“White awareness of privilege is apparent in this episode. Some White families interviewed shy away from sensitive language and hesitate to speak candidly, displaying awareness of race but denial of privilege.”
By Elise Franchino
Learn Together, Live Together (LTLT) hosted a series of screenings and discussions on America to Me, a 10-part docu-series that follows a year in the life of students, teachers, and administrators at Oak Park and River Forest High School near Chicago. The series deals with issues of race and privilege within a well-resourced, racially diverse public high school. This blog post is a recap of the episode and conversation among LTLT members.
At the recommendation of the former assistant principal, Chala, the America to Me crew begins seeking White students from OPRF to include in the docu-series. Chala astutely remarks, “Terms like equity, race, and achievement are often internalized to mean non-white students, specifically black and Latino or black and brown students. That’s not the case. Equity is everyone. There’s a top, there’s a bottom, there’s a middle, and we’re all along this continuum.”
During the interviews, many White students and parents are hesitant or uncomfortable to speak openly about race. Students reflect on the lack of people of color in their classes or friendships, while others make questionable assertions such as, “for some reason, it seems like the White kids seem to try harder in school.” Caroline, a new freshman selected, explains the lack of dialogue from White families as, “Maybe just not quite knowing what to say about it.” The crew takes several months before finding their White subjects.
As Paul and Emily’s students enter their reading remediation class, they giggle about the inappropriate words in the assigned text. “There’s a lot more masturbation in that book, you’re gonna have to get over it,” announces Emily. Paul asks if “masturbation” is a noun, verb, or adjective, which a student correctly identifies a noun because it ends in t-i-o-n.
Both Paul and Emily are White OPRF alumni who found their callings as educators. Emily had mostly White friends in high school, and says that OPRF functions as “two schools within one.” Paul had a more diverse group of friends, including students of color in single-parent homes living on his block. He assumed that things were equal between them until he began teaching and coaching, and realized how “uninformed” he was. Paul discloses that his first year teaching, he thought that he should make things easier for his students of color. “None of them need us to feel sorry for them. That does nobody any good.” Now, both he and Emily maintain high expectations and humor in their classroom.
Jada is working on a documentary for her creative filmmaking class, called The Color Complex. The documentary centers on colorism; discrimination based on the lightness or darkness of someone’s skin. Jada asks her participants if they know what colorism means and whether they’ve witnessed or experienced colorism. Students’ knowledge on the topic varies greatly. One White student hasn’t heard of it, he’s only familiar with racism. An African American student states that colorism stems from slavery and power. Tiara volunteers that she has observed colorism, and that darker skin can be judged as less trustworthy.
In response to Jada’s colorism prompt, Veronica reflects, “I think one of the advantages of being White is that I don’t have to think about being White. I never really feel out of place because I’m White. I’m usually the majority in the room. The fact that I don’t really have to think about my race is a privilege.” Jada describes her friend Veronica, a White junior, as “woke” or “enlightened on the issue of race.” We see them laughing over lunch and adventuring downtown together, a pair aware and appreciative of their differences. Jada muses, “I would have never thought that I would have became friends with a white person.”
Jada’s class screens The Color Complex and offers criticism. The theme that grabs her classmates’ attention centers on colorism and dating. The students debate whether having a preference in skin tone is racist. Two young Black women in the class discuss hearing that people wouldn’t date Black girls due to their attitude, not their skin color, and suggested that Jada’s documentary was going deeper than needed. Jada confronts the accusations and her teacher, frustrated that her classmates missed the message in her work. She is not dissuaded from her dream of becoming a filmmaker and knows that her path will not be easy. “What are we doing if we’re not trying to create change?”
John meets with his leadership class, inquiring about the commotion during his absence the previous day. Students recount the details of the prior evening, when hundreds of students attended the OPRF basketball game against Fenwick High School. A private, Catholic, predominantly White school, Fenwick has long been the rival of OPRF. At the game, students were rowdy and many had been drinking. The two schools quickly began hurling insulting chants, such as, “God’s on our side,” “Daddy’s money,” and “Fenwick rejects.” The worst were directed at OPRF students, often castigating their financial status. Fenwick won the game and OPRF students became belligerent, causing a mob outside of the stadium which eventually dispersed. John reflects, “The thing that struck me was that the crowd involved was almost entirely White. It made me wonder what the response might have been if the crowd were entirely Black. The response was a little more delicate than it would have been otherwise.”
Ke’ Shawn’s family is facing uncertainty as their grandmother prepares to sell the house they have been living in and their future housing situation remains unclear. Ke’Shawn’s mother, Danielle, is devastated that the children will have to change schools and communities. Her oldest daughter, Iyana, has been doing well academically and will have to switch schools in mid-January of her senior year. Danielle is most concerned about Ke’Shawn and what future will await him if they are forced to return to their old, unsafe neighborhood. Teachers Michael and Jessica meet with Danielle to offer support, because as Michael says, “I love the kid.”
During winter break, Jessica and Ke’Shawn meet to conference about an overdue assignment. Ke’Shawn tells her that he will take another teacher’s class next year, who won’t let seniors fail. Jessica replies that neither does she. When Ke’Shawn is finished with his work, he offers Jessica a small present, which he says came from his grandmother. Inside, she finds a card, in which Ke’Shawn wrote, “Thank you for being one of the few teachers pushing harder than I am to succeed.” She hangs it with care in her closet.
As predicted by Chala, there exists a continuum of equity in the White narratives and voices introduced in Episode 5. Brendan is the physical embodiment of the ideal baseball player and will likely follow his talent to college scholarships. Caroline’s family has been struggling financially for years, so she’s relying on honors courses and extracurriculars to earn as many scholarships as her sister once did. The most obvious privilege enjoyed by the students this episode is the lack of consequences from law enforcement or administration towards the White students who perpetrated the mob scene following the basketball game.
White awareness of privilege is apparent in this episode. Some White families interviewed shy away from sensitive language and hesitate to speak candidly, displaying awareness of race but denial of privilege. In contrast is the “woke” Veronica, who recognizes the nuances of her privilege and pursues diverse friendships. Though teachers and alumni Paul and Emily seem enlightened now, Paul acknowledges that he was once “uninformed,” while Emily confesses her obliviousness in high school. Awareness of privilege exists on a continuum and is a process which we hope to see our new protagonists continue to develop.