At New York Private Schools, Challenging White Privilege From the Inside By KYLE SPENCERIn other words, these white privilege workshops are sold as a way to help your child maintain his white privilege by learning all the wiles and ways of how to put down other white people.
On a recent morning, 20 or so high school students, most of them white, milled about the meetinghouse at Friends Seminary, a private school in Manhattan. They were trying to unload on their classmates slips of paper on which they had jotted down words related to the topic “Things I don’t want to be called.” …
The workshop was part of a daylong speaker series known at Friends as the Day of Concern. Students gathered in small groups to discuss a variety of social justice issues and participate in workshops; there were also talks about gender and the environment. But the overarching theme of the day was identity, privilege and power. And it was part of a new wave of diversity efforts that some of the city’s most elite private schools are undertaking.
In the past, private school diversity initiatives were often focused on minority students, helping them adjust to the majority white culture they found themselves in, and sometimes exploring their backgrounds in annual assemblies and occasional weekend festivals. Now these same schools are asking white students and faculty members to examine their own race and to dig deeply into how their presence affects life for everyone in their school communities, with a special emphasis on the meaning and repercussions of what has come to be called white privilege.
The session at Friends Seminary, on East 16th Street, was led by Derrick Gay, a 39-year-old diversity consultant who has led similar programs at Collegiate School on the Upper West Side, Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights and the Spence School on the Upper East Side.
Mr. Gay, who is black, says schools are increasingly drawn to conversations about privilege and race because they understand that “raising students to live in a bubble — a white bubble, a black bubble, a Latino bubble, whatever type of bubble you want to call it — is not to your benefit in a global society.”
I think that’s key to understanding what’s going on. Start with the premise that white couples who spend $40k per year in tuition per child aren’t doing that to have their child lose his privileges, they are doing that to augment their scion’s privileges. Indoctrinating your child in the dominant rhetoric of the era he will live in not only makes him less likely to make a career-damaging slip up, it makes him more cunning at how to attack and destroy his white rivals whenever they make rhetorical slip-ups so he can more quickly claw his way to the top. One of the lessons you want your child to learn at his Quaker school in Manhattan is that you don’t need to be fair to the people you meet on the way up if you’re never coming back down.
For most of their history, private schools were the living embodiment of white privilege: They were almost all white and mostly moneyed. Not anymore. This year, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, minority students make up a third of the population of New York City private schools, and 18.5 percent of all students receive financial aid.See. The diversity consultants promise to teach your children the right words to use so they’ll never get in trouble and will simultaneously be able to take down their white rivals when they slip and use the wrong words. So never say your child isn’t getting anything in return for that $38,300 tuition check you write each year.
Educators charged with preparing students for life inside these schools, in college and beyond, maintain that anti-racist thinking is a 21st-century skill and that social competency requires a sophisticated understanding of how race works in America.
In turn, faculty members and students are grappling with race and class in ways that may seem surprising to outsiders and deeply unsettling to some longtime insiders. And the term “white privilege” is now bantered about with frequency.You can’t get much more cutting edge conceptually than talking about Invisible Knapsacks, now can you?
It comes up during schoolwide assemblies like a recent one held to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, also known as LREI, a progressive school in the West Village. It is explored at parent gatherings at the Dalton School [$41,350] on East 89th Street during broader conversations about racial equity. It is examined in seventh-grade social studies at the Calhoun School on West End Avenue [$43,580 for 9-12], where students read “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” a 1989 article by Peggy McIntosh that outlines dozens of ways white people experience “unearned skin privilege.”
That’s actually the Achilles heel of all these white privilege programs. The New York City schools for oligarchs’ kids are trying to sell them to parents as cutting-edge, but in reality they’re old, low-brow jokes peddled by aging hucksters like Tim Wise, Peggy McIntosh, and Dr. Eddie Moore, Jr. who have been working the teacher training circuit for decades.
Back to the NYT:
And at a few schools, students and faculty members are starting white affinity groups, where they tackle issues of white privilege, often in all-white settings. The groups have sprung from an idea that whites should not rely on their black, Asian or Latino peers to educate them about racism and white dominance.That’s probably a more promising development for parents looking for every advantage for their children than the usual Invisible Knapsack lectures. Sure, they sound like Chinese Communist Party self-struggle sessions. But, ask yourself, who is running China today? The grandkids of the people who went through Maoist self-criticism sessions over class. Now that’s class privilege!
“In the past, there was a tendency to think: This isn’t my problem and it isn’t something I need to deal with because it isn’t something I even think a lot about,” said Louisa Grenham, a white senior at Brooklyn Friends School and a member of a white affinity group there.
A half century from now, the white people running America may well come from a long line of whites who have engaged in these hate-whitey bonding sessions with their fellow super-privileged whites.
