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White Dads, Black Kids: Living Diversity in an Independent School

05/22/2015 07:28 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016

The following post was originally given as a talk at the annual meeting of Early Steps, "A Voice for Diversity in NYC Independent Schools," May 13, 2015.

On my "official" wedding picture from April 2014, after an engagement of 32 years, you see in the center two middle-aged white men smiling. In front of them there are a black boy and a black girl, both pre-teens. Next to each man stands a black woman, and on their sides you see a white man and a white woman.

Here is the "who is who." The white men in the middle are two gay immigrants from Holland who moved for work 19 years ago to New York City. The black kids are the children they adopted at birth, and the black women are their African-American mothers from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Florence, South Carolina, who were the witnesses at the wedding. The white man and woman next to them are the oldest American friends of the couple, a second-generation Greek-Italian man and a Jewish Czech woman who, as a baby, narrowly survived the Holocaust.

I describe my family so precisely because this is the kind of diverse family that independent schools like to have as members of their community. Being more diverse than our family is hardly possible: gay, straight, African-American, adopted, white, Jewish, new and old immigrants, European, with money and without, middle-aged. And so it was really easy to get in our New York independent school. And once in, we stretched our diversity by bringing a son who turned out to have learning disabilities.

Claude Steele uses, in his 2010 book Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, the term "identity contingencies." It refers to the cues in a certain social setting that trigger one's identity. For example, if I go to the movie theater at the corner of my street, which caters to a majority of black people, I become aware of my whiteness. However, my whiteness is dormant when I go the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. But also, when I watch an NFL game with my daughter, who is a huge fan of the Baltimore Ravens, I become aware of my gayness because of the fiercely expressed heterosexuality of the sport. A weekend in the Pines on Fire Island, however, doesn't make me feel "other," since most men are gay in that small beach community; there is no identity trigger. And if there is a trigger, because I see a handsome man, it is not a negative one. Claude Steele doesn't distinguish between positive and negative identity triggers, but in the context here, that distinction comes in handy.

The Materiality of Diversity

Let's now, with this quasi-theoretical tool, enter the independent school of my children with diversity in the broadest sense in mind. My best friend, with whom I grew up in the Netherlands, is disabled, so my ableism triggers are easily activated as well. I quickly realized, visiting the school, that there was no wheelchair access to the main entrance, a main entrance that can only be reached by climbing several steps. Easy access for disabled or, for that matter, older people is not available. That fact reflects without a doubt the school population, which doesn't count any wheelchair-bound students. Yes, there is an accessible side entrance, but would one really relegate certain community members to a side entrance?

The main entrance to our school is built in a European neo-Gothic style: it is an old school, founded by a wealthy woman in the 19th century. The walls in the main hallway are enhanced with portraits of, for the bigger part, white men with beards and Anglo-Saxon and Germanic names from long ago. Little plaques show who they were and what role they played in the history of the school. Suggestions by parents to the school to change that décor to make the first steps of new families who are not white, patriarchal, Northern European, Protestant and heterosexual more familiar were not welcomed. The school instead got in a defensive mode, emphasizing the tradition for... for what? Well, I imagine for the continuation of that tradition. For the family in my wedding picture, all identities are triggered by that hallway, negatively, alas, with not one positive trigger. We are just not represented. Wouldn't it have been great if next to those forgotten founders and funders and administrators we had seen portraits of, for example, Gandhi, Malala, Martin Luther King Jr., Harvey Milk, Confucius, Averroës/Ibn Rushd, Rosa Parks, Bolívar, Einstein, or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to name a few diverse icons? Wouldn't it have been great if, in the recent refurbishment of the entrance and the hallways, the school had used fabrics and materials and images that contrasted the European neo-Gothic architecture and reflected the diversity of New York?

What these two examples show is what I would like to call the materiality of diversity: A place can express inclusion as well as exclusion. I do realize, as a white man who was, from day one, fully immersed in Western thought and culture, that stepping away from tradition comes with loss, painful loss. The beautiful outside architecture of the main entrance would become less beautiful with a wheelchair ramp. The purity of the neo-Gothic architecture would be less pure and the portrait gallery less... less what? Less male, less white, less bearded? But loss for one group, the dominant group, means gain for the until-now marginalized groups. Making space for the others is a process, which obviously doesn't come easily and is understandably felt as hurtful.

The Humanity of diversity

Let us enter the school anew, in the afternoon, now focusing on the people we meet. The lobby of the school at pickup is, in the winter, nice and warm and is filled by some mothers and many, many nannies. When I, a stay-at-home dad, get my daughter from school at 3:15, I am almost exclusively surrounded by women, women who are, for the biggest part, women of color. Those are the nannies. The few white women, the mothers, stick together, as do the black nannies. What the triggers of whiteness and blackness express depends, of course, on the interpretation of the one who is triggered, but for me, white and "delegated black," it is not hard to observe the segregation or even exclusion of nannies -- nannies of mostly white kids, by the way -- from the community of mothers. Privately mothers and nannies may be wonderful with each other; in a group, however, they don't look so great together. I, who at pickup hover between the two groups, feel embarrassed when I walk with my daughter to the exit. What must she think of the status of the people who look like her in this school community? What is this image teaching her about herself? These images reinforce the images she is bombarded with in the world outside the school, images of a mostly white upperworld that is serviced by an underworld of people of color.

