Sunday, November 11, 2007


There was an interesting article about “race” and education by Will Okun in yesterday’s Times. Okun is an apparently nice young man who teaches in an inner city school in Chicago. His article discusses the question of whether it’s better for “black” students to have “black” teachers. Early on, he quotes Barak Obama:

In Charles Barkley’s book “Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man”, Barack Obama recalls a few college professors asking
him, “Man, why are you pretending that you’re not smart?” Obama continues, “And coming from black professors, especially, that was important, because I couldn’t throw back at them, ‘Oh, you don’t understand.’”

Looking back at his own educational experience, Obama concludes, “That’s a big part of the reason it is so important to have black teachers, especially black male teachers. I’m not saying exclusively, but in many situations you need someone who can call you on your stuff and say… that it’s not ‘acting white’ to read a book.”

Half his class thought that yes, “black” kids benefit from “black” teachers and half thought, cue string music, that the color of a person’s skin didn’t matter a whit when it came to teaching effectiveness. Personally, that’s not an argument that I wish to engage in, but I did find it interesting that Obama was making it.

I am a member of a poor “African-American: family living in Brooklyn. Although that statement is factual, it is misleading. We are not ”African-American“ in the common sense of the phrase. None of our ancestors were ever slaves on southern plantations. We do not speak Ebonics. We have never been to a Baptist church. We are only poor in the middle class New Yorker sense of the word.

The point is that we have a lot of superficial things in common with Obama, so I take a little more interest in his career than I do the other politicians. And I was surprised to read that he would ever pretend that he was not smart. I know that mindset is a problem in what’s commonly referred to as the ”African-American“ community, but Obama was not raised in that crowd. His mother was a white woman from Kansas. His stepfather was Indonesian. He grew up attending an American school abroad and then a tony independent school in Hawaii. From there he soon went to Harvard where he was an academic superstar. He is ”African-American“ only in the sense that his father is from Africa and his mother from America. That’s not to say anything against ”African-Americans.“ It is a fact.

Same thing with my family superficially. The kids have spent time abroad and go to a very good college preparatory school, but as far as I know they have never experienced even a hint of racism and they certainly do not show any of the endemic effects suffered by many of those who do. They actively participate in class, ask probing questions, do well on tests and are fully, and effortlessly, integrated in the social life surrounding the school, as are the other ”black“ kids who go there. Did Obama really have it that bad? Was there really strong pressure to act "black" in Indonesia? In Hawaii's premier prep school? That would certainly suck.

Of course I am aware that my little family unite lives in a utopia-like bubble and cannot compare our experiences with those of people in most of the rest of the country. So I worry some about what will happen when the kids move on. I’ve read horror stories about racist segregation at elite liberal colleges. I remember one article (can’t find the link) that detailed how kids on college visits were segregated by ”race.“ ”Blacks“ were given one tour, Asians another, Hispanics still another. ”Whites,“ it seems, were not recognized as a group and no special activities were planned for them.

That is the kind of thing I fear and I suspect it is the kind of thing that warped Obama. Although I know the education establishment categorizes kids based on ”race,“ it is possible for them to get through high school without having to classify themselves. Apparently many universities force people to make that declaration. That is a travesty.

Imagine if you’d spent your whole life in a healthy, integrated environment in which nobody gave a shit about your melanin levels and then you go on a visit to Harvard and they put you in a particular group, fenced off from your regular social group because you are "black." Do you refuse to participate in the apartheid? Do you go off with the ”whites?“ Might there be social repercussions?

In the comments section of the Times article, a commenter gives some insight into what it’s like to be categorized solely based on your outward appearance:
Race is a complex subject. So is class. They are often, but not always, inextricably intertwined. However, as a Black and Latina teacher who grew up middle-class and went to Yale, it is frustrating when people assume that I have something in common with my students because I look like them. Mr. Okum asks what he knows of the challenges of his students’ lives. This is a legitimate question. But it’s also one that I have to ask myself. What do I know about abusive parents, or a limited future, or hunger? I’m the fourth generation in my family to receive a Master’s. Going to college was not an option; it was what you did.