Friday, December 20, 2013

The Other Marianne Modica?

Last month I was invited to participate in "One Book, One Church," a program sponsored by Wayne Presbyterian Church. (Check it our here: One Book, One Church at Wayne Pres.) Beginning in February, I hope to take part in group discussions about the New York Times bestseller, "The Other Wes Moore," which parallels the lives of two young African American males with the same name.  It's an interesting read: both Moores grew up with single moms in difficult circumstances, but while the author was able to break free from the poverty and crime that surrounded him, the other Wes Moore committed a crime that left a police officer dead and landed him in prison for life. The story invites the reader to ask, why? What factors in the lives of these two young men influenced their choices? For that matter, how much of the way their lives unfolded was due to choice, and how much to inescapable circumstance?

Maybe because I'm an early childhood teacher educator, reading this book brought to mind a longstanding debate in the field of child development -- nature v. nurture.  (Remember that Eddie Murphy/Dan Aykroyd movie,  "Trading Places"? I loved that movie.) Why was one, but not the other Wes Moore able to overcome his difficult environment? Was there something genetic, some biological attribute that the author inherited that helped him avoid the negative influences of his environment and make a decent life for himself?

Sociologists reading this book might think of a different debate known as structure v. agency.  How much do structures in the environment influence people's life paths, and how much does their own individual freedom to choose determine the lives they end up leading? Are structures like poverty and crime so engulfing that they are almost impossible to escape? If so, how is it that some people do break free? Is it a matter of will power, luck, fate, or karma? Or is there some other mysterious factor involved? As a person of faith, I believe in God's providence, but I also know that there are no guarantees and that bad things can happen to people regardless of their religious beliefs.

I don't know. I do know that the author of the book, the Wes Moore who made it, had educated parents and a family support system. He had relatives who were able to provide the financial help needed to get him out of his deteriorating neighborhood and send him to Valley Forge Military Academy (located right in this area). He had social capital that the other Wes Moore didn't have. Still, are those the only reasons for his success?

There isn't really another Marianne Modica, but I did once have an older brother, Phil, and people did say we looked alike (or maybe I just wanted to believe that because he was really cute).  Phil was seven years older than I, and as a young kid I worshipped him.  He read me comics (The Justice League was our favorite) and introduced me to The Twilight Zone, which, luckily, I was too young to understand and so avoided nightmares. Then, as a teenager, Phil began using heroin and soon became an addict.  He dropped out of school, stole, spent time in jail, and was in and out of our home until the day he and his friends started a fire in a bedroom with a cigarette; at that point my parents kicked him out for good. We sort of stayed in touch, as I'd see him around the neighborhood every once in a while. Phil finally died a drug-related death at the age of 24.

So why did reading "The Other Wes Moore" make me think of a brother that I lost so many decades ago? It made me wonder how kids from the same neighborhood, and even from the same family, can turn out so differently. My family's white, working class status provided me with the benefit of a safe neighborhood and a good education, of that there is no doubt. But my brother was the recipient of that same kind of capital. And like him, I certainly was no angel when I was growing up. In fact, I took risks that could have gotten me into serious trouble. Life could have turned out very differently for me. Yet here I am, this Marianne Modica. I feel grateful that the other Marianne Modica, the Marianne Modica that easily could have existed, didn't. Grateful and incredibly lucky.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Who Paints the Picture?

Drew G.I. Hart, whose blog I follow, posted an important essay that tells the story of Renisha McBride, a 19 year old African American woman who was shot in the face while seeking help from a white man after being involved in an auto accident. I encourage you to read Drew's blog here:

The shooter, Theodore Wafer, said that he believed his life was in danger, and that he fired his gun accidentally (I'm not quite sure what one argument has to do with the other). There were no signs of forced entry -- Renisha (who along with being disoriented from the accident was under the influence of alcohol and marijuana) had only knocked on Wafer's door.

Drew's point is that the shooter saw a black woman and believed he knew her essence -- this was a dangerous person. This was a person who needed to be stopped.

