The form arrived in an email attachment on the Friday after winter break.“What is your race?”it asked. And then, beneath that, a Census-style list: “African-American/Black,” “Asian/Pacific Islander,” “Latina/o,” “Multi-racial,” “White,” and “Not sure.”
The email, signed by the principal of Fieldston Lower School, urged parents to talk about these categories with their children at home because the next week, in school, the kids would have to check the box that fit them best. “I know there may be some nervous feelings about this program,” the email concluded, but “I am confident that once you hear more details about it … the value and importance of this work will become clear.”
The parents at Lower, as it’s called, are a bighearted, high-maintenance, high-achieving group. They are also, by the standards of the New York City private-school universe, exceedingly liberal — educators and social workers, as well as hedge-fund tycoons. They love the school, and trust it, mostly. But this communication seized their attention. “I was like, Wait. What?” remembers one mother. Another quizzed her 11-year-old daughter as they were driving. “We have to go in our race groups” was how the girl explained it. The mother hoped her daughter had misunderstood.
In recent years, under the direction of its principal, George Burns, Lower has come to look a lot less like the white, mostly Jewish Riverdale neighborhood that encircles the school and more like the Bronx in general. Just fewer than half the kids at Lower are white. Twenty percent are black or Latino, and another 20 percent multiracial. The remainder are Asian or won’t say, making Lower one of the most racially diverse private elementary schools in New York. This has been a big change (when Burns took the job 16 years ago, about 20 percent of the students were kids of color), but as this parent body sees it, it’s all to the good. Lower has always been a progressive place, and in 2015, many are happy to see it as a kind of racial utopia, too.
Now the school was promising to do even more in the name of racial equity, offering a pioneering new curriculum designed to give its youngest students the tools they’d need to navigate their own futures — and to bolster Fieldston’s sense of itself as a standard-bearer in progressive education. The program, which was also put in place this school year at Ethical Culture, Fieldston’s other elementary school, would boost self-esteem and a sense of belonging among minority kids while combating the racism, subtle or otherwise, that can permeate historically white environments. It would foster interracial empathy by encouraging children to recognize differences without disrespect while teaching kids strategies, and the language, for navigating racial conflict. Efforts like this had been popping up around the country over the past decade in progressive private schools and public schools wrestling in more direct ways with the tangle of race and achievement. Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has developed an anti-bias curriculum that 16,000 teachers have downloaded since it became available in September. The Anti-Defamation League does training for kids and teachers in schools — 200 a year in Connecticut alone. And Welcoming Schools, connected with the Human Rights Campaign, helps train the staffs of elementary schools for this kind of learning, traveling last year to Boulder, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Arkansas. In Gallup, New Mexico, a fifth-grade class planned and staged a community arts crawl showcasing the theme “Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action.” In Greenville, Alabama, fourth-graders made picture books answering the question “How have people fought for what is right at different times in history?” and then read them aloud to the school’s second-graders.
But Fieldston’s program would be bolder, more radical: It would be mandatory rather than voluntary, and built into the school day itself; it would compel participation from children of all races who would at first be separated into racial “affinity groups”; and it would start in the third grade, with 8-year-olds, an age when many of the kids have only an inchoate sense of what “racial identity” means. It would be a boundary-pushing experiment, in other words, in a place that seemed exceptionally hospitable to progressive experimentation — but also, undeniably, a privileged and racially anomalous bubble. Fieldston’s unusual identity gave it a better shot than most schools, perhaps, at making this work; and if it did work, its administrators thought, the impact might reach far beyond its cloister.
To all these ends, the third- , fourth- , and fifth-graders at Lower were to be divided once a week for five weeks into small groups according to their race. In 45-minute sessions, children would talk about what it was like to be a member of that race; they would discuss what they had in common with each other and how they were different, how other people perceived them, rightly or wrongly, based on appearance. Disinhibited by the company of racially different peers, the children would, the school hoped, feel free to raise questions and make observations that in mixed company might be considered impolite. The bigger goal was to initiate a cultural upheaval, one that would finally give students of color a sense of equal ownership in the community. Once the smaller race groups had broken up, the children would gather in a mixed-race setting to share, and discuss, the insights they had gained. Then — after all this — their regularly scheduled school day would continue: math, English, social studies, science, gym.
