August 29, 2021 10:45:04 pm
Written by Michael Powell
Several years back Grace Church School, an elite private school in Manhattan, embraced an anti-racist mission and sought to have students and teachers wrestle with whiteness, racial privilege and bias.
Teachers and students were periodically separated into groups by race, gender and ethnicity. In February 2021, Paul Rossi, a math teacher, and what the school called his “white-identifying” group, met with a white consultant, who displayed a slide that named supposed characteristics of white supremacy. These included individualism, worship of the written word and objectivity.
Rossi said he felt a twist in his stomach. “Objectivity?” he told the consultant, according to a transcript. “Human attributes are being reduced to racial traits.”
As you look at this list, the consultant asked, are you having “white feelings”?
“What,” Rossi asked, “makes a feeling ‘white’?”
Some of the high school students then echoed his objections. “I’m so exhausted with being reduced to my race,” a girl said. “The first step of anti-racism is to racialize every single dimension of my identity.” Another girl added: “Fighting indoctrination with indoctrination can be dangerous.”
This modest revolt proved fateful. A school official reprimanded Rossi, accusing him of “creating a neurological imbalance” in students, according to a recording of the conversation. A few days later the head of school wrote a statement and directed teachers to read it aloud in classes.
“When someone breaches our professional norms,” the statement read in part, “the response includes a warning in their permanent file that a further incident of unprofessional conduct could result in dismissal.”
This is another dispatch from America’s cultural conflicts over schools, this time from a rarefied bubble. Elite private schools from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., from Boston to Columbus, Ohio, have embraced a mission to end racism by challenging white privilege. A sizable group of parents and teachers say the schools have taken it too far — and enforced suffocating and destructive groupthink on students.
This is nowhere more true than in New York City’s tony forest of private schools.
Stirred by the surge of activism around racism, Black alumni have shared tales of isolation, insensitivity and racism during school days.
And many private school administrators have tried to reimagine their schools as anti-racist institutions, which means, loosely, a school that is actively opposed to any manifestation of racism.
This conflict plays out amid the high peaks of American economic inequality. Tuition at many of New York’s private schools hovers between $53,000 and $58,000, the most expensive tab in the nation. Many heads of school make between $580,000 to more than $1.1 million.
At a time when some public schools are battling over whether to even teach aspects of American history, private school administrators portray uprooting racial bias as morally urgent and demanding of reiteration. Some steps are practical: They have added Black, Latino and Asian authors, and expanded course offerings to better encompass America and the world in its complications.
Other steps are much more personal. The interim head of the Dalton School, Ellen Stein, who is white, spoke five years ago of writing a racial biography of herself to better understand biases and to communicate with “other races.” The Brearley School declared itself an anti-racist school with mandatory anti-racism training for parents, faculty and trustees and affirmed the importance of meeting regularly in groups that bring together people who share a common race or gender.
Kindergarten students at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx are taught to identify their skin color by mixing paint colors. The lower school chief in an email last year instructed parents to avoid talk of colorblindness and “acknowledge racial differences.”
Private school leaders, along with diversity consultants, say these approaches reflect current research about confronting racism and stamping out privilege.
“There’s always the same resistance — ‘Oh my God, you’re going too far,’” said Martha Haakmat, a Black diversity consultant who serves on the board of Brearley. “We just want to teach kids about the systems that create inequity in society and empower them rather than reinforcing systems of oppression.”
Critics, a mixed lot of parents and teachers, argue that aspects of the new curriculums edge toward re-creating the racially segregated spaces of an earlier age. They say the insistent emphasis on skin color and race is reductive and some teenagers learn to adopt the language of anti-racism and wield it against peers.
The nerves of some parents were not soothed when more than 100 teachers and staff members applauded Dalton’s anti-racism curriculum and proposed two dozen steps to extend it, including calling on the school to abolish any advanced course in which Black students performed worse than students who are not Black.
A group of Dalton parents wrote their own letter to the school this year: “We have spoken with dozens of families of all colors and backgrounds who are in shock and looking for an alternative school.”
This upswell of parental anger, fed also by discontent with Dalton’s decision to teach only online last fall, led the head of school, Jim Best, who is white, to leave on July 1. Dalton’s diversity chief resigned under fire in February.
Bion Bartning, who notes that his heritage is a mix of Jewish, Mexican and Yaqui tribe, pulled his children out of Riverdale and created a foundation to argue against this sort of anti-racist education. “The insistence on teaching race consciousness is a fundamental shift into a sort of tribalism,” he said.
No head of school agreed to an interview. Those at Dalton, Riverdale and Grace Church answered some questions by email. Several dozen faculty members declined interviews; in the end six spoke only on the condition of anonymity, for fear of upsetting employers. A dozen parents at five schools agreed to interviews, only one on the record.
For parents to speak out, said a white mother of private school children, was laden with risk. “People and companies are petrified of being labeled racists,” she said. “If you work at an elite Wall Street firm and speak out, a top partner will tell you to shut up.”
Another parent framed the primal class stakes: Wealthy parents plot and compete to get a child into a private school secure in the knowledge that education married to social connections will ease the way into an elite college and a gilded career. A letter or call from the counselor at a top private school can work wonders with college admissions offices.
Why risk all that?
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