“I tell my daughter that she has to behave as a guest,” one African-American mother says in a conversation about her daughter’s independent school in New York City. “I tell her not being too loud, too visible.” Another black mom disagrees: “No, no, I tell my daughter that she — just as any other kid — owns the school: it is her school.” Being black in a privileged, predominantly white institution is not without second thoughts and worries. “Our kids are picked out when something happens in the class, because of their color, they just stand out.” And: “The wild behavior of our children is not seen as individual behavior, but as behavior of their race.”
These are some of the conversations I heard over the years, when discussing private schools with parents. I am the white father of two black adopted children and to be honest I initially didn’t feel that kind of alienation at our K-to-12 private school; this community was to me just a school: a socially liberal educational institution with a great faculty and with nice, well-to-do, well-educated and well-connected families, an institution with a majority of people who are in most ways like me, and, as most communal trait, are white. On top of that a school that strives to be a diverse school.
Of course I am on the diversity committee of our school and all the members have a reason to be there: They are black, Latino or Asian, they represent the parent association, they have children on scholarships, or — as is my case — they are gay, and are transracially or transnationally adoptive parents. Next to me, and the diversity director, there are only women, since education is a women’s business. The white straight male, who heads most of the school’s households, is missing: He is at work to pay for the hefty tuition.
Like most independent schools, our school presents itself as a ‘caring community’, which is ‘committed to diversity’. I am without doubt part of that community. My partner and I live just as anybody else the life of privileged, white people. That we are gay sets us apart, but we are so used to that exception that we hardly feel our difference and, even more: in this urban elite surroundings nobody blinks when we show up as a couple for meetings and parties, with or without our two black kids.
But, having heard the black mothers, I wonder if my kids are part of the school community in the relatively uncomplicated way of white people like me — or that they have the conflicted feelings of the parents of their black peers. Do they own the community effortlessly like I did, or do they have the double consciousness of belonging and not belonging? This question resonates for sure loudly for those who have seen the haunting documentary American Promise about the education of two black boys at Dalton, another New York private school.
Diversity is standard fare at private schools in urban areas. They all devote a part of their websites to their intentions and their efforts. The pictures on these sites show generally a lot of kids of color. And most schools have an officer like our director of diversity, who coordinates initiatives and informs and educates the wider school community. Seen from the outside the schools show convincingly their concern; they fit seamlessly in the liberal dream for a more diverse, just and equal society.
But what does it look like from the inside? What do the members of the community see, who not are white, straight, and well to do, but who are actually diverse themselves? The black mothers seeing their children in this environment didn’t seem fully at ease; they are unsure of their ownership of this community and are affected by the threat of stereotyping their children. So, what do my black, adopted, ‘motherless’ kids experience and see in this environment?
Every morning my daughter Rosa plays — as the only girl — soccer or football with the boys of her grade in the ‘garden’, which is not very green and for the bigger part made of concrete. She may have girly hair, but her movements and tackles are all but girly. Some of the drop-off moms and dads watch the game and seem to enjoy her gender-bending attitude. I really don’t think the parents see her or me as different from themselves and their children. But I imagine my daughter must see the differences. She sees fathers and mothers, who are with mothers and fathers, and then there is me: a father who is with another father. I know one and a half other gay couples in the elementary school; there may be more, but we really don’t make a crowd. Rosa cannot see diversity; she sees that she is the exception.
Rosa sees her exceptionality in this community in many more ways. She saw her older black brother moved to another special school because of his learning differences. She sees that most of the kids who play soccer in the morning are white. “We are only three in our grade,” another black girl, asked how the school was going, gave as first answer. Rosa doesn’t have other adopted kids in her year. She sees most parents dropping off their kids are white and she sees that most of the nannies, who do the pick up at the end of the school day are black. And she sees that black and white don’t mix. She sees that most of the faculty is white and that most of the administration people are white as well. She sees that the technical support and kitchen staff are for a bigger part people of color, and that their boss is white. She doesn’t see openly gay teachers. See sees that the black kids in the school are dressed differently than the black kids she sees on the streets in our neighborhood. That is about the people who she sees. And what about the environment? Is it a welcoming place for a diverse kid? She sees that the portraits of people who carry the history of the school — prominently displayed in the hall — are all from long ago and are all white. She sees an architecture that is an early twentieth century copy of European traditions. Nothing in the space reflects where she is coming from.
Diversity for her at her school — and therefore for me — is the experience of the others. For those who embody the diversity the experience is one of isolation, and maybe for some even one of loneliness. In diversity school clubs students can free themselves for a moment of that isolation. But one kid decided against membership of such a club at our school, because she is the only black girl there were it matters most: in her grade. She didn’t want pretend diversity where it doesn’t exist.
Looking with the eyes of a diverse child at the private school seems to me the real measure of diversity. So, how does the school look for a child with physical disabilities? For a gay or lesbian kid? How about for an Asian, Latino, Jewish or Muslim child, a child of a single mom, of divorced parents? And most challenging: How does the private school look for kids on financial aid?
For as long as I bring our children to school and pick them up, I see a tall slender man, a man of color who daily makes his way with his son from home to school and from school to home. There are no yellow school buses for private schools. I got to know him pretty well; he is soft spoken and very good humored, but he hates the winter. He is standing sometimes alone, and sometimes amongst the many black nannies. I see him very seldom talk with people like me, white people that is. What does this school community mean for his son? Does he feel part of it? Did he have play dates at his home far away? Or at his classmates’ homes in the neighborhood? Does his dad, and the rest of the boy’s family, feel part of the community, feel ownership of this community? I don’t dare to ask. But I think I know the answers. He is here for his education and the community, and all the privileges that come with being part of that community, are probably out of his reach.
One would expect that diversity after decades of serious work on it at many private schools would mean about the same for the white majority as for the minorities. That is not the case: There is still an outside and an inside perspective. Diversity now is more or less an expression of good will, of good intentions, the expression of a coveted ideology by the majority. That is not good enough any more: It is time that diversity is lived, not only by the diverse people themselves, but by all the others in the same way. We need a little more action and a little less conversation. The difference between what our kids see and what they should see, will tell us what to do.