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Diversity and Multiculturalism: The Independent School Story (Part 2 of 3)

By Peter Gow — August 02, 2013 5 min read

(This is the second of what is intended to be a three-part series offering my perhaps biased and idealistic view of a significant aspect of independent school life and work over the past few decades. The views here are very much my own, but they’re based on decades of conversations and other experiences with students and colleagues and on my own experience in a school community that has put enormous time, energy, and human capital into issues of equity and social justice--PG)

By the mid 1990s some scores of National Association of Independent Schools member schools--out of a thousand--had completed the Association’s Multicultural Assessment Plan. This was a poor showing, by most measures, but the existence of the Plan and its support by the Association indicated a growing understanding of the challenges of creating multicultural communities from hitherto pretty homogeneous independent schools.

One common recommendation of the MAP was the establishment of an office or at least a point person within the school to lead ongoing work and to serve as a central clearinghouse for issues that might arise in day-to-day life. This was a great deal to ask of any one individual--to be at once ombudsman, professional development leader, spokesperson, mediator--but “diversity coordinators,” “multicultural deans,” and “directors of diversity” began to show up on administrative lists at independent schools across the country.

There was resistance, which ranged from concerns over cost to worries that focusing too much on the situations of underrepresented minority students put undue pressure on them to a principled--or double-speak, as some regarded it--attitude that since this was clearly the work of everyone in the community, creating a special office would relieve people of a shared responsibility. In schools where the minority population was still very low, the need wasn’t always clear, as if white students were to be excused from understanding difference if little or no difference was immediately apparent in their worlds.

The question also arose of other kinds of historically oppressed status. Sexual orientation and gender identity were always present as issues of diversity, as were religion, cultural heritage, and even just plain gender--many of these comprising “invisible minority” status. From the perspective of “the work,” though, most schools tended to focus on race, the mantra being “If you can talk about race, you can talk about anything.” While this didn’t always satisfy as a response, it was certainly true that jump-starting candid, open conversations across racial boundaries proved to be hard work, with scary but critical opportunities to consider issues of identity development, cultural capital, assumptions of every kind, and matters of skin and class privilege. Developing capacity in these did make other kinds of conversations easier, in time.

The designated leaders worked their hearts out, and many were able to bring their communities to places in which honest conversations could take place and in which teachers understood more about the lives and challenges of their students--and increasingly their colleagues--of color. Kids seemed to internalize these new capacities faster than adults, but it was still usually the naïvely racist utterances of students--assumptions voiced in class, comments made unthinkingly, humor or terms repeated from television or music--that could bring whole institutions to a halt and inspire teach-ins and emergency meetings at all levels.

How to respond to these moments became part of a larger discussion. Should the school have “diversity days” or events, or do those relegate big, systemic issues to one-day’s consideration? Celebrate or even acknowledge Black History Month, or does doing so in one month imply that minority issues don’t matter in the other eleven? Visible and emphatic reaction to small incidents, or do you risk building up a kind of “diversity fatigue”? There was never one right answer, but just having the discussions seemed to help--even as it exhausted many of the first generation of independent school diversity professionals.

I am sure there are schools where these conversations seldom took place, for whatever reasons. Although I have heard the words, few schools could legitimately believe “these things aren’t an issue here.” It may have been, and may still be, true that schools for younger students, in the early stages of their own racial identity development, may not experience in as obvious ways the turmoil that can occur in middle and secondary schools, where both majority and minority adolescents must come to grips with what it means to live and work in multiracial communities, sometimes with palpable extremes of socioeconomic diversity.

This might be a good time to point out that for many people in schools where this work became a focus at the turn of this century it was a time of the highest hope and idealism. One of the little privileges that independent schools can claim is that they can aspire to be small utopias built around their loftiest ideals. In the middle of earnest, highly focused work on diversity and multicultural education there is a point where one can begin to envision one’s school as a place where, if we work hard enough and do it right in every way, we can in fact create a truly multicultural mini-world in which we can acknowledge and, yes, celebrate difference and live up to a set of values that transcends the endemic racism, sexism, and homophobia of the outside world. Enter the schoolyard, and forget for a while about the evils of the world. It’s quixotic, naïve in its own way, but a glimmer of what school could really be--and even of a better world.

I can’t speak for schools where this work didn’t take place, but I can say from experience that where it did it was challenging, sometimes indeed painful, personally liberating, and important. I don’t know for sure that independent schools made more of a point of this--a bunch of them, anyhow--than other sectors of the K-12 world, but I know that for some independent schools and many, many independent school people this was and continues to be the essential work. As individuals and institutions we continue to stumble and sometimes to cast blind eyes, but the work has to go on. Increasing socioeconomic stratification and the struggle of the middle class--reportedly a diminishing presence in independent schools--to keep up with rising tuitions are strong incentives that make the work even more critical if we’re ever to build a society whose functioning is not driven by issues of race, wealth, need, and privilege.

I’ll be coming back to this topic again, with some observations on where we are as a sector and on how the MAP’s current successor, the Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism, is helping schools continue the work. I’ll also be addressing the areas that continue to challenge our schools every bit as much as they challenge our society.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

The opinions expressed in Independent Schools, Common Perspectives are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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