A young African American named Ryan woman expressed a similar sentiment to me. She said:

I feel like as soon as an African American person walks into a room they’re categorized, their whole entire life is just spilled out in front of them because everyone already knows their entire, you know, their struggles and everything. But for a white person it’s not like that. I mean, I feel like people give them a chance to, you know, tell about themselves and, you know, paint their own picture. I feel like for African American people it’s painted. 

Although no one was shooting at Ryan, the feeling she describes reflects Drew's argument. As a white person I can't know what it would feel like to have people of the dominant culture paint my picture the way that Ryan so poignantly described. I do know what it feels like to be the one painting the picture, the one making assumptions about people because of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. Of course, I would never shoot first and ask questions later. Most of us would not respond violently the way that Wafer did. But in much more subtle ways I struggle with allowing people to paint their own pictures, as Ryan deserves to do.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Hmm, Let me rethink that idea...

I say po-tay-to, you say po-tah-to,
I say to-may-to, you say to-mah-to
I say race, you say affirmative action...

I know, that's not how Fred and Ginger sang it.  But sometimes after talking with a class (or with individuals, for that matter) about race, I hear this crazy version of the Gershwin classic running through my head. It seems like whenever the topic of race comes up (usually in class because it's part of my curriculum) it doesn't take more than a minute or two for someone to bring up what he or she perceives of as the unfairness of affirmative action.

"Whites are the victims of racism, too," is usually how this conversation begins.

"Really? How so?" I'll ask (although, of course, I know what's coming).

"When I was applying for college there were a ton of scholarships I wasn't eligible for because I'm not a minority. That's not fair."

So, even though I might have planned to talk about some other aspect of race relations (like, say, the inequity of our educational system), we wind up talking about affirmative action.  It's almost as if, for many whites, this is the default position when the topic of racism comes up. These folks argue that America should be a meritocracy -- people should gain benefits based on merit alone, and that to take race into account in any way in terms of college admissions or hiring is racist against whites.

So, you can imagine how a study by a professor named Samson at the University of Miami caught my interest.  The researchers asked participants to decide how important various criteria should be for admittance to the University of California. One half of a group of whites were asked simply that. The other half were also told that, proportionately, there are more than twice the number of Asian American undergrads in the University of California system than there are in the state of California.

Guess what happened.  The first group thought that SAT scores should be the major criteria for college entrance.  But the second group, the group that was told of the disproportional number of Asian American students in the university system, decided that criteria other than SAT scores should be considered in admissions decision-making.

So much for the meritocracy.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Oh yeah. That.

Much of the time I spend talking and writing about racism is spent explaining that although individual racism has decreased dramatically in the last several decades, institutional or structural racism still affects the lives of all of us every day. As I tell my college students, Archie Bunker is dead and gone. (Unfortunately, most of them don't know who Archie Bunker was, so they kind of miss the point). This doesn't mean that racism is over, I tell them: education, housing, and incarceration are all examples of how race continues to function to privilege some at the expense of others. Although the statistics describing how whites are privileged in these areas are readily available, most white people I've come into contact with remain unaware.  In fact, one of my dissertation research conclusions is that students need to read and talk more about how racism exists today, along with the "classics" that depict racism in the past. When students' knowledge of racism is fed only by lessons on slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, and when the only works of literature they read on the topic are historical in nature, students can easily come away with the idea, "Wow, things really sucked back then. Thank goodness times have changed."

Anyway, that's not really my point today.  In the middle of all my thinking about structural racism I sometimes forget that individual racism is alive and well.  Here are two examples:

The football guy - what's his name again?  Oh yeah (I just looked him up), Riley Cooper.  Seems he got a little drunk and used a racial slur against a security guard at a concert. Hmm...Mel Gibson all over again. Getting drunk doesn't transform people into racists or anti-semites.  It just brings it to the surface.

Then there's the story a young person told me recently about an acquaintance (white, of course) who has Trayvon Martin's picture taped to his dart board.  That last sentence was almost to hideous to type, but it's the truth.

Archie isn't gone after all. He's simply been living underground.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Result of Racial Profiling

Although I've been following the news about the trial of George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager, I've hesitated to comment until now. I guess I was waiting to see what would happen. Now that we have the disappointing trial results, I add my voice to those who believe that a great injustice was done. For me, it all boils down to this: Zimmerman followed a "suspicious" looking youth. What made this youth suspicious? He was black. For those of my white friends who roll their eyes (inwardly or outwardly) at situations like this, saying or thinking, "Here they go again, playing the race card," let me just say that this case is all about race. Period. As whites we have no idea what it would feel like to send our sons out into a world every day where the color of their skin puts them in jeopardy, where they are continually suspect because of their physical appearance. We have no idea.