You know, extremely expensive East Coast educational institutions have hosted these kind of all-white self-critical struggle sessions for a long, long time. Maybe the vocabulary of the sins that the privileged confess to has changed, but “lemon sessions” remain a time-tested way for passing on privilege. Tom Wolfe explained in his 1976 New York article The “Me” Decade and the Third Great Awakening:
At Yale the students on the outside wondered for 80 years what went on inside the fabled secret senior societies, such as Skull and Bones. On Thursday nights one would see the secret-society members walking silently and single file, in black flannel suits, white shirts, and black knit ties with gold pins on them, toward their great Greek Revival temples on the campus, buildings whose mystery was doubled by the fact that they had no windows. What in the name of God or Mammon went on in those 30-odd Thursday nights during the senior years of these happy few? What went on was . . . lemon sessions!—a regularly scheduled series of lemon sessions, just like the ones that occurred informally in girls’ finishing schools.
In the girls’ schools these lemon sessions tended to take place at random on nights when a dozen or so girls might end up in someone’s dormitory room. One girl would become “it,” and the others would light into her personality, pulling it to pieces to analyze every defect . . . her spitefulness, her awkwardness, her bad breath, embarrassing clothes, ridiculous laugh, her suck-up fawning, latent lesbianism, or whatever. The poor creature might be reduced to tears. She might blurt out the most terrible confessions, hatreds, and primordial fears. But, it was presumed, she would be the stronger for it afterward. She would be on her way toward a new personality. Likewise, in the secret societies: They held lemon sessions for boys. Is masturbation your problem? Out with the truth, you ridiculous weenie! And Thursday night after Thursday night the awful truths would out, as he who was It stood up before them and answered the most horrible questions. Yes! I do it! I whack whack whack it! I’m afraid of women! I’m afraid of you! And I get my shirts at Rosenberg’s instead of Press! . . . But out of the fire and the heap of ashes would come a better man, a brother, of good blood and good bone, for the American race guerrière. And what was more . . . they loved it. No matter how dreary the soap opera, the star was Me.So, just as the opposing Presidential candidates in 2004 were both Old Bonesmen who had gone through the fire of these kind of all-white struggle sessions, I’d hardly be surprised if the opposing Presidential candidates of 2054 were graduates of these new, improved all-white (if nominally anti-white) lemon sessions.
Back to the NYT article:
“Whiteness” as a concept is not new. W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about it in the 1920s; James Baldwin addressed it in the 1960s. But it did not gain traction on college campuses until the 1980s, as an outgrowth of an interdisciplinary study of racial identity and racial superiority. It presumes that in the United States, race is a social construct that had its origins in colonial America when white plantation owners were seeking dominance and order.Let’s talk about me!
Today “white privilege” studies center on the systemic nature of racism as well as the way it exposes minorities to daily moments of stress and unpleasantness — sometimes referred to as “micro-aggressions.” Freedom from such worries is a privilege in and of itself, the theory goes, one that many white people are not even aware they have.
It may seem paradoxical that students at elite institutions would decide to tackle the elitism they seem to cherish. But private schools’ diversity consultants brush aside insinuations that their social justice work is inauthentic.
In recent months, for example, as the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner, on Staten Island, have prompted protests, schools have tried to make the conversation relevant for their students, taking them to Black Lives Matter marches and honoring white civil rights leaders in schoolwide assemblies.
Talking about “whiteness,” administrators say, gives white students a way into conversations about equity and prejudice that previous diversity efforts at their schools may have excluded them from.
At the LREI high school campus, the front entrance is adorned with a student art project, by the seniors Ana Maroto and Sage Adams, that includes a black-and-white photo of a somber-looking teenager, who identifies as mixed-race, holding a placard that reads: “I need justice because I’m sick of having to explain privilege.”Here’s Charlotte Allen’s 2013 article on attending the White Privilege Conference.
At the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, two white seniors started the Exploring Whiteness club in the fall, which now regularly attracts 15 students. They were inspired by reading “Waking Up White,” a memoir by Debby Irving, a self-proclaimed WASP from New England who discovered in her late 40s that many of the benefits her father had received in housing and education from the G.I. Bill had been denied to millions of African-American veterans.
In the book, Ms. Irving writes about “stepping out of a dream” and realizing that the black people she knew lived in a more challenging world than she ever would face.
Every year, an increasing number of New York City private schools select students to attend the White Privilege Conference, founded 16 years ago by Eddie Moore Jr., the former diversity director at Brooklyn Friends. This year, the theme of the conference, organized by the Dalton School, is “Race, Privilege, Community Building.”
