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On Washington, History and Diversity in Independent Schools

02/21/2015 05:33 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2015

A few years ago I went with my then 6-year-old daughter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the renovated galleries of the American Wing. It holds works of art made in our country, first in competition with the European traditions, later more freely and independently American. The main attraction is the fully restored painting Washington Crossing the Delaware by the German painter Emanuel Leutze. I can honestly say that my daughter couldn't care less: the supercharged emotions of honor, courage and patriotism and the icy waters left her cold. She did like the period rooms with their educational touch screens much more and so we spent most of our time there, especially in the colonial Dutch room, which I - coming from that country - enjoyed.

Since my white partner and I adopted two children of African-American heritage I am more than ever aware of the diversity in a space. It was easy to see that my daughter was the only black human being in the American Wing for all the time we spent there. But it was also easy to see that the art in the American Wing was totally white, just as white as the historical concept behind the display. The description of the Wing on the Met website doesn't contain the words 'black' or 'African American' and exactly one line is devoted to the original people of this continent. The term American as used in one of the largest and most influential art institutions in the nation is exclusive and keeps amongst many, many others, my daughter out of the definition.

I was reminded of that Met outing when Presidents' Day Weekend an op-ed in the New York Times appeared, with the title George Washington, Slave Catcher. Was boredom the reason for her disinterest, after this article my daughter's coldness toward the first American president could be one day informed by the fact that he was not only a slave owner, but also that he signed the first fugitive slave law and that until his death in 1799 he was actively hunting down the one slave who escaped.

The idea of history, of American history is changing. There are many, all connected reasons why. Here a few. There is the growing awareness, that our country is not discovered by Columbus, but that with him the ethnic cleansing of the original inhabitants began. We can see that our population in its physical features shows less and less the origins of the white nation building European colonizers: 'our' history is not 'their' history. We know that the ideology of individual identity has corroded the monolith of national identity: 'who am I' took precedence over 'who are we'. The West Indian, African American and Gay parades in New York are not about affirming the place of these groups in the American mainstream, like the Polish and Irish parades did in the past and still do, but are about challenging and changing the mainstream culture. The myth of white colonial culture as the core of American identity is waning, but as we see in the example of one of three leading art institutes in the US, the Metropolitan Museum, it is still very much present.

The discussion about what American history is, is raging all over the country, most recently in Oklahoma where a conservative Representative fights the new advanced placement history course. '[T]he emphasis of instruction is on America as a nation of oppressors and exploiters,' he said and proposed legislation, which requires to 'study certain documents already taught in American history classes such as Thomas Paine's "Common Sense" and "The Gettysburg Address". But the bill also require[s] the Ten Commandments and three speeches by Ronald Reagan.'

The choice for the reality of history instead of the historical myth, is not the choice for Washington was a horrible racist and a slave owner instead of Washington was a great man and an inspiration for the Nation. The reality is that he was both. The reality is that the bible and the Ten Commandments were of eminent importance in our history, but were at the same time instrumental in the most horrible crimes committed by this nation. (And now the reader chooses something bad from Ronald Reagan's career.) In the words of Walter Benjamin: 'There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.' The exclusion of the negatives as the Oklahoma Representative implicitly suggests make those who suffered under those negatives understandably uncomfortable.

My black daughter attends an independent school in New York City and also there - as in most of its sister institutions - the myth of white colonial and post-revolutionary history as basic American is still alive. Maybe not all the time in the academic setting - we are in New York City and we know how to talk 'nice' - but this idea of Americanism is still interwoven in the visual school culture and in the curriculum. Diversity and inclusion, and the publicly stated commitment to these societal virtues, are by now standard in the mission of independent schools. They all have diversity directors to educate and guide their flock on the right path. However the daily reality has not yet adapted to the ideological goodwill. The diversity struggles in New York independent schools, were very well documented in a New York Times' piece of February 20.

Our school for example has in fourth grade the annual 'Colonial Fair', which is the final celebration of several weeks of a curriculum where kids learn about colonial times. When I, without any explication about the nature of that fair, tell black friends about the existence of this educational enterprise they all react by shaking their head, raising their hands and turning up their eyeballs, or starting to giggle. White friends' reactions are mostly neutral or positive. My black friends see immediately the problematic side of the fair, see immediately the exclusion of all of those who are not Northern and Western European white. White friends gradually discover the problem, and the less Anglo-Saxon they are the earlier they get it.

I am confident that our teachers will do everything to make sure the kids understand the context of colonialism, will become aware of the crimes against Native Americans and African Americans. Our school is not in Oklahoma, but in a New York borough where almost half of the population is not white and most, maybe all, of the families and teachers agree with diversity and equality as an integral and essential part of the education of our kids. Nevertheless there is the fair.

At the fair the kids dress up in time appropriate clothing that expresses trades and occupations from those days: blacksmith, baker, miller, etcetera. The fair itself should be of course a happy and unifying experience. The question rises however, how do children of later immigrants, like Italians, Arabs, Hispanics, Irish, Jews and Chinese fit in? Could that be done with some acting work? Most difficult is of course, how do African Americans fit in, they actually lived unlike the others in colonial times? How does my daughter who is just a year away from the 4th grade fair fit in? Does she have to dress up to personify a white person? A white person, like Washington (and Jefferson and others), who probably would have owned and abused slaves, or would have supported slavery? My ugly choice as a parent next year seems to be: let her pass as white or forbid her to participate. The third choice that she portrays a slave, which would be accurate, is unconscionable.

I imagine that the problematic exclusive side of the colonial fair, formerly Dutch Fair, at our school has been discussed in the past, but it never got the critical mass to actually change that tradition. Of course is the expression of the white colonial myth of what America is, embedded in a wider school context. It is embedded in the lack of real life diversity in independent schools, hidden in the curriculums, showing in the school décor, popping up the behavior of the kids, the staff, the faculty and the parents, in the unconscious use of exclusive language, in the daily micro aggressions. That is not because our school is insensitive or conservative or lacks empathy, it is because it is hard to really understand what it means to be on the other, non white side. I am blessed, not in the sense that I am any different from my white peers, but to have the chance to look sometimes through the lens of my kids and see what it means not to be part of the traditional, well off white majority.

The school of my daughter is not seriously different from so many other schools, independent or not, as the Times article shows. And, as I know from older friends, parents of color, the struggles now are alas only slightly different from the struggles in enlightened New York educational institutions 30 years ago. We made, it is hard to accept, only a little bit of progress. And still is, like with all complicated issues in the US, the standard line to react on the lack of change, that we need to ask the 'hard questions' and need 'conversations'. Even the diversity director of the most advanced school in this field in New York City Little Red School House in the Village can't avoid the clichés and says at the end of the Times piece: '[T]hese conversations are necessary.'

I am not so sure about the talking anymore. It didn't result in much. I rather have the leadership of independent schools, who all are committed to diversity, analyze where the white - colonial - traditions, which exclude so many 'others', live on in their schools, schools seen as communities of students, parents, faculty, bound together by a curriculum in a physical environment, and how they are going to change those traditions.

Change we generally believe, should come from below, but now after years of not very fruitful work at the basis it seems the time has come that the top, administrators and boards, take the lead, develop a vision and carve out a path towards the inclusive schools they profess they want to be. It is really not only to avoid that my black daughter has to pass as white next year, but to make sure that our independent schools which try to educate the future leaders of this country, model for its students that being part of the academic and social elite comes with a serious responsibility toward the whole of our society. We can only claim Washington as a mythological 'German' hero in paint, if we are able to claim him as a flawed all-American human being as well.