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.
Reactionaries! Don’t they see that dividing children up into groups by race and causing them to talk about race is bound to teach them all to sing in perfect harmony? Not all the parents think so, and said so in an intense parent meeting:
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.”
Well, the black parent had a point. But can you blame the parents who objected?:
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.
I suspect the Jewish parent who complained would not have complained if his kid had been able to be slotted into an approved progressive victim group, and “racism” would have remained something of which white Gentile conservatives are guilty. But maybe not.
Read the whole thing, and be glad that your kid does not have to be dragged through this grievance-building fun house.