Apprehension moved like the flu among certain factions of the parents. In heated conversations in parking lots and on playing fields over the next few months, they shared and amplified one another’s anxieties, invoking yellow stars, blacks-only water fountains, the Japanese internment — “Brought memories of the Soviet Union right away,” wrote one father on a parents’ email thread. The word segregation came up a lot. For many of the parents at Lower, this program violated the values they’d learned back in their own elementary schools a generation ago. You just don’t sort human beings by race.
But objections were personal, too, and revealing. In a community, and an era, that prizes global identity as a modern elite ideal, the categories seemed confining, artificial: Why was the school forcing these children to define themselves and their families so narrowly? Does racial identity actually assert itself that early? Weren’t these kids way too young to be compelled to think of themselves in racial terms? Besides, what if introducing the problem of race fatally undermined the culture Fieldston had so carefully cultivated — couldn’t it backfire, creating tension between kids where none had existed before? And below the surface, suspicion: Wasn’t the community, full of die-hard liberals, too forward-thinking to need help?
It was not lost on anyone that this program was being rolled out against a national backdrop of explosive racial drama — or that, both within Fieldston and without, the central racial story is still white and black. Mariama Richards, the director of progressive and multicultural education at all Fieldston schools and the lead architect of the program, is herself black — an “equity practitioner,” her Twitter bio says, in public and private schools. In 2013, she had been wooed away from Georgetown Day, where she had done similar work for nearly a decade. The following summer, she and colleagues had developed what has come to be known as the affinity-group program while the people of Ferguson, Missouri, were raging over the shooting, by a white police officer, of an unarmed black man named Michael Brown. So when parents say the new race program has an activist agenda, they are entirely right. In January, after a grand jury failed to indict the police officer responsible for the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, more than a hundred members of the Fieldston faculty signed a letter expressing solidarity with #blacklivesmatter: “This is an occasion when, as citizens and as educators, remaining silent is not a viable option.”
That December, the head of the school, Damian Fernandez, who in a meeting with me identified himself as a white Latino born in Cuba, raised in Puerto Rico, and educated at Princeton (and who happens, also, to be gay), had sent a letter to all the parents. “Schools,” he wrote, “have the ability to model the world we wish to be — a world where each of us recognizes and takes a stand for the humanity of others.” While talking with me in his office, he expanded the thought, “We don’t want to replicate what has happened traditionally. The education that many of us have received about race has not been adequate. Hence, where are we as a nation? We are trying to pioneer, to be at the vanguard of this opportunity, to see if we can get it right.”
White parents who objected to the program felt discomfited, fearful that if they voiced their concerns, they would be tagged as racists. They wanted their kids to talk about race, they insisted. But, as with most white liberals, they seemed to prefer to conduct the conversation on an intellectual level, considering it as a problem of history, policy, or justice — the kind of conversation unfolding already in Fieldston’s mandatory ethics classes. The much more intimate, idiosyncratic, lived experience of race — that is a harder discussion to have, especially when it probes reflexive reactions to difference (fear, disgust, mistrust, anxiety, curiosity, eagerness, attraction, admiration) that are sometimes heated, irrational, and not always pleasant. These are feelings the average white Fieldston parent was raised not to mention. This same parent who sends her children to Lower because she values diversity tends not to dwell on the fact that she has few close friends of color; that her neighborhood is almost entirely white; that her nanny or housecleaner or doorman has brown skin. The program at Lower was designed, and is supported in large part, by people who have spent their lives on the other side of that well-meaning silence and can testify that it’s no way to thrive.
