Thursday, January 27, 2005

Bourgeois Blues

Two kindergarten tours in the past week. I'm beat.

This morning we saw the school that seems to be getting all the buzz this year. It is hot, hot, hot, and I can see why. Innnovative programs, terrific kid work displayed in the hallways, lots of hands-on group work in every classroom we saw, small class sizes, lots of fun before-and-after-school programs, a great library. Newly-renovated building. And a smart, charismatic principal who's retiring next year.

The school's a mile or two away from us, in an old Scandinavian neighborhood that's recently been overrun by young professionals with young kids. There were easily fifty parents there, maybe more. All with kids who might be in Mermaid Girl's class. All hyperventilating at the unpredictabilities of school choice and the stress of the recent announcement that the city school system has a several-million-dollar budget shortfall and will probably be closing some schools starting the year after next. But who knows which schools? At every school we visit, the PTA people swear that theirs will not be one of them.

My favorite moment today, a classic of Seattle Weirdness: The PTA president, very noticeably the only Person of Color in the room aside from the principal, at the wrap-up of the tour, running through some of the questions she'd heard over the course of the morning. Math program, check. Anti-bullying policies, check. And--"Someone wanted to know, how many biracial students there are?" She didn't miss a beat. "Well, this is the neighborhood we're in. It's a mostly white neighborhood, and there's not much we can do about it," she apologized. "I mean, yeah, there's a few of us in this sea of white faces, and that's just the way it is." Uncomfortable laughter from the crowd.

"She's Canadian," said the principal, a big Black guy, apparently by way of explanation of the PTA president’s bluntness. (Oh, those famously blunt Canadians…)

PTA Woman forged bravely on: "But we do try to... um..."

"Celebrate diversity!" the principal put in.

"Oh, right." She brightened. "We do. We really do celebrate diversity! And there are some adopted Chinese kids!"

It was funny, but it was bizarre. Okay, I take their point: the school administrators and PTA can't help the neighborhood the school is in, can't help that Seattle is an extremely racially segregated city, can't bring back the cross-town desegregative [is that a word?] busing system that was dismantled several years ago. But if all these parents (including us) really valued racial and cultural diversity so much, wouldn’t we have bought houses in the South End, where there are lots of African-Americans and East African and Asian immigrants and poor people?

The white, middle-class parents I know who live in the more racially-and economically-mixed neighborhood, in the middle of the city, are all freaking out that their kid might get sent to the Bad School. On our side of town, our Reference Area School (not the one we saw today) is considered the Bad School, and it’s not so bad, and I’m glad it’s not.

Is it hypocritical to complain, then, about the whiteness of everything up here? Who knows? I just want this whole decision process to be over, so we know where Mermaid Girl will be going to school next year and can make plans. I mean, I'm glad we have choices, but if they're not going to integrate I'd almost rather they just have neighborhood schools and be done with it.


Blogger Jo said...

Isn't it strange how much "school choice" is actually bound up with economic and racial tension! That's it, a topic for me to over-analyze, all day long.

7:48 AM  
Blogger heather said...

sounds like they are trying, and that's great. right now i live on the "bad" side of town. whenever i hear people refer to the area that way, it makes me mad. it's a lower income area, with more hispanics instead of asians and indians (which, in silicon valley, in my experience, tend to be more affluent than hispanics). as far as i know there is not more crime in our area, so what makes it "bad"?! grr.

on the upside, i'm so happy to be living in a more diverse area. min (my partner) and i used to live in montana...where diversity meant handicapped or queer (still, good things to be representin'!) but 99% of the population was white. .5% were native american, and .5% were everything else non-white. more than a little trippy.

7:49 AM  
Blogger RHD said...

Granted there are lots and lots of reasons why people choose to live in particular places, but really you nailed it right here: But if all these parents (including us) really valued racial and cultural diversity so much, wouldn’t we have bought houses in the South End, where there are lots of African-Americans and East African and Asian immigrants and poor people?I'd be curious to know if the PTA president is planning to continue in that role for next school year, and if not, why not. That would give you another significant piece of info to go on as to what the real deal is there.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

RHD nailed the quote that said it all for me, too. I can't tell you how much I'm dreading the search for schools here in racially/economically segregated Los Angeles County. And the eventual search for and move to another town/state entirely; I'm so worried about how we're going to find The Perfect Diverse Community, with no buttheads, no crime, and everyone happy and living in harmony. You may now commence chortling wildly.

Maybe you should bring MG with you to ask awkward questions next time. (;

11:44 AM  
Blogger LilySea said...

This is one of the reasons we are looking seriously into homeschooling. We are certain we can provide our kid with much more "diversity" than the best schools and much better education than the most diverse schools.

And sometimes I think "Oh but our family will be interracial, we MUST have more diversity." But then I think that if we were an all-white family, that diversity of school and neighborhood would be equally important for different reasons.

So there you have it. Racial justice is probably one of the top 2 political priorities for each of us and for us as a family it may well be number one. But quality education is not something a three-PhD family (so far) is willing to compromise either. So far, in this country, all we can come up with is to do both ourselves.