The new focus on addressing white privilege has not been an unmitigated success. Dr. Moore, for example, despite the stature of his conference, is no longer working with Brooklyn Friends. Acknowledging the inherent tension, he said: “Not every student is saying: ‘I want to talk about white privilege. Give me the best book.’ ”One thing you have to say for Tim Wise is that the man works hard for the money. This is Tim’s 21st year on the road. I once looked up his schedule for a week and it was just a crushing series of changing planes to deliver his homily at randomly located nowheresville colleges. It’s no wonder this white man is still the top guy in the business of denouncing white privilege: he knows that due to the color of his skin he’s just gotta work twice as hard as all the blacks in his business.
For years, private schools in New York avoided conversations about race and class by remaining uniformly white and wealthy. They began desegregating in earnest in the 1970s and 1980s, as programs for low-income students like Prep for Prep and A Better Chance brought in minority scholarship students. Many white parents welcomed the change, worried that their children would be ill prepared for an increasingly multicultural world if they did not have exposure to people from diverse backgrounds. Today, for example, at LREI, Calhoun and Dalton, at least one-third of the student body is not white.
At some of the city’s top neighborhood public elementary schools, nonwhite populations are actually lower. At both Public School 6, on the Upper East Side, and P.S. 41, in Greenwich Village, 21 percent of the students in the 2013-14 school year were nonwhite, according to state figures. At P.S. 41, that is a dip from 31 percent in the 2003-4 school year.
Many of the private schools have struggled, though, to make these new minority students feel welcome, oscillating between a colorblind philosophy and a feel-good “festival approach” — reserving light discussions about race and class for Martin Luther King’s Birthday, Black History Month and an annual assembly or two.
That approach, diversity directors say, has proved ineffective.
Tim Wise, an anti-racism activist and the author of “White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son,” said: “If you’re still talking about food and festivals and fabrics with high school students, you’re probably not pushing them to think critically about these bigger issues.”
But still … if a penthouse dwelling in the Time-Warner Center on Central Park got a look at the loserville schools that pay Tim Wise to put on his revival meetings, they’d be horrified that their child would be exposed to somebody who spends most of his time lecturing at Directional States or below. Here’s Tim Wise’s upcoming schedule:
Leading Anti-Racist Writer and Educator
09/11/15: Huntington, WV Tri-State Conference on Diversity and Inclusion (on campus of Marshall University)
I wonder what kind of rich NYC parents don’t realize that all this white privilege stuff has been around forever and that every junior high school teacher in Arkansas has sat through something like it. Partly this stems from Liberal Amnesia. The hardest thing in the world for liberals to remember is that they’ve running the country racially for a couple of generations now, especially if, like so many parents in Manhattan/Brooklyn, they personally are the ones holding The Megaphone.
But, the NYT recently ran a series on all the foreign white collar criminals who are buying up penthouses near Central Park: East Asians, Indians, Mexicans, and Russians. Maybe these foreigners think this stuff is new in America? Maybe these pre-refugees think it’s good for their kids to employ the Tim Wises to beat up on the natives over white guilt.
Indeed, in recent years, several documentaries filmed inside these schools — including Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster’s“American Promise,” Kavery Kaul’s “Long Way From Home” and “Allowed to Attend,” produced by Trinity’s director of communications — present in excruciating detail the alienation many minority students experience. The schools are depicted as institutions teeming with white students oblivious to their outsize privilege — the lavishness of their spring-break vacations, weekend homes and lunch money — and unaware of the challenges faced by their less privileged classmates.It’s a living.
In “The Prep School Negro,” the filmmaker André Robert Lee explores what it was like to be one of the few African-American students enrolled, on scholarship, in the 1980s at Germantown Friends, an elite Quaker school in Philadelphia. He has taken his film, first completed in 2008 and reworked in 2014, to hundreds of schools around the country.
He maintains that the screenings have helped spur conversations about race and class that would not have been possible even 15 years ago.One of the things that your kid would learn to help him compete in 21st Century New York City in return for your annual $40k check is to talk a lot about “white privilege,” but never, ever talk about “white Jewish privilege.” It’s these subtleties that are hard to put into words logically but that your child will simply absorb unquestioningly from the atmosphere at Dalton that are worth your $40,000 per year.
Mr. Lee is now touring schools with another film he produced, “I’m Not Racist … Am I?” Commissioned by the Calhoun School, the film follows 12 New York City private and public school students for a year while they attend workshops exploring racism and white privilege. “School administrators tell me: ‘We realize we have a lot more work to do on these issues,’ ” Mr. Lee said. …
The students produced strikingly similar charts, with several envisioning a straight, white male as the most powerful citizen and a poor, black single mother as the least powerful one….
Educators who do this work in New York private schools say one of the challenges white students face when exploring their own identity is the dearth of white anti-racist role models. They say white students have traditionally been offered only three ways to confront race: to be colorblind, ignorant or racist.
With that in mind, the Trevor Day School on East 89th Street spends at least some time every year honoring the white civil rights activist Andrew Goodman, who was killed in Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964, while working to register black voters. This year, the school invited Mr. Goodman’s brother, David, to speak at the school.