On January 14, ten days before the new program was to launch, Burns, who is white, invited all the Lower parents to a meeting at Fieldston High School to meet Richards and air concerns. About 65 people showed up. After short introductory remarks by Burns, Richards began her presentation, clicking through PowerPoint slides.
The meeting quickly grew tense. Parents took sides, and though the opponents were not divided, exactly, by race (the parent body is far too mixed for that), alliances for or against began to emerge. Antagonists interrupted Richards, asking to see more hard research on the benefits of racial separation and calling into question the qualifications of the 20-odd teachers and staff Richards had tapped to mediate the groups. By some accounts, Richards was shouted down. Others say she grew defensive and dismissive of parents’ concerns. “It was like, ‘Oh, you silly parents, you just don’t understand,’ ” said one mother who was there.
A Jewish parent raised his hand, according to another parent who was there. He grew up in the South, he said, where Jews were seen not as “white” but as something categorically different. When he was a child, the Ku Klux Klan attempted to burn down his synagogue. To lump Jewish children together with other white children is to ignore centuries of history, he said.
“When you walk in the room, I see you as white,” one person there remembers an African-American parent interjecting. “Your child needs to go in the white group.” Another parent remembers it this way: “You have the privilege of hiding behind your whiteness. And my child doesn’t.”
Ben Hort lives in a big, Tudor-style house in Westchester with his wife, Evelyn, and their three children, all of whom are students at Lower. Hort, 46, is the most vocal critic of the affinity-group program and a Fieldston alumnus. His father is an alum, too. When Ben was a kid, his mother served on the PTA and later spent four years on the board.
The Fieldston of Hort’s childhood was a famously open-minded place, a haven especially for Jewish kids who might once have been unwelcome at the city’s best private schools. Stephen Sondheim went to Fieldston. So did Sean Lennon, Diane Arbus, and Barbara Walters. And today, with about 40 students in a grade, Lower parents can rest assured that their children will inevitably have close friends who come from families far different from their own. Any Saturday-night sleepover will expose a child to food, language, chores, customs, hair and bathroom products entirely unlike those found at home, many parents told me. “My daughter has no close white friends,” said one Lower mother, who is white and Jewish.
This vision of the school enacting its own racially integrated future is precisely what has Hort so incensed. Having striven to build a diverse paradise, the administrators at Fieldston are now forcing those children to consider themselves in terms of the color of their skin. Hort was one of a number of parents who in February posted a petition online protesting the program and citing possible “irreparable harm” to the kids; putatively a defense of the school’s traditional values, it also expressed a fear I frequently heard from this group, that the program would introduce a victim mentality to some children who might not otherwise have dreamed of it — and, by extension, a sense of guilt to others. On March 11, Hort sent a scathing letter to the parents with kids in grades two, three, four, and five at Lower. “The discussion of race should certainly be a part of our children’s education, but segregation of any kind is regressive, and separate is not equal as defined by the Supreme Court in 1954.”
Ben Hort is blue-eyed and devilish, like the fifth Baldwin brother if the Baldwin family business were a printing concern. He is half-Irish and half-Jewish. Evelyn Hort grew up in Pelham, and she is of Colombian descent. She has dark-brown skin and black hair. She speaks Spanish to her parents and makes arroz con pollo for her kids. Two of their children look white, or whitish, and one is browner, with his mother’s black hair and almond eyes. To them, making racial identity a multiple-choice proposition diminishes who they really are. “My wife does not particularly think of herself as Latina, and I don’t think my children do either,” Hort told me. “We’re a mix. We’re a lot of different things. The kids are Colombian, they’re Jewish, they’re Irish. They’re from New York; they’re American. We are mixed. At Fieldston, I find we fit in.”
When he first saw the form, the Horts’ oldest child, Billy, who is 11, considered joining the “Multi-racial” group. But “the more I thought about it, the more I thought it didn’t really fit me,” he told me as we sat at the family dining table earlier this spring. “My mom is Spanish, but, like, we’re not — I kind of consider myself more white than Spanish.” After talking it over with his parents, Billy chose the “not sure” group — not because he was unsure of his racial identity but because it was the only way to evade the labels the family could find. (The school says that opting out of joining a specific racial group was always possible through the “not sure” option; this category has since been renamed “the ‘General Discussion’ Group.”)