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This story reminds me of Lisa Delpit, in _Other People's Children_ talking about how terribly uncomfortable middle class white Americans are with the open acknowledgement of power differences.

What interests me most, though, about this story is that the question was not about diversity, it was about the number of biracial students. But the response, both as it happened and in all the follow-ups to this post, was entirely about the concerns of white parents that their children be schooled with children of color.

Here is a link to a very interesting article in last Sunday's Washington Post (required registration will not result in spam):

The article is about the Implicit Association Test (the one you take on the internet, where you associate white & black faces with positive & negative terms and most people turn out to take longer to make black-positive associations than white-positive associations). One point in the article is that people who live in diverse neighborhoods are just as likely as everyone else to hesitate at the black-positive association, BUT people with inter-racial friendships hesitate less. So I would guess that being in a so-called diverse school would not necessarily lead to more tolerant white kids.

I've been thinking since reading this article about one of the original arguments for desegregation in 1954: That having black & white children in the same classroom would dismantle racism because it would naturally lead to many cross-race friendships. Of course, that didn't happen; in fact, in all the celebration last year of Brown v. Board of Ed, the decision was remembered as being all about equitable access to resources, and its intentionally anti-racist history was forgotten. And what we have now, in racially diverse schools, is usually de facto social segregation; and, by high school, tracking performing the same function as segregation used to: keeping races apart with white (& Asian) students often having access to much better resources.

So meanwhile, in this one school meeting in suburban Seattle, one parent, no doubt of a biracial child, asking about whether there are other biracial children at this school: An excellent question, given the difficulties of helping mixed-race children figure out just where they fit in and what they're going to do with their ethnic identity. And then the conversation suddenly rushing off into an ahistorical, apolitical defense of why the neighborhood is white, and the one plain speaker in the conversation making everybody uncomfortable. America is a weird place.


1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Angela again here--I thought more about this posting overnight. (yes, I am a professor of education.) What interests me this morning about this posting is the question of why people want their children in diverse schools, and the apparent reasons we can see in the discussion Els recorded.

In the discussion: Note the comment about there being adopted Chinese children. In my own life, I value being around many different kinds of people for three reasons:
1. For people whose cultural background is different from mine, it's fun to learn about their world views, and thus expand my own.
2. Since we live in a world where power is doled out based on skin color & tone, it's deeply interesting, though in a horrifying way, to learn about the experiences of people who look different from me, compare them with mine, & thus better understand how power functions in our society.
3. Both of these things help me to remodel the inside of my head in more emancipatory, less hateful ways.

So what I think is that it's useful to think about racial diversity along two dimensions: Ethnicity (what's inside, the culture people identify with, the rules they use to make sense of and generate behavior) and race (what's outside, what other people see & respond to).

If people are hoping to expose their children to ethnic diversity, to different worldviews, just having Chinese-born daughters of white parents isn't going to do it--though my students who are adult women adopted from Asia do have very interesting race-based experiences. Ethnically, though, they're pretty standard middle-class-white.

Meanwhile my own family is so odd, racially and ethnically. My partner is ligher than I am--sandy-colored hair, hazel eyes, light skin; whereas I have dark brown hair (OK, gray-streaked brown, now). But whereas I am completely & totally ethnically white, the canonical nice white girl under my very thin soft butch veneer, my partner was raised by three adults (mom & two grandparents), and one of them is Choctaw & grew up bilingual in Oklahoma. Sometimes I think her life would be so much easier if she were darker, because people would interpret some of her most characteristic actions--her deep reticence, caution & bluntness, especially--as cultural. Meanwhile our daughter is African American, but of course being raised by us is ethnically white-with-lots-of-Choctaw. It's odd that people like to have their children around us because somehow by virtue of our crazy family make-up we will convey some benefits of tolerance & insight to them. And yet though it seems silly from my perspective, I can see that it's true. And probably the most valuable thing I find I can do for my students is to serve as a sort of cultural cross-roads, where I can help them interpret one another's logic & experiences. I find myself trying to explain white folks to my black students (a hilarious endeavor) and helping my young white teachers interpret the behaviors of their black elementary school students....

So what I think that all these parents are looking for is for their children to have the same sorts of close relationships which I believe have made me into a smarter, more compassionate person, which include but are certainly not limited to my relationships across ethnic & racial lines. But somehow we use the most shallow proxy for talking about such a profound and satisfying and difficult thing: The proxy of proportion of skin color.

And, the thing is, it never gets easy. Relating across race & culture is always so fraught with peril & the possibility of hurt feelings. Are these parents really sure that's what they want for their children? Always accidentally throwing power around, saying ignorant stuff, having to rethink and be constantly revealed as ignorant and hurting people they care about? Or do they just want their children in the same room with children of color?

Ok, dear, Els, this is way too long, email if I need to take it off-line. Those protests we were going to as baby lesbians have led me to this--where will we be when we are 60? Still just as perplexed?


6:08 AM  

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