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On Kids and Race

October 11, 2008

Some comments on a post at Racialicious caused me to feel the need to write this post. In short, the comments were talking about students self-segregating themselves by race (white kids sitting with white kids, black kids with black kids, etc.) and whether or not that was a “bad” thing. Well, here are my two cents.

I’m a middle school teacher. Currently, the school I teach in is about 50% white, 35% black, 14% Latino, and then one mixed-Asian kid. And the kids definitely DO self-segregate themselves in the classroom, lunchroom – wherever they have a choice of seating arrangement for themselves.

And the question always comes: is this a “bad” thing. Shouldn’t we be getting the kids to mix it up? Does it mean that the kids are already “racist” and we’re only encouraging that by letting it happen?

There are different ways to look at this, but in the end – for me – my answer is that this is perfectly fine. There is NOTHING wrong with it, whatsoever. It just depends on how it’s all handled.

Because the thing is that kids come in to school insecure. They’re scared. Middle school is all about hormonal fluctuations, awkwardness, and embarrassment. And so they come in on hyper-alert for anything that might knock their already-crumbling sense of self all the way down.

So – at the beginning – they want a sense of security. And the first, most basic sense of security comes from feeling like the rest of the people they are around are “like them.” It’s what we continue to do into adulthood – looking for people “like us” to be around, spend time with, and establish close relationships with. So, for the kids (and before they know any other students all too well), they rely on the most basic instinctual indicator of likeness that they can find: physical appearance. That includes clothes (dressing “goth,” “skater,” “hip-hop”) as well as race, but when people talk about self-segregation, it’s race they are looking at, and it’s the most obvious.

So the black kids end up sitting with the other black kids. White kids hang with white kids. Latino with Latino. And the one mixed-Asian kid sits by himself. And – especially at the beginning – that’s okay (with the exception of the lone mixed kid).

Because it helps the kids find a comfort level with school. And without that particular comfort-level, they would head into classes a little more on edge, a little more ready to find a fight (or a breakdown).

No – the REAL problem is the way this phenomenon is generally perceived and/or acted upon. White people are generally the most disturbed by this particular situation. White people get horrified by “all-black” fraternities. They get intimidated when the people of color are all hanging out together, and they talk about how “non-inclusive” that is. They call it “reverse-racism.”

And the same idea is put onto self-segregating kids by white teachers. But I have a secret for you all: what are the only schools where this kind of segregation DOES NOT happen (when the kids have choice)? Think about it . . . Think . . . Right – the only schools where this doesn’t happen are the schools that are heavily dominated by one race (90% or so) – where there are not enough students of another race to successfully self-segregate. Where the kids that don’t make up the majority are at a horrible disadvantage – isolated and on edge due to standing out so strongly. And, normally, this is in mostly-white schools (but it’s definitely true at mostly-black schools, as well).

So what does self-segregation at a school indicate? True numerical racial diversity, plain and simple. But it’s hard for white teachers to see that, because they live in a world (generally) that DOES NOT HAVE that true numerical racial diversity. Let me say that again – the world white teachers live in does not have true numerical racial diversity. Not that the U.S. doesn’t have a level of racial diversity, but that the circles and social worlds that white teachers generally walk through are NOT truly diverse.

They may have their token friends of color, but their worlds are probably highly white outside of – perhaps – their schools. Because most teachers are white, middle-class college graduates. And most white, middle-class college graduates do exactly what they fear their kids doing: self-segregate. They hang out with other middle-class college graduates who (statistically-speaking) are going to be white, most of the time. But it’s not obvious that they are self-segregating in this way precisely because large numbers of another race (or more) are absent. They say, “my group of friends is diverse” because they have those two black friends, and three gay friends, and an Asian friend, while all the rest are white and straight. That’s NOT diverse.

And let me say again that I’m generalizing. But it’s still valid. And it’s mostly the same with the teachers of color, in all likelihood- because we adults tend to self-segregate, as well. But the key difference is that white people tend to fear that when it’s made obvious – by the presence of a large number of racial minorities – while people of color understand that as a fact of life. For us, it’s a survival technique in a mostly-white world.

And that’s where the fear and defensiveness come in when white folks see self-segregation happen in front of them. The simple fact of their own, isolated self-segregation causes them to not be prepared to deal with large groups of another race doing the same. They call themselves “open-minded” because they “allowed” a couple people of color (that come from their own narrow background) to be their friends, and they call those at a mostly-black party “reverse-racists” because their asses weren’t kissed when they walked in the door. It’s why seeing self-segregation in a school as a “threat” is a mind’s clever way of veiling prejudice and a desire to “protect” the white kids.

But I digress. My point being that self-segregation is perfectly natural and the fact that it is possible reflects the numerical diversity that kids need to not feel isolated when in school. To be a little less fearful that a teacher or classmate is going to pick on them or be “against” them because they don’t have other people like themselves around. And that is hugely important in a middle school setting (and anywhere, really). And that level of comfort opens up a kid’s confidence enough to live out the following situation (which I will end with, as a positive note):

One day, in my math class, one of my black students raises his hand. When I call on him, he asks, “Why are all the black kids sitting on this side of the room, and all the white kids are on that side?”

My guess is that a white teacher without a true knowledge of diversity would hem and haw and change the subject. Luckily, I’m not a white teacher. And so I respond by asking him, “That’s a good question, why do you think that happened?” The rest of the class period is spent in an all-class dialogue where we look at social dynamics of race, stereotypes, the need to fit in, etc. Every kid shares their opinion. Every kid has something insightful to say.

After that? No – all the kids didn’t start sitting in a completely mixed racial arrangement like in a political photo-op. But they interacted with each other differently, and had a better understanding of themselves and why they chose to be where they did -without it necessarily having to be a “bad” thing or about “not getting along.”

And that’s just fine with me because that conversation never could have happened in a school where there were too few kids of color to self-segregate, in the first place.

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3 comments

  1. Well done. You’re right, most teachers would not have handled that very well at all.


  2. Thanks. Obviously, I don’t always handle this kind of thing well (my job is CRAZY), but I’ve seen how other teachers react to that kind of thing, and it’s appalling.


  3. I have to admit: I didn’t read the whole post. But after the first few paragraphs about kids self-segregating themselves, I wanted to share my experience.

    I didn’t gain my true friends (that I still talk to today) until I got into high school.

    Being mixed gave me this insecurity, because there were no Asians to fraternize with, and I didn’t quite mix well with the rest of them.

    But once I did find my friends in high school, we were a literal United Colors of Benetton. I was obviously the Asian, and we had a 1/4 black and 3/4 white girl, a lesbian, an average white girl and a closeted gay male.

    I definitely identified myself as a bit of an outsider in school because of my race. But the interesting part is that my older sister identified completely differently: she fit in with the “it” crowd, was a cheerleader, and had lots of friends throughout school.

    So I guess my conclusion is that kids will eventually adapt, and will become friend with those that they identify with, whether they are of their race or not.



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