His brother Jacob, who is 9, chose “not sure” too. “I didn’t really feel comfortable going in any of the other groups,” he told me. In one of the first affinity-group sessions, he was asked to write on a Post-it the things he believes makes him unique. “I said, ‘American. Dog lover. Me,’ ” he told me. “I act in my own ways.”
This discomfort with categories, and preference for a more fluid sense of identity, is partially a matter of upbringing — Billy and Jacob were raised in an ethnically complicated household by parents who embraced the values embodied by Fieldston a generation before. It is also a reflection of social status and affluence, since it is much easier to be flexible about these things when you have resources and social capital to call upon (though it is still hard to imagine a wealthy black family insisting, as the Horts do, that race is not an important feature of their identity).
But it also reflects a genuine generational transformation in the way the broader culture approaches identity, which, especially as it relates to gender but increasingly also mixed ethnicities, is now seen as far more elective and performative, a matter of choice in how we present the pixels of our deconstructed selves. This inclination to parse and take apart identity flourishes especially at places like Fieldston. A senior there is very likely to have friends who prefer to “live outside the binary of gender” and to eventually attend a college with trans bathrooms and gender-neutral dorms. On college campuses these days, there’s a movement among multiracial kids, tired of having to explain their parentage in the language of Census forms and geography to any stranger who asks. What they prefer to be called, they say, is “humans.”
At no developmental age are children less racist than in elementary school. But that’s not innocence, exactly, since preschoolers are obsessed with race. At ages 3 and 4, children are mapping their world, putting things and people into categories: size, shape, color. Up, down; day, night; in, out; over, under. They see race as a useful sorting measure and ask their parents to give them words for the differences they see, generally rejecting the adult terms “black” and “white,” and preferring finer (and more accurate) distinctions: “tan,” “brown,” “chocolate,” “pinkish.” They make no independent value judgments about racial difference, obviously, but by 4 they are already absorbing the lessons of a racist culture. All of them know reflexively which race it is preferable to be. Even today, almost three-quarters of a century since the Doll Test, made famous in Brown v. Board of Education, experiments by CNN and Margaret Beale Spencer have found that black and white children still show a bias toward people with lighter skin.
But by the time they have entered elementary school, they are in a golden age. At 7 or 8, children become very concerned with fairness and responsive to lessons about prejudice. This is why the third, fourth, and fifth grades are good moments to teach about slavery and the Civil War, suffrage and the civil-rights movement. Kids at that age tend to be eager to wrestle with questions of inequality, and while they are just beginning to form a sense of racial identity (this happens around 7 for most children, though for some white kids it takes until middle school), it hasn’t yet acquired much tribal force. It’s the closest humans come to a racially uncomplicated self. The psychologist Stephen Quintana studies Mexican-American kids. At 6 to 9 years old, they describe their own racial realities in literal terms and without value judgments. When he asks what makes them Mexican-American, they talk about grandparents, language, food, skin color. When he asks them why they imagine a person might dislike Mexican-Americans, they are baffled. Some can’t think of a single answer. This is one reason cross-racial friendships can flourish in elementary school — childhood friendships that researchers cite as the single best defense against racist attitudes in adulthood. The paradise is short-lived, though. Early in elementary school, kids prefer to connect in twos and threes over shared interests — music, sports, Minecraft. Beginning in middle school, they define themselves through membership in groups, or cliques, learning and performing the fraught social codes that govern adult interactions around race. As early as 10, psychologists at Tufts have shown, white children are so uncomfortable discussing race that, when playing a game to identify people depicted in photos, they preferred to undermine their own performance by staying silent rather than speak racial terms aloud.
