Over the weekend I read "A Prom Divided" by Sara Corbett in the New York Times Magazine. In it she describes an annual tradition at a public high school in Montgomery County, Georgia--racially segregated proms. While you may read this and be rightfully shocked that something like this is possible in 2009, I think this story reflects issues that are alive and well in many communities across the country.
The people who are most vocal about keeping the proms the way they currently operate are the white parents. While I've never been to Montgomery County, the operating mentality from people in positions of privilege in places like this is generally, "Why fix what isn't broken? This is the way we've always done it and it's not hurting anybody." This is somewhat true-it's not broken for them. It doesn't hurt anyone they know, care about or identify with. In fact, it's actually working well for them. They're able to get away with their behavior unchallenged and continue a tradition of thinly veiled bigotry.
"I have as many black friends as I do white friends," says a white male senior. "We do everything else together. We hang out. We play sports together. We go to class together. I don't think anybody at our school is racist." But in trying to explain the continued existence of segregated proms, he falls back on the same reasoning offered by a number of white students and their parents. "It's how it's always been," he says. "It's just a tradition."
All communities value their traditions. When you threaten to take those traditions away it can feel deeply personal--like losing a piece of history. That's why people get so defensive about it. But in my work, one of my jobs in communities like this one is to say, "You have every right to be proud of your community. What traditions do you have that you are proud of and why? What traditions do you feel need to be changed?" I also ask them if at base they believe that all people within the community have the right to feel included, valued, and treated with dignity. Most people will agree with this statement and believe it, so I continue to push. "But what happens if you have a tradition that by its very nature makes people in your community feel alienated? Do you believe that your right to have a tradition like a racially segregated prom is more important than someone being treated with dignity?"
Adding to the problem in Montgomery County is that from the quotes by the school administrators, you easily take away the feeling that the school administrators either agree with the white parents or don't have the courage to do what's right. For example, Principal Luke Smith says "The school has no plans to sponsor a prom, noting that when it did so in 1995, attendance was poor." That was 14 years ago. So they tried it once, it was hard, and he gave up? Is that the lesson he would tell a student? You try to achieve a difficult goal, it's really hard, it doesn't go well the first time around, so you give up?
This kind of response is exactly why I have to tell my students all the time, "I know some adults are disappointing and cowardly, but not all adults are. Some will take the path of least resistance. Don't give up on us entirely because you have experiences with adults where they aren't the leaders you need them to be. I'm sorry that's been your experience but you can find some adults who will do right by you. You just have to keep looking. This is worth fighting for."
What I would like to suggest to those students
Black and white students who are graduating now but are interested in advocating for a school sponsored, all-student prom, could work with the rising seniors to start organizing for next year. The first thing I would do after that is find adult allies. This could be anyone from an athletic coach to a school counselor to a parent member of the booster club. And because this administration is obviously just trying to stay out of the mess and is too nervous to advocate for change, students shouldn't just go to the principal and demand an integrated school sponsored prom. You need back up, you need a plan, and you need to start making that happen now.
What to do about students who disagree
There also needs to be room to allow for dissenting voices among peers. There are likely to be students who are rigidly in favor of maintaining the status quo, and there will also be those who just don't want to rock the boat. This is OK even though it is uncomfortable. If changes like this could be made without friction then they would not be so desperately needed in the first place.
Some students may encounter a friend who makes fun of them for being political or selling out. Standing up to friends when you don't agree can be one of the hardest things for anyone to do, young people included. This is what I'd tell someone to say to their friend in this situation:
"You can ridicule me and put down what we're doing but I'm asking you not to. I know I can't force you to help us or agree with me but I'm asking you to stop. I'm doing what I think is right and I am asking you to respect that."
What to do when your parent disagrees
I can also empathize that some young people will feel caught between their parents and making a public stand, but that fact doesn't justify standing by silently. So what can the white students whose parents like the status quo say to them?
"Mom and dad, I love and respect you. That will never change. But that doesn't take away from the fact that I disagree with you about supporting proms like we've always done it. I have realized that some of my friends are hurt by it, so I can't stand by and enjoy my own prom as if what they feel and think means nothing. You have taught me to stand by my friends and that's what I'm doing here."
This is a call to both black and white students in Montgomery County and other communities like it. Show the adults how to transform your community. Know that the best among you recognize that you don't just take ownership of your community when things are good. You take ownership when it's messy and when people do things that aren't proud of. True leadership means taking a stand when it's difficult. It will take courageous young people lead others into forming new traditions that honor the value and voice of all students.