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Laurel Schwartz

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Disrupting the Discourse and Discussing the Undiscussable

Posted: 04/ 5/2012 5:00 pm

Yesterday as I was walking through Harvard Square, I saw a group of students demonstrating for justice for Trayvon Martin. Tourists, students and locals watched and listened as students from Harvard and Tufts stood in front of the crowds, which could be heard from several blocks away. The demonstration seemed more like a cry of pain than a conversation. Seeing this made me think more about this tragedy, but it didn't help me figure out what I was supposed to do with my own feelings of anger about what happened to Trayvon.

I'm spending this year at Harvard Graduate School of Education where, with 36 other ambitious educators, I am in training to become a school leader. In our time together, I've struggled with how to discuss issues of race and class in our own cohort. As someone who is dedicated to building a school community that will prevent more tragedies like Trayvon's, I have found my frustrations discouraging. If I am unsure of how to broach issues of race and class with my peers in the safety of my grad school classrooms, how will I be able to lead these conversations in a school?

Most of my peers have taught or worked in schools that serve primarily low-income students of color. We are (at least superficially) aware of the disadvantages that children of color face in the United States, probably more so than the average American.

But in our cohort of 37, we only have three African American men and four African American women. After graduation, most of us will be serving communities that are at least 50 percent black and Latino. As a white Jewish woman from New York, I can never really know what it is like to be black or Latino. I'm struggling to search for answers while simultaneously being careful not to turn to the few colored faces in the room to ask them to speak for an entire race (or several races).

There have been times in our own classes when I have noticed that our few African American students routinely sit together. I can't articulate why this has happened, if it was intentional or if they even noticed this pattern, but I noticed. It reminded me of growing up in my racially charged middle school where the black and white kids didn't sit together in the cafeteria.

Our cohort has worked to bridge this gap. Dr. Carroll Blake, the Executive Director of the Achievement Gap at Boston Public Schools did a guest workshop with us to help facilitate our discussion. Dr. Blake had us walk to the front of the room in five self-identified groups: white females, white males, females of color, males of color and those who didn't identify with any group. He asked us to respond publicly to three questions:

    1. What do you want us to know about you?
    2. What do you never you want to hear again?
    3. How can we be allies for you?

I wasn't sure how to answer Dr. Blake's questions. As a Jew, I can't quite identify as a white woman because my family's story is different. This was reminiscent of all the times I've been forced to choose between the "white" and "other" boxes on a school or job application. Except this time my choice was being exposed.

I was scared that if I chose to walk up with the white female group I would judge myself for being self-identified merely by the color of my skin, but I was nervous that if I went with the final group, I would be judged by my peers. After all, who was I to discount my Whiteness?

I walked up with the group that didn't identify as white or colored. No one said a thing to me about it.

Trayvon's death is emblematic of the deep racism that still exists in our country. My role in fixing this, I think, is to be an ally for boys who might identify with Trayvon and their families and to lead others to also be allies. But I'm still trying to figure out what that looks like.