“Multicultural education” is contained in a phrase in Mariama Richards’s job title. It is the name given to the project, exploding over the past decade or so, to intervene in schools so that the benefits of that cross-racial exchange continue through middle school and beyond, and to design curricula around these developmental inflection points to arrest bias while children are still young. Some schools — the Cambridge Friends School, the Blake School in Minneapolis, the Gordon School outside of Providence — have started voluntary support groups for elementary-school-age kids of color. Many others use social-studies courses to introduce to young kids the notion that “white” is a race as much as “black.” It’s an educational frontier, and an infinitely complex problem, and programs and practitioners vary widely; results, of course, are nearly impossible to measure.
The fourth affinity-group session met on April 15, a cool morning that held the wet beginnings of spring. The topic that day was racial perception and stereotypes: How do you see other people? How do other people see you? What assumptions do you make based on appearances? Behind closed doors, in classrooms along a long corridor, the children gathered in racial groups and mediators flashed a slide on a screen. “I see, I think, I wonder,” it said. Then children were shown a photograph of nine kids — racially diverse and, in some cases, racially ambiguous. Within each group, the kids were asked to describe what they saw in literal terms: skin color, hair color, and so on. They were prompted to consider the children in the picture beyond their initial impressions: to wonder freely. In the black group, the children wondered if they’d feel different if all the kids in the picture were black. In one of the white groups, the children were asked to go around in a circle and say what they wondered out loud.
“I said, ‘I wonder if they’re adopted?,’ because I had to say something,” one fifth-grader (whose parents oppose the program) in a white group told me.
“I get to be with people I can share my race with, and I don’t feel uncomfortable about it,” says one third-grader, in the black group, who tells me the only other times he’s surrounded exclusively by black people are when he’s at home or with his basketball team. “We talk about how it’s important to know what your race is. We talk about the difference between being prejudiced and being racist. So I can know when someone’s being racist to me, and I can help other people know that, too. I can say I’m proud of being black. I remember my friend saying that the affinity groups are racist, but they’re not. They put you in a group of what race you are — I don’t think that’s racist at all. We get to make jokes and stuff, and comments. When we’re talking, we get to draw, we get to laugh.”
“It’s so fricking boring,” said a fifth-grader in the Asian group. “We do the same thing every week. The conversations we have are mostly about the tensions between whites and blacks, and never about Asians or Hispanic people. It annoys me sometimes that people are like, ‘Oh my God, people are so segregated.’ But we are never mentioned. It’s just frustrating, I would say.”
The ambitions of the Fieldston program are large, and some aspects are better articulated by the school than others, but at base the school hopes to initiate what it calls “authentic” conversations about race, which researchers suggest may actually have been inhibited by liberal values for decades. Under the spell of color-blindness, previous generations have tended to avoid race as a subject, hushing their children when they refer to playground playmates as “brown,” believing that by not acknowledging race in public they were enacting a desire for equality for all. In fact, in the academic literature, “color-blindness” now refers to the reluctance to address race, not the ideal of casual intermingling.
For advocates of a new approach, that reluctance can be devastating — a refusal to acknowledge the full humanity of others. Racial minorities have developed their own invisible boundaries, too, passed down through generations, around what one says about race, to whom, and where. As they grow up, individual members of racial minorities learn to “code switch” — to toggle between what is expected of them in their home environments and at school and work, an adaptation to living in a largely white culture. And the cumulative result of all these unspoken constraints is a nation of fellow citizens who are foreigners to each other, mute xenophobes whose hearts rush to their throats when a racially charged comment or conflict, or even curiosity, arises.
