Stupid? Hardly.

13 Dec
[Disclaimer: I used to work in independent, aka private schools, and still work with many of them, making me biased about them, for better and worse, and perhaps more insightful about their cultures than the average SF Bay Area resident.]
Perhaps you read Phil Bronstein’s op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle last week? The one in which he compares applying to private schools with waterboarding? “Seeking diversity through segregation” ( opens with that metaphor and then catapults into its main topic: Bronstein takes issue with affinity events for prospective families/guardians, specifically LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/sexual and queer) Families and Families of Color nights. Granted, this is an op-ed, not fact-driven reporting. Still, as Bronstein takes the “op” in op-ed to unapologetic, imitation-fact extremes (as if exclamation points make an assertion any more valid), I must beg to differ on several counts: 

Bronstein marshals support for his outrage from a sympathetic parent, who declares, “[Having a Families of Color night is] really offensive. And stupid. Can they still be pigeonholing people based on race? This is 2011!” First of all, let’s agree to use clear antecedents before we start slinging names and accusations. I am tired of using “them” (the conveniently multipurpose, unidentified and, in this case, unintelligent people we don’t like) getting blamed for everything. “They” suggests a culprit without us having to do any critical thinking or inquiry–let alone being held accountable for our words. In this case, identifying “them” (schools, and more specifically, their leadership) would result in admitting that “they” aren’t forcing families to identify. Some–not all–families in the application process choose to self-identify as LGBTQ and/or of color. And they ask schools to recognize their self-identification. Is it “offensive” and “stupid” for us to recognize that we and our child(ren) have social identities that impact our experiences, including our abilities to learn, make friends and thrive in a community? 

As for “pigeonholing,” I wonder what this anonymous commentator thinks about grade levels and same-sex groupings. These are commonly implemented and accepted categorizations that co-ed institutions use to facilitate individual and group development. And I like to think that, rather than holes kids get stuck in, these are occasions in their education, mixed in with other occasions that provide kids with diverse opportunities for self-discovery, social engagement and learning.  

Moving on, Bronstein makes a subtle but critical shift in his argument, asking, “Can the most prestigious places of learning really believe that meaningful integration is accomplished through segregated events?”

Whoa. Who said this was segregation? While he interviewed heads of schools David Jackson (from San Francisco Day School) and Wanda Holland Greene (from the Hamlin School) for his op-ed, Bronstein seems to base his language choice on the opinion of his disgruntled fellow parent. Having worked with over 35 SF Bay Area schools as a diversity consultant, I think I can safely say: schools are not down with segregation.

To clarify: segregation is forced separation based on identity, with an underlying intent to institutionalize the inequities between groups. In other words, to maintain the privileges of the group in power. Affinity, which is how I understand both SFDS and Hamlin talk about their initiatives, is the elective opportunity to explore social identity development and connection to community in a dedicated forum that welcomes normative questions about identity and diversity. The purpose of affinity occasions is to cultivate integrated self-concept and engagement with a community of still diverse peers (because we may all identify as LGBTQ, but we also identify, in terms of socioeconomics, race, religion–and yes, politics, among other aspects of our identities).

I would ask Bronstein and others who understandably may not have considered or had the opportunity to learn about and experience affinity firsthand, to choose their language with more consideration. And for accuracy over inflammation.

Bronstein goes on to ask, “So does everyone get a party?” He seems to perceive minority prospective parent/guardian events as a privilege and unfair advantage these groups enjoy. My answer is: yes. White and heterosexual families often get a party (even parties) by default. One of the perks of being in the majority is that the party gets thrown for you: the party is designed to make you comfortable, from the casual banter (“So, what does your husband do, Alison?”) to the unspoken rules (not identifying the race of an individual, unless that individual isn’t white. Bronstein practices this favoring of white as the norm in his op-ed, in which he identifies Wanda Holland Greene as “herself African American,” while not identifying himself or David Jackson. I wonder if he even asked Jackson? He does cheekily identify his parent ally and her/his friends as “of one color or another.”)

As for “getting” to have this party with other like-identifying families, I would argue it’s a questionable “get.” Another perk of identifying with majorities is that because you know the party (including the venue and, to extend the metaphor, the decorations, the entertainment, the food, the music and the games) is designed for you, you have a degree of automatic assurance that the party will be safe and, of course, fun… for you. Minority-identifying “guests,” on the other hand, bear a greater responsibility for themselves and their children to investigate how safe, nurturing and actively inclusive schools are for all students: when and what does the school teach about race? what happens if a child makes fun of another kid for having two dads? how does the school support the particular emotional, social and academic challenges that LGBTQ youth may face? are racial-minority children spread out across classrooms, or are they given the same opportunities as their racial-majority peers to be with like-identifying kids? 

Some would argue that these are the questions of people who “insist” on “always bringing up” [fill-in-the blank]. I would posit that most parents and guardians want the best for their children. In my experience, these questions aren’t for fun or to fulfill political agendas: they’re for a fuller understanding of what the deal is for kids and families who are historically under-represented as fully acknowledged members of equal standing in school communities that are, by fact of tuition (even with financial assistance) and a network of social insider connections, private and unequal in access.  

Finally (I’m trying to keep this concise because I could go on…) Bronstein turns to his 11 year old son for his conclusion. When his son asks, “Isn’t that racist [to have what Bronstein calls “‘People of …’ nights”]?” Bronstein answers that it isn’t… explaining to his readers that his son “is a sensitive kid.”

Play that again? It’s not that Bronstein thinks affinity isn’t racist; it’s that he’s concerned about upsetting his kid with the r-word. That’s a whole other issue: not teaching children about what’s racial v. what’s racist. Racial has to do with the fact of race as a phenotypic, genealogical and social part of our identities, experiences and perceptions of others. Racist is about perpetuating systemic stereotypes, discrimination and inequalities of access and opportunity on the basis of race as some arbiter of human value and merit. 

What I would tell Bronstein’s son is: no. These affinity events are not racist. They’re a way to stand up to racism, particularly the kind that gets perpetuated when we refuse to acknowledge how race matters. And until all adults and children–regardless of they identify or are identified–become cognizant and skillful around their own involuntary awareness of race and society’s default racism–and, for that matter, heterosexism–Families of Color and LGBTQ Family nights are, in my opinion, critical. 

Unlike Bronstein, I don’t hope that we dispense with affinity in some post-identity future. Because allowing people to acknowledge how they identify and are identified isn’t “a relic of separation.” It’s actually very human.

* Thanks to my colleagues DJ and RO for the inspiration.

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