Today was Diversity Day at school. All the teachers and staff prepared and taught workshops on issues of diversity that are of interest to them. There were workshops on the Chinese Immigration to the United States, Inclusion and Disability, Urban Planning and Environmental Racism, the Problem of Color Blindness, Exploring Economic Inequities, That’s so Gay!, Lies White People Believe, to name just a few titles. The Middle School was divided into vertical groups so 6th, 7th, and 8th graders were in groups together of 15 or 16 and each group was able to take five workshops in the day. This is the tenth year our school has committed to this day and it seemed as if the energy was the most constructive and engaged that it has ever been. Even the 8th graders who can be very cynical were good leaders of their vertical groups, urging their peers in conversation and staying on task.
I decided to do a workshop on white privilege. I showed the viral video of Eric Garner and the chokehold he suffered. The students had powerful reactions and the conversation was honest, real, and heartfelt. It was hard for them to fathom that the policeman was not indicted and brought to trial for this apparent crime. We examined some statistics that pointed to the disproportional weight of the criminal justice system on its treatment of people of color (i.e. African Americans are incarcerated at a rate 6 times that of whites). In fact I had made a stack of cards with statistics on them regarding education, incarceration, arrests, employment, income, and health disparities comparing people of color and whites and had the students step forward or backward from the same starting line depending on whether they were members of groups described on the cards. By the end of the exercise, it was clear that some people were way behind all the others.
We talked about the lack of a level playing field for many people and how whites are often blind to their own privilege. I got a box and put it in the front of the room. I gave each student a sheet of paper and asked them to scrunch it into a ball. I told them that they had to remain in their seats and that I would talk to all their teachers and anyone who was able to get their ball of paper into the box I would make sure wouldn’t have homework for a week.
“That’s not fair,” a young boy shouted who was seated near the back of the room. The students in the front, in fact inches from the box, were pretty excited and when it was their turns easily tossed (practically dropped) their balls into the box. Of course the students in the back did not make it into the box (except one toss that actually ricocheted off of my shoulder). Then we had a pretty lively conversation about the non-level playing field. That some people have a terrific jump start in the game of life, whereas others have to work two, three times as hard and still may not be able to succeed. “See how the students in the front, even though they knew the game was rigged, did not complain at all. All of us,” I said, “have a responsibility to make sure that we advocate for the people in the back.”
Then a 6th grader who was also sitting in the back, raised her hand and said, “What if I passed my ball of paper to the person next to me and that person passed it to the next and finally into the box?” The room became absolutely silent after a quick collective gasp, all eyes on her. “Yes,” an 8th grader said after a few moments, very quietly and seriously. “How awesome is that?! Each of us, especially those of us at the front, have to be willing to reach back when (or even before) someone is reaching out to us.”