In schools, minority children tend to experience this mistrust most directly through what’s called “stereotype threat” — the fact that all people, but especially racial minorities, have to confront unspoken assumptions made about them by the broader culture. A whole body of research by social psychologist Claude Steele and others shows how black kids on white college campuses fail to achieve their potential because they internalize stereotypes and, feeling impotent and isolated, cannot break out of the boxes to which society has them consigned. These issues are surely more pronounced in less enviable environments, but on progressive campuses like Fieldston, this issue doesn’t disappear. On the contrary: All the enthusiastic conceptual agreement about equality and justice may serve to exacerbate the problem by papering it over. The same school that is seen by white parents as a happy racial utopia is often perceived by minority parents as failing their children. Even at Lower, where half the kids come from minority backgrounds, a subtle “us and them” flavor persists, a sense that “they” are welcome at “our” school. (One Fieldston parent even put it this way: “You are accommodating them by having them there and giving them a good education and letting them mix together.”)
The affinity-group program at Fieldston is a way of forcing the issue. It requires children, at a tender age, to break ranks with the unexamined silences of their parents and to speak, as the school says, “with their voices” — about the fact that they have a race, that they think and talk about race in a particular way, that they have questions that merit answers. The first step is a kind of enlightened segregation — separating the children to create safe spaces in which, at 8, 9, and 10, motivated by their natural curiosity yet unfettered by the social sorting that goes on in middle school, they are able to engage with these issues. These conversations are very different from learning about race in, say, a social-studies class. Even when studying civil rights, “it was never how you feel about race,” says an 11-year-old girl in one of the white groups at Ethical. In academic classes, “it’s easy to separate what’s right and wrong, what’s good and bad. But in real life there isn’t that definition. In real life, there’s a lot of gray area … I’ve always felt really conscious about what to say about race. It’s often a subject that’s sort of controversial — touchy isn’t the right word. And people can take offense even when it’s not meant that way.” In the white group, she says, she can talk about the assumptions she sometimes makes about other people without worrying she’s hurting anyone’s feelings. “The truth isn’t always this wonderful thing. Sometimes it’s hard to realize, and hard to understand. It’s nice to have a group of people who can comprehend what I’m saying.” George Burns likes to compare the program to sex education. If you teach children the clinical terms early and divide them into same-gender groups to enable frank talk, then by the time they’re ready to explore sex for real, they’ll have words for what they do and don’t want to do, causing minimal damage to their self-esteem.
I was not permitted to see the race-groups themselves — the school cited the privacy of the kids — but I watched as about 40 fifth-graders, full-blown tweens, participated in the mixed-group debriefing. A classroom teacher, Hazel Hunt, stood before them and encouraged members of the individual race groups to “share out” with their peers. The Asian group wanted to say that if you are Asian, you get lots of questions about your religion, and they wanted to mention that Asians come from all religious backgrounds: Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim. The black group wanted to say that people assume that if you’re black, you must live in a bad neighborhood; also that people are sometimes surprised that they go to Fieldston. The multiracial kids shared that what people thought about them depended on where they were — on the Lower campus or off it — and what they were wearing.
Hunt wanted to know if anyone had been mistakenly identified as something they are not, and one kid mentioned that people thought he was older than his age because he was tall. Lots of kids laughed and agreed. Every kid in the room conceded that he or she sometimes made assumptions about other people based on stereotypes — Hunt called this “an ouch moment.” She asked all the kids in the class to be still, to close their eyes and try to reconstruct the feelings they had when these ouch moments occurred. “Where do you feel it,” she asked, “in your body?”
Tanekia Thomas is thrilled about the affinity-group program at Lower. Her daughter isn’t in it yet — she’s only in the second grade — but from Thomas’s point of view, the program can’t start soon enough. She chose Fieldston for her daughter because the diversity there felt real, and, unlike at the other private schools she visited, not just a show to attract more families like hers. Like every parent, she wants to spare her child the traumas she suffered; this program is one step, she believes, to helping a generation of kids see that racial difference is a fact of life — but doesn’t have to determine a child’s fate.
When she was 14 years old, in 1998, Thomas arrived on the campus of Exeter from the Bronx. She had never seen so many white people. “I walked into this world, and I called my mother, and I said, ‘Mommy, I was just joking. Can I come home?’ ” It was hard, Thomas remembers. “I struggled.”