Therefore, I want to give voice to an insider to the pain the Zimmerman verdict has caused. Here is a blog post from Drew Hart, a minister and graduate student of theology. Drew writes from a Christian perspective, and I find his posts to be informative and insightful. I believe it's important to give voice to someone directly affected by this event. I hope you'll read and consider carefully what he has to say.  Drew Hart's blog.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Beyond the Facade of Uncritical Multiculturalism

This week I had the privilege of leading a session at the Alliance AG Faculty Conference in Springfield, MO.  I shared a small qualitative study that explores white college students' experiences with racial diversity.  Below is an abridged version of my session.

Beyond the Façade of Uncritical Multiculturalism:
Talking about Race with Pre-service Teachers

We all know that the U.S. is becoming increasingly racially diverse.  Yet, as of 2011, 84% of teachers are white. This presentation describes a small qualitative study I conducted to assess white pre-service teachers’ experience in thinking and talking about race.


Over these years I’ve discovered that most of my white students have thought little about race. Here is what they tend to believe on the topic:
  • Racism was a terrible thing that happened in the past. It was fixed by the Civil Rights Movement and is largely over.
  •   Racism is defined as individual prejudice. Since most people are no longer individually prejudiced, again, racism is largely over. Students have no knowledge of structural or institutional racism, and tend to resist Wellman’s definition of racism as  “A system of advantage based on race.”
  •  The way to deal with race is to be colorblind. Talking about race just makes things worse.
  • The United States is a meritocracy.  Anyone from any background can achieve anything if he/she simply works hard enough.
  •  Students tend to resistance the notion of white privilege, and often adhere to “reverse racism” discourses: i.e., because of affirmative action policies, whites are now the disadvantaged race. 

None of this is surprising, since most of these students were probably exposed to uncritical multiculturalism in school, if diversity was addressed at all. 

Uncritical multiculturalism is also known as the “heroes and holidays” or “add-on” approach. It attempts to “celebrate diversity” by talking about cultural beliefs, customs, celebrations, food, etc., of non-mainstream groups. Presenting multiculturalism as cultural difference only does not go far enough in addressing past and present inequity. Further, uncritical multiculturalism is damaging if it leads to tokenism or reinforces stereotypes.

Critical multiculturalism looks at issues of past and present power and privilege based on race and other areas of oppression. Under the rubric of race relations, white privilege and inequity in the educational or criminal justice systems are examples of topics explored under the rubric of critical multiculturalism.

Recognizing that most of my white students were very inexperienced in thinking and talking about race, I began to look for resources to help them take a more critical look at multiculturalism. Being a lover of young adult fiction, I looked around for novels that explore racism from the perspective of a white protagonist in a contemporary setting. I began to realize that most of the fiction my students read during their K-12 education consisted of stories set before the Civil Rights Movement. This, I believe, reinforces the idea that racism is a past phenomenon only. 

Adventures in The R Word

The R Word, my young adult novel, looks at the journey of racial identity of a young, white protagonist in a contemporary setting who, through forming friendships with teens of color, comes to think about and understand racism for the first time. The novel’s protagonist, Rachel, is a very sheltered Italian American teen who lives in the white suburbs, but, through a series of events, attends an afterschool multicultural program called The Tolerance Project in the nearby urban center and becomes friends with teens of color for the first time. Through these friendships, Rachel begins to understand what contemporary racism looks like. Some issues that Rachel begins to think about are racial profiling and educational inequity.

When I started to look for a publisher for The R Word, I was fortunate to receive several critiques from mainstream publishers and authors, and although they were positive about the novel in some respects, they questioned the very aspects of racism that I was trying to depict. I decided to compare these comments to my students’ BlackBoard discussion forum postings about The R Word.

