me realize that it isn't the kid in the KKK that's the main problem, but the small, day-to-day interactions that we have to be more mindful of. As a white person I spent most of my life with the privilege of never having to comprehend or even discuss what it's like to be a black person in America. I only knew the perspective of my reality, which is true of most white people. I retain that privilege and if I wanted to, I could find a predominantly white town and live a life where race is considered an impolite conversation. Lake Forest would be courageous if they challenged themselves to not become such a place. Chala Holland will make Lake Forest High School a better place for all people, including whites like me.

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