What Thomas had never experienced before was the expectation that she should constantly explain herself — to be the classroom spokesperson for all blacks everywhere about every subject marginally related to blacks. And her personal life was just as exhausting. With her white friends, there was a gulf. “They don’t get it. So I’ve got to stop, and I’ve got to explain my perspective. I’ve got to ask them to see it as if they were a minority. It affected my friendships. Because I can’t just come to you and say, ‘Look, this is what happened to me,’ and have your understanding. Because you literally just don’t understand.”
In her senior year, Thomas took a course called Black Experience in White America, and she explained and explained until she explained herself sick. “Midway through the semester, I said to my teacher, ‘I will not say another word in this class.’ And it broke me. That was a moment where I lost. I lost because I lost my voice, because I was tired of having to explain my position.” Thomas, who eventually made her way to Penn, believes an affinity group will ease that alienation for her daughter. “We need to get to a place where race means nothing,” she said. Unlike Ben Hort, Thomas believes we’re not there yet, far from it, even at Fieldston.
Thomas and I are sitting at a conference table in the bowels of the Ethical Culture School with five other women who passionately support the new program. Half of them are white. And half are black. All of them adamantly refute the notion that racial identity is a self-built thing. The categories matter, they explain, because when you’re black and you walk down the street, everybody — cops, store clerks, prospective employers, total strangers — sees you as black. There is nothing negotiable about that. Black children know irrefutably that they’re black by the time they’re about 6 years old and probably earlier. Black parents almost universally say they talk to their kids about discrimination, and black boys are given “the talk” by the time they’re in middle school: Keep your hands out of your pockets, don’t wear a hooded sweatshirt, your curfew is 9, I don’t care what time your friends have to be home. Unless people are forced to deal, explicitly and directly, with the reality of the existence of racial boxes, then stereotyping, animosity, and all the other racial baggage that comes along with the boxes will persist.
Cristina Melendez, who is sitting at the conference table, also has a second-grader at Lower. She identifies as “ethnically Dominican and racially black.” She believes that the thing to do with boxes and categories is not to pretend that they’re not there or to imagine that they’re somehow porous, but to claim them, to own them, before someone else does. Stereotypes can’t thrive if a real-live human is occupying the box, she says. Like Thomas, Melendez went to an Ivy League college, and like Thomas, she was shocked by her inaugural experience in the white world. The idea that, at 8, children are too young to have these conversations both enrages and amuses her. “I refuse for my daughter to walk into Cornell and realize then that she’s black. I saw many of my people, people of color, drop out because they would internalize their shortcomings as, ‘You don’t belong here.’ If I wait to talk with her about her race because I want to shelter her, then she internalizes it when other people point it out to her: Your hair is ugly. Your hair is curly. You have a different body shape. You have an accent.’ ” Melendez trails off and then resumes.
“I understand that parents say, ‘I don’t want my kid to pick a box.’ But the boxes are already being picked for her left and right. Sometimes people think I’m black, and then I open my mouth” — Melendez has an accent — “and they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re not really black, are you?’ I want to tell you that I’m black. I’m a Latina black woman. I am going to pick, and this empowers my kid to pick. And she’s going to be perceived from that moment on, hopefully, as the person she wants to be. That’s not limiting. That’s not putting my kid in a box. That’s empowering.” As Melendez says all this, her whole upper body is draped on the table, her head propped in her hand. “My kid knows yesterday that she is black.”
The first time I meet Mariama Richards, she is smiling. Sitting in a small office at the Ethical Culture School, she appears confident and impassioned; if she feels any stress at her role at the center of a private-school tempest, it does not show. She sees it this way: At Fieldston, kids get very good at talking about justice. But unless the school gives them real tools to feel comfortable having difficult conversations about race, those innocent elementary-school friendships that the parents so cherish will inevitably dissolve. Those best friends in elementary school will by middle school cease to be friends, and no one will quite understand why. “They’ll end the friendship rather than wade in and have a dialogue,” Richards says. “It’s hurtful to a lot of the white students. It’s hurtful to the students of color. I like to talk about it as a loss. But we don’t understand where that loss comes from. We just know that we used to have this friend one time, and she was so cool, she was the world. And then something happened.” What happened, Richards says, was race.