Following are comments about The R Word from professional publishers, reviewers, and authors:

“…most of today’s teens, even those sheltered for whatever reason and in the suburbs, have encountered questions about race…

“I thought the developing relationship with Henry is nice and could take more focus of the story if the plot centers around issues interracial couples face rather than Rachel coming to terms for the first time with what white privilege is…This may focus the story on something readers care about...”[1]

“The issues of race, class, etc. never go away but the way that race—referred to in the title as the “R word” makes the book feel dated…”

“…the manuscript seems, as if it's reflecting the 70s rather than today, during a time when busing was being introduced to address the inequities of our inner city school systems and districting compared to the suburbs.”

Student Responses

Once The R Word was published, I began to use it in my Multicultural Education class. I decided to conduct a small study to compare my students’ opinions about the way racism is dealt with in the novel with the reviewers’ comments I’d received. Would my white students, many of whom come from segregated suburban and rural areas, feel that the themes of racism in The R Word are outdated?  Using a BlackBoard discussion forum, I asked them to comment on the following two statements:

1. The racism depicted in the novel is unrealistic, because our society had moved past the intolerant attitudes displayed by some of the white characters in the book. Also, the scene depicting school segregation is unrealistic.

2. Rachel is an unrealistic character because she's too sheltered. It's not possible that in this day and age a girl of her age has not thought more deeply about racism.

There were 15 students in the class, (14 white, 1 South Asian; 14 female, 1 male) and their responses were overwhelmingly similar: they felt that Rachel’s inexperience in thinking and talking about race was very much like their own, and that the situations that depicted racism in the novel were realistic.

Here are some of their comments:

“I for one have not thought very deeply about racism…I'm sure there are many girls that come from sheltered homes, such as Rachel. I had a friend growing up that moved here from Italy and her parents were VERY protective of her. The character often reminded me of this friend.”

“I disagree with this person tremendously. What kind of bubble are they living in??? First of all, there are many families who still have racist opinions similar to Rachel's family.”

“I do not think Rachel's life was unrealistic, in fact I think it's pretty common to find people her age to be sheltered in this sort of way.”  

“In my own life, I was not nearly as sheltered as Rachel, but I still didn't think much about racism at all, and I think the people I went to high school with would say the same thing. We all never gave racism much thought because it was something we thought shouldn't be talked about--that it was better if everyone pretended the problem didn't exist.”

“I also disagree with the critics who stated that the scenes depicting school segregation is unrealistic--you don't have to go into many schools in areas not too far away from each other in order to discover the major differences, just like in the book.”

“I believe that the racism in the book wasn't unrealistic at all. I believe that we all want to think that our nation has come past the point of racism, but I've seen it in my closest friends and family. They don't believe they are racist or that they live in a racist society, but things they say portray racism. So no, I don't think the racism in the book was unrealistic at all.”

“Unfortunately, Rachel's sheltered character is all too realistic. Regardless of the day and age, youth can be just as naive as Rachel is. If one isn't exposed to situations in which they are faces with people different then them, it is all too easy to just be unaware of the issues involved.”

“…I don't think that Rachel is an unrealistic character because she is too sheltered. Throughout the novel she thought about race more than I ever did at her age… In fact, I don't remember having any debates or discussions about anything to do with race or racism today.”

“I remember that our textbooks actually talked in length about the Civil Rights Movement and slavery, and that our school urged us to be tolerant of others (in every facet.) However, most of us did not think about race to the extent that this class has because we simply did not see many examples of diversity within our own school environment.”

“I do not know what the critics could have possibly been thinking in these statements. There are plenty of people who the very sight of a person of color will lead to a displeased look or racist comment… Now can people be as sheltered as Rachel? My answer is yes. While we all learn about race in school, we do not learn about it to the extend that it really affects our lives or world today.”

“I, just like Rachel was very sheltered. When i was Rachels age the thought of racism never crossed my mind. I went to private schools my whole life and only associated with family and a few friends. It is possible for people in this day and age to not think deeply about racism.”

“I, like Rachel, was not faced much with the issue of Racism. I rarely went into the city, there were hardly any black people at my church, and I was never forced to think critically about racism… I think this scenario is very probable in today's world because many white, segregated, suburban children are in the exact same position as Rachel.”

