Recently, news outlets have been covering two letters decrying antiracism work at two elite, private schools in New York City. In the first letter, Andrew Gutman, a white businessman, describes pulling his daughter out of Brearley School, citing the school’s “obsession with race”, and sending his letter to hundreds of families whose children are enrolled at the school. In the second letter, Paul Rossi, a teacher at Grace Church High School, criticizes the school for inducing “students via shame and sophistry to identify primarily with their race before their individual identities are fully formed.” In both cases, the authors tie their specific experiences at these two schools to a growing movement of antiracism throughout our society, which Gutman claims is creating “a generation of students taught to hate its own country and despise its history.”
Nothing could be further from how I have experienced antiracism work in my own organization, the Network for College Success, and the schools where our organization serves. I must acknowledge that I have neither visited these two New York schools nor spoken with anyone who attends or works at them, so I can not speak to the particulars of the work they are doing there. But I know that I have experienced antiracism work as meaningful and a means to build up both a community and its ability to address the needs of all of its members.
At my job, we engage in focused antiracism work and have helped lead that work at our partner high schools. This involves meeting in racial affinity groups, where everyone comes together with those who claim a similar racial identity — white, Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, and so on. In these groups, participants talk with one another and heal in ways that cannot occur in settings across race because of past and present racial trauma. After these race-alike conversations, the racial affinity groups come back together and share with one another across difference.
This work can produce discomfort for all of us, but especially for us white people. In both the affinity setting and when we come back together, we white people experience and hear some truths that we might not normally hear, including how we have created harm ourselves connected to race. I hear echoes of this discomfort in the letters that Gutman and Rossi wrote — the desire to avoid hearing how we continue to cause harm through our small comments, through our hiring decisions, through our refusal to change the cultures of our schools and workplaces. This discomfort doesn’t mean that we should have negative feelings about ourselves or about white people as a whole, just that we must reckon with what has happened in the past that still reverberates now as well as what we continue to do.
We should be familiar with this process of having time to reflect, then being able to share challenging feelings with others and grow in relationship. This process is what allows us to grow and deepen relationships in every area of our lives: with friends, with family members, and with romantic partners. We have to know ourselves, we have to trust other people, we have to share, and we have to listen to grow as individuals and in relationship.
I have seen evidence of this growth in the schools where our organization works as well. In the schools that do this work with adults, the adults are more likely to be vulnerable with one another and share about their professional practices, which is what we must do if we want to learn about and improve teaching. And in schools that do this work with students, the students are able to bring more of themselves to school and hear more truths about and from their classmates and friends.
Building these relationships within and across groups is more important now than ever. Gutman claims in his letter about Brearley School, “We have not had systemic racism against Blacks in this country since the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, a period of more than 50 years,” which indicates to me that he has a very constrained view of what systemic racism is. Some in my community and around the country hold such views as well. Antiracism work that explicitly names and asks people to talk about their race and racial experience is the problem, they say. According to this group, racial discrimination may exist, but forcing discussions of race is just as problematic. It is hard for me to consider these sentiments without thinking about the shifting white views of Black Lives Matter and BLM protests. In June 2020, just after George Floyd was killed, 10% more white people supported Black Lives Matter than opposed the movement, but now that has flipped, with 10% more white people opposing than supporting.
This is a crucial moment for racial justice in this country. In truth, we keep experiencing crucial moments — moments when we could make decisions that would move us toward a more equitable and fair society. The structures of antiracism work — coming together with others of your race to better understand your own ideas and impact, then joining with others across racial difference to share, create healthy conflict, and grow — are essential for us to do this work of building our individual, community, and national connections. It is through the vulnerability created by these structures that we can create true relationship and true justice.
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