Both Burns and Fernandez acknowledge that the program might have been rolled out better and more done in advance to get resistant parents onboard. And some scholars and educators, while commending the attempt, express concerns about the program in its details. But over the course of the spring, the program took place as planned, with the full support of the administration and board. This work, of helping minority kids achieve real parity in school and beyond, is too important to defer, they say — and worth a certain number of disgruntled parents.
And a bigger movement does seem to be building. I had coffee in Manhattan recently with Glenn Singleton, founder of the Pacific Educational Group in San Francisco. He consults with Dalton and Spence in New York, as well as with more than 500 public-school districts (including Austin, Berkeley, and Eden Prairie, Minnesota). In a three-stage protocol, Singleton, who is black, urges people to get excruciatingly personal about race, to recall their earliest memories of the moment when race became part of their story and their most recent encounter with race, and to expose to themselves about whatever biases or fears arise with those memories. This is what he calls “the gift of humanity.” Only then, he says, can people start the long, slow process, what he calls the transformation, of beginning to empathize with other people.
For white people, Singleton’s method means eventually coming to the understanding that they’re white — and, more particularly, to understand, on a gut level, what white privilege actually means to them. White people are raised to believe they have no race, that they are “normal.” Their whiteness becomes like water, or air — so pervasive as to be invisible. But a historically white school, which has long catered to white families, can’t say it wants diversity without dealing with the fact that its culture is white, educators like Singleton say. And this is something that makes white families uneasy, because to concede that you have the power is, in some way, to give it up. “There is a whole lot of pushback; white families are not sure they want these environments to be equitable. They don’t feel expert in chaperoning their kids through change because they’re living in a monoracial environment. They say they’re the ones who want to talk about race — well, good luck with that! You don’t even engage with race.”
With her affinity-group program, Richards hopes to accomplish two things. First, she wants to support the kids of color, because they and their parents have told her they need the help. There are still too many incidents of “microaggressions” at her school: A girl puts her hands in another girl’s hair; a boy asks his Asian friend where he’s really from. A number of years ago, a white student in a fourth-grade biography unit delivered a presentation on Jackie Robinson while in blackface; more recently, a child who called Robinson his hero wanted to use blackface to dress up as him for Halloween only to be told no by his parents. Then again, an open dialogue is sure to produce some moments like that, especially at first; messing up, say the administrators at Fieldston, is part of the process. “You can’t just put kids in a room and think that the best of intentions are going to play out,” Richards says. “Best of intentions only get us a certain piece of the way.” But she asks opponents to consider this: If a portion of families say they want something from their school, wouldn’t it be good to give it to them instead of arguing that it’s not needed?
Richards agrees with her opponents on one point. What sets her program apart from similar interventions at other schools is that it’s mandatory — as integral to the school day as gym. Everyone has to participate, even the white kids. When other schools have affinity groups, “they send the white kids to recess.” At this point, Richards laughs. True integration — the thing she calls “equity,” which she distinguishes from “equality” — doesn’t happen if only half the people are talking about it. “What I am suggesting is that we all have skin in the game. I’m suggesting that we all need to be involved in this conversation.” And if the parents will give her a chance, she says, they’ll see that she’s trying to improve the experience of school for everyone. “This is about academic excellence for me. It is not just about making people feel good about themselves.”
It is absolutely not her intention, she says, to lay on 8-year-olds a burden about white privilege or white guilt. “They have done nothing — nothing,” she emphasizes. All she hopes to do is to get a bunch of white kids in a room to recognize that they’re white. And perhaps to ask themselves, if they’re ready for it, “Hey, what does that mean?”
*This article appears in the May 18, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.