“My grandfather is very much like Rachel's grandfather. I remember telling my grandfather and his brothers that I had a boyfriend when I was 16. Their first question was "Is he Black?" After I said no, they all let out a sigh of relief and told me that dating a person of another race would never be acceptable.”

 “…the depiction of school segregation is completely realistic. In my high school there was one black person in my graduating class while 20 miles away in the city of Scranton you would find the majority of students in the city school to be people of color.”

“I have experienced people being followed around in the stores because of their color or even seeing people in restaurants not being served equally because of their color, which is so upsetting and at times frustrating.”

“A friend of mine was followed around WAWA because the owner’s thought that he was Mexican, he is an Italian young man and many people mistake him for being Mexican.”

  • We cannot assume that our students have thought about race during their K-12 experience.
  •  Many majority white schools do not address issues like racism other than in history classes. Studying racism through the topics of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement only reifies the idea that racism is a past phenomenon.
  •  Tokenistic recognitions of Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month (if addressed at all – my children’s suburban school did not) do not help students to think critically about the way that race functions to distribute power and resources in our present day society.
  •  As my experience with reviewers taught me, our students are not alone in their belief that racism is defined as individual prejudice, and that it is a thing of the past. Many adults share the same beliefs.
            Uncritical multiculturalism, and with it, the colorblind approach to race, is prevalent in our schools and in society.  Times have changed in many ways, but little has changed in our educational system to help white students broaden awareness of how race functions to maintain power hierarchies. Teacher education programs must take a critical approach to multicultural education if white students are to think deeply about the way that power and privilege continue to function in our society.

[1] I found it interesting that this reviewer implied that readers do not care about white privilege.  He or she is probably right, but the point of the novel is to help them to think and care about it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Friday, June 14, 2013

A Tale of Two Schools

I was at a dinner a few weeks ago when I got into a conversation with some folks about racism. That happens a lot when I tell people about my dissertation research. When I mentioned my findings (which confirm many others) that some white high school students think about racism as individual prejudice only, believe that it is largely a thing of the past, and don’t want to discuss it in school, someone asked how racism still exists today.  That brought up the topic of educational inequity. 

In my young adult novel, The R Word, there is a scene where some high school students do a bit of their own research by comparing two schools, one suburban and mostly white and one urban and mostly African American.  Although the schools are fictional, they are meant to be in the Philly area, and when I wrote the story I envisioned them to be about 30 miles apart. 

Drick Boyd, who also blogs about race at, reminded me that you don’t have to look 30 miles to find schools that are acutely and disturbingly unequal.  Here are two that he mentioned, offered here for comparison.  The stats listed are compiled from a few websites:,, and  These two schools are 3.8 miles, or about 10 minutes away from one another.

Lower Merion High School -
Lower Merion School District
Overbrook High School -
Philadelphia School District
Number of Students
Racial Demographics
White = 77%
Black = 12%
Two or more races = 1%
Asian = 8%
Hispanic = 2%

White: 1%
Black: 97%
Two or more races = 0
Asian = 0
Hispanic: 1%

Economically Disadvantaged
State Rank (based on standardized test scores)
17 out of 676
660 out of 676
Reading Scores
Advanced: 69%
Proficient: 20%
Basic: 6%
Below Basic: 6%

Advanced: 6%
Proficient: 19%
Basic: 25%
Below Basic: 50%

Math Scores
Advanced: 61%
Proficient: 22%
Basic: 10%
Below Basic: 7%

Advanced: 3%
Proficient: 13%
Basic: 24%
Below Basic: 61%

Amount Spent per Student
Average Teacher Salary
$58, 065
Graduation Rate

The differences in these stats are astonishing for two schools not even four miles apart. The average jogger could make if from one school to the other in under an hour. What are the causes for such discrepancies? I’m sure there are many factors involved, and I couldn’t begin to answer that question without engaging in an in-depth study.  Surely spending per pupil is a factor, but it is certainly not the only factor. The poverty that is the legacy of our racist past affects children in all kinds of ways, and when 98% of a school’s population is economically disadvantaged, even the best teachers would have their work cut out for them. But it would seem to me that we should be spending MORE money on children who come from under-resourced communities, not almost $10,000 less per year.  Something here just ain’t right.