I wrote a small piece on The Huffington Post about diversity in our school from the perspective of my black daughter, and I quote:

Every morning my daughter Rosa plays -- as the only girl -- soccer or football with the boys of her grade in the 'garden', which is not very green and for the bigger part made of concrete. She may have girly hair, but her movements and tackles are all but girly. Some of the drop-off moms and dads watch the game and seem to enjoy her gender-bending attitude. I really don't think the parents see her or me as different from themselves and their children. But I imagine my daughter must see the differences. She sees fathers and mothers, who are with mothers and fathers, and then there is me: a father who is with another father. I know one and a half other gay couples in the elementary school; there may be more, but we really don't make a crowd. Rosa cannot see diversity; she sees that she is the exception.

Rosa sees her exceptionality in this community in many more ways. She saw her older black brother moved to another special school because of his learning differences. She sees that most of the kids who play soccer in the morning are white. "We are only three in our grade," another black girl, asked how the school was going, gave as first answer. Rosa doesn't have other adopted kids in her year. ... She sees that most of the faculty is white and that most of the administration people are white as well. She sees that the technical support and kitchen staff are for a bigger part people of color, and that their boss is white. She doesn't see openly gay teachers. See sees that the black kids in the school are dressed differently than the black kids she sees on the streets in our neighborhood.

To summarize this passage, we -- Rosa and her family -- are the diversity for the others, for the majority; we, on the other hand, don't see ourselves reflected in the community of which we are part. In the first years at our school, I was new, still much more willing to adapt to the mainstream than I am now, and all too happy to be part of this academic, excellent community. In those years I was not too concerned about this lacking mirror and believed in change, but now, in our seventh year, I start to feel more and more the one who is different, who doesn't fit, and I don't see an effective diversification policy in place. Again, I know change is hard; we have seen it before with the materiality of diversity. Also, where it concerns the humanity of diversity, it asks from the majority: More Black, Latino, gay, Asian, adopted, etc., people means fewer white straight people, so fewer friends, fewer colleagues, less family, fewer members of the same tribe. And who wants, and is able, to cut himself in the white arm? Only strong, fully convinced leadership will be able to do that in a school and a school system that is deeply rooted in less diverse times. And leadership means heads of school; we cannot ask our diversity directors, who are often people of color, to make these painful incisions in that precious white skin.

The Curriculum of Diversity

I recently wrote a piece on a diversity issue in the curriculum of our school, and I started with an anecdote about a visit I made not too long ago with my daughter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the renovated galleries of the American wing. I quote:

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 had the same experience of exclusion at our school when Rosa's third-grade class started a New Amsterdam project. It was preceded by a Native American project about the Lenape, which ended with a celebration of that tribe, where the teachers wore painfully stereotypical headdresses. This time the kids were asked to imagine being travelers on a ship sailing from Amsterdam to the new colony and collecting items that would help them survive the trip and the stay in the harsh new world. Rosa was chosen to be one of the four director-generals from the period, alas the most violent of the four, Willem Kieft. There was an election at a certain moment in the project, to determine who had been the best director-general of New Netherland. My daughter was not chosen. When I asked why, she answered that it was because Kieft had started a war against the Indians.

"Was that war OK?" I asked.

"Well," she answered, "the Lenape stole pigs from the settlers."

I was taken aback but said nothing, not wanting to spoil her fun. Here I see my little black girl happily playing a white colonial monster and repeating a demeaning historical myth. I am sure that the teachers, following the school curriculum based on the ideas and writings of Howard Zinn, told a better, more humane version of the story and of the background of that bloody and unjust war, but this is what she, who is (believe me) a very smart and understanding girl, picked up. As an antidote, we went as a family to the Met, the same exclusionary Met as before, to see the spectacular show on Native American art, The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky.

In the piece I quoted from before, I discussed a fourth-grade project -- next year for Rosa, that is -- that also deals with colonialism, and where again the kids have to play roles. This time not only do white colonialists get a student's voice but also abolitionists, slaves and freed slaves. I don't know about Native Americans. However, I am not sure if these more diverse voices can be real voices in a narrative that understands the history of America as an essential colonial narrative resulting in a nation, and not as the history of a place that opens up to all narratives, including those that were marginal until now, a place where its people try to form a more perfect union.

I give you one more example in the context of what I a call the curriculum of diversity. Every year our music teachers give a concert for the school community. With one jazz exception, our teachers played all classical music. This fits the curriculum, where in fourth grade all the kids are asked to choose between strings and choral. The norm in our school lies in the European musical tradition. That is a choice that, for me, as someone who is European and who was raised in that tradition, feels strange in America, knowing that specific American music finds its roots, next to those European standards, in African, Irish, Jewish, Latin and other traditions, but most of all in African traditions. The classical norm as sole norm excludes those who were raised in different traditions and forces them to adaptation.

Opting for musical and historical diversity in the curriculum means -- I say it again -- loss, painful loss. To discuss Washington and Malcolm X, and Beethoven and Jay Z, on the same level means less Washington and more Malcolm X, less Beethoven and more Jay Z. And it means an American wing in the Metropolitan that is, yes, inclusive American.

I discussed three ways to address and probe diversity: the materiality of diversity, the humanity of diversity and the curriculum of diversity. I don't know if that makes, outside my experience as a gay parent of adopted children of color, any sense. What I want to try to convey is that I, as a privileged parent in a privileged institution, have a responsibility toward the voices that have the exact same value as mine but cannot find a forum to let that voice sound and where that voice can be a tool of change. As the white parent I am, I am aware that I can speak here and now because of the privilege of my whiteness. I hope that my school and all the other independent schools will find and invite these other voices to speak up and thus become better schools, not only academically but also socially and morally.