Friday, March 8, 2013

Does the issue of race make you feel uncomfortable?

A recent series of articles, in The Seattle Times, details the suspension and eventual re-instation of a controversial course on race and privilege at a small Seattle public school. The school district suspended the class at The Center School following a student complaint that the “way the class was taught created an intimidating environment” and made students feel uncomfortable. The school district responded to the complaint with an investigation that “corroborated the student’s concerns.”
A majority of the students in the class, however, were shocked and angered by the school district’s decision. They began holding lunch meetings to determine how to get their class back and created an online petition urging the district to reinstate it. They even organized attendance at a School Board meeting where they defended the course. This response, according to student Zak Meyer, was the result of the class’s emphasis on social activism, “…That was one of the things that [we were taught], about how to advocate in the community.” Meyer also stated that though the class could stir uncomfortable feelings, its frank discussions on race “forced a level of self examination [he] had never before explored.”
It “forced me to take an inner look at myself and examine how I lived compared to others and how I always thought race played a small role in my life,” he said.
District officials insisted in their belief that issues concerning race and social justice are very important and should be taught in their schools, arguing that the dispute was not about social justice but about protecting students, “We don’t want to put any child into a situation where he or she feels so intimidated by the manner in which these issues are taught that the course is no longer effective.”
Here, it is important to note that The Center School is an “alternative public high school with a focus…on community engagement,” and that the course is required only for seniors. What does it say about our country when a school district suspends a class, in a liberal high-school, because a senior student was made uncomfortable by its frank discussions on race? Ultimately, the class was re-instated, but that does not erase the fact that the school district found it okay to suspend it in the first place. Is the issue of race so taboo in American society that it cannot even be discussed in schools?
To me, the initial suspension of the course is horrifying; however, I am pleased by the response of the students to its suspension. Their organization in defense of the course speaks to the growing social conscience of American youth and, because it was a result of their experiences in the course, it also speaks to the necessity of incorporating classes on race and social justice into the curriculums of America’s schools.


  1. This reminds me of a program in Memphis that I participated in called Common Ground. It is a series of 7 sessions in which a group of diverse individuals from Memphis discuss race, its impact on their lives, and its impact on the community. I was able to hear from new perspectives, learn more about how race affects others, and see how it is portrayed in our community and the US. By participating in Common Ground I also gained a better understanding of how to have that difficult conversation of race. All individuals need to learn how race affects yours and others lifestyles. It was refreshing to participate in this discussion because it really opened my eyes to how taboo it is to discuss race and the problems surrounding it.

    With all of that being said, I think it is extremely beneficial for these students to participate in a similar discussion. It is important for all students to be aware of how large of a role race plays in their lives, even if, as Meyer explained, it forces a new level of self examination. Unfortunately, I think the high school environment may not be suitable for such a discussion. In the case of Common Ground, each participant signed up knowingly ready to discuss race. In the case of The Center School, they have made the class/discussion mandatory for all seniors. I feel that the label of mandatory puts a halt to any type of learning or internal reflection that may occur. Many of these students have yet to explore who they are as an individual and how race places into that. Although the class is trying to guide the students down that path of exploration they may not be ready, as an individual to go down that path. Yet, at the same time I think it is extremely important to teach race and privilege because it has such a profound impact on everyone’s daily lives. Maybe if the school had gone about the themes of the class in a less aggressive setting the students would be more willing to learn about the subject.

  2. In my opinion, the course should not have been suspended in the first place. Racism is an important issue in the United States, and it's rarely discussed in schools. Before taking this class, I knew little about the present-day issues of race, such as how African-Americans are more likely to face jail time than whites, or the history of sexual abuse of black women by white men. The first step in combatting racism is to talk about it; keeping something hidden doesn’t do anything to change it.
    In addition, it's sometimes the classes that are uncomfortable or intimidating that