Saturday, February 21, 2009

On Sitting at the Same Table

The photo above is the best I could do to illustrate this post. I spent about a half hour searching for an image that showed what I was going to talk about - with little luck. Because what I'm about to convey is - obviously - very uncommon.

The other day, I was hanging out with my kids at lunch, munching on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (with apricot jelly - that's my lunch almost every day at school) and watching them interact. I looked around at the various clumps of kids talking and messing with each other, and something seemed strange.

They were laughing and playing with their food - nothing odd there. The girls and boys were insulting each other while simultaneously trying to find a reason to touch each other - perfectly natural.

So what was up?

OH! The groups weren't separated by race!


Now, a while back, I wrote a post (On Kids and Race) about the kids self-segregating themselves by race in the classroom and at lunch (when they had a choice of seats). Basically, I argued that that wasn't such a bad thing - inherently - and that it reflected true diversity in the fact that there were enough of each race for kids to actually do that. I said that it was all about being comfortable and finding security, and so it was good that the kids were able to find that (and that that's just how things fall out).

But, suddenly (probably not so suddenly, but that's how I noticed it), we're two-thirds through the school year, and the kids are sitting in groups that are all mixed up, racially.

So now, I have to ask - how did THAT happen?! After my post about how self-segregation is natural and happens everywhere, how can I explain how it stopped happening in our school?

The truth? It didn't.

That's right - even though all the kids are sitting in little photo-op racially-diverse groups at lunch, self-segregation has not stopped happening.

Instead, it's just the characteristics that the kids are self-segregating for have changed.

We're a small school (60 students total in our student body). We've kept our main group (probably about 40 kids) largely intact through the year (kids come and go all the time with us, but we've been able to retain more this year). We are a relationship-based program, so we are constantly talking about building our school community, kids sit down with each other and talk out their conflicts (it's hard to avoid connection when you're two middle school kids explaining why you're angry and sharing other feelings with each other). Our kids constantly talk about our school as a family (with the positives and negatives that come from that).

And so they know each other pretty well, now. They started by dividing themselves up by race for immediate comfort and security, but - due to the way we do things, combined with the small population - they couldn't avoid learning about each other. They couldn't avoid interacting with each other. And so they couldn't avoid finding common ground with each other. And, subsequently - they couldn't avoid making friends with folks outside of their respective races.

It's a beautiful little social experiment tied up in a neat little bow.

But does this all mean that there aren't cliques? Of course not. Does it mean that the kids "all just get along"? No. It just means that tensions and divisions drawn along racial lines are few and far between.

It's noticeable in behavior, as well. Earlier in the year, the kids of color who had trouble with our white teachers would often fall back on race as an issue and explanation for why they had trouble in those classes (to be honest, I think those were actually pretty accurate assessments); but now, the kids are more likely to find specific reasons and actions for the disconnect, without necessarily tying them to race.*

I don't hear the students lumping a bunch of students together by race in explanations of who they have problems with - race is no longer the unifier, and so they are much less likely to group or stereotype by race.

And these are all HUGE. Middle school kids are always going to have conflicts. They're always going to take out their frustrations on somebody else, at times (especially kids like the ones I work with, who have plenty of valid reasons to be frustrated). But if they have removed the lens of race as a means to focus on who to blame or who to be angry at, that's an incredibly important thing.

And it all goes to show that all it really takes is exposure. Science has proven this time and again, but nobody seems to follow through on acting on that. If kids (and adults) just had to work with large numbers of folks of another race (or many other races) on a regular basis over an extended period of time, their inherent prejudices and stereotypes would fade. Period.

The key being large numbers of another race. White folks like to talk about their (one or two) "black friends" as proof of their lack of prejudice - while living out a lie. The reason that is possible? Because those few black (or other raced) friends are only kept in mind as the exception. It takes much larger numbers - the true diversity I have mentioned before - to change rules (that's just how the human mind works).

Same thing for every other race or minority group. Enmity and anger and blame and misunderstanding attached to an entire group based on race cannot go away (or at least be handled reasonably) without full, consistent exposure to other groups.

Which makes me always think of my solution to the problems of race in this country: mandatory social service. At age 18, everybody enters a two-year social service program that entails moving to another state and living and working with a group of other young people of all different races and backgrounds. It would broaden folks' life experiences, improve our infrastructure (without using prisoners as slave-labor, but that's another story), and expose everybody in this f-ing country to people unlike themselves. Cause them to form bonds with people that don't look like them. And make it so much more likely that general empathy and understanding would start seeping into how people in this country dealt with each other on a regular basis.

And I know what a lot you are thinking - "like that would change anything - everybody would just self-segregate by race and background right off the bat, which would increase tensions." And you'd be right - at the beginning. But two years is a long time (in some ways). Enough to put folks in positions - time and again - to rely on the people from other backgrounds. To get to know those from other backgrounds. And, eventually (as with my school), to become friends with those from other backgrounds. And how beautiful would that be?

It won't ever happen, of course. But it would work. Maybe when I become the third mixed-race president . . .

*A quick note here - I really do think that race is a major reason for why the teachers weren't able to connect fully with those students (I think that's our biggest failure as a program, our lack of true diversity in experience and understanding by staff, in general). By no means were the kids playing the "race card." However, it's still very important that the kids are now able to specify exactly what things are happening that they have difficulty with, as opposed to extrapolating it out to simply a matter of race and leaving it at that.


Lisa J said...

You know what, there was a piece on NPR, I think on the Diane Rehm show, about making everyone do some sort of national service at 18, so it is interesting you bring this up. I think it is a good idea and it might help too. I used to work for the military (not in just a civillian employee) and in talking to people and looking around it seems as though, to some extent, they do a fairly good job of intergration and you see more young enlisted folks and young officers, who have friends and even spouses gfs and bfs of different races. Not to say that they don't have racial problems but in the 50 or so years they've had to be integrated, they seem to have done a better job than the rest of America with integrating and making people work together no matter their background etc. BUt the military is a highly self-selected group these days, and obviously everyone isn't cut out for or interested in military service (I worked for them but could NEVER be in the military myself) so the idea of a mandatory version of teach for America, Peace Corps, Americorp would be a great thing. Maybe given the economy they might make some non-mandatory programs like that as Roosevelt did in the Great Depression but intergrated this time.

CVT said...

Lisa J. -
Thanks for the comment. To be honest, I'm not exactly happy with the current state of the Peace Corps or Teach for America, so I wouldn't exactly suggest those programs, but more like Americorps (although that has its issues, too - but what doesn't?).

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