Sunday, September 23, 2012

"Celebrating Diversity" in the Suburbs

I heard an interesting story the other day. Someone I know is volunteering at an elementary school out here in the suburbs. We'll call her "Volly," and we'll call the school "Still White but Not as White as the Other Schools in the Area" (Stillwhite for short). Here's the school's demographic stats:

EthnicityThis SchoolState Average
 White, not Hispanic71%73%
 Black, not Hispanic24%16%
 Asian/Pacific Islander3%3%

The teachers, as usual in the suburbs, are almost exclusively white.

So here's what Volly told me. When asked to produce his homework, a Vietnamese student who is just learning English said, "My mother ate dinner on it." Not quite understanding, the teacher asked him to repeat himself, and the boy again stated that his mother had eaten dinner on his homework. You and I can probably figure out pretty quickly that the homework had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and had gotten soiled with food. It happens. I once got pizza stains on my students' papers. My husband once spilled a 32 oz. soda into my pocketbook. A good friend knocked a glass of water onto her new laptop, wreaking havoc with her motherboard for years to come. And so on.

Anyway, what was the teacher's response? She thought it was funny, but not in the "isn't that cute!" condescending but not badly intentioned kind of way that adults often adopt toward children. No, this teacher proceeded to retell the story to the other teachers (who I presume were all white but I'm not a hundred percent sure) in that bastion of professionalism known as the teachers' lounge. What followed was, according to Volly, a sickening wave of ridiculing  the student by the other teachers, mimicking his speech in that way that people make fun of Asian languages (you know what I mean), and overall disrespecting the student. There were no administrators present, although I'm not sure if that would have made a difference (I hope it would have). Although I wasn't there, I trust Volly's judgment and she was thoroughly disgusted by the scene.

Okay, so some people are idiots, right? This is just one of those stories of individual prejudice that we all come across once in a while. Our society isn't perfect, but it's much better than it used to be, right?  The problem here is that these people are teachers who impact the lives of their students every day. Do you think they can treat children with respect outwardly when they think of them which such disrespect inwardly? I don't. And I bet if you asked, these teachers would say that they're colorblind when it comes to their students' racial backgrounds.

But the story doesn't end there.  It happened that Volly was present during a meeting in which this same teacher and some others discussed the students' recent scores on a reading test.  The printout of the scores showed each student's name and score.  This same teacher (I can't trust myself to make up a name for her) had written her own comments next to each student's name, presumably to help her understand her students' academic abilities better.  They read: "on level," "almost there," and "never gonna make it." Hmm.  This, class, is a textbook example of how teacher expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you know a student is "never gonna make it," why bother trying?  I don't know what the racial backgrounds of the students in the never gonna make it category are. But I do know that 24% of Stillwhite's students are eligible for reduced or free lunch, and that these students live in the "Section 8" housing in this largely segregated district. I also know that by fifth grade the black students score an average of 33% lower than the white students on state standardized tests. It doesn't take much to do the math as to what category most of the lower achieving, "never gonna make it" students comprise. And here's the important thing: teachers' positions of power in the classroom (and therefore in society) move scenarios like this beyond the realm of individual prejudice into that of institutional racism.

Way to celebrate diversity in the schools, folks.  I can barely wait till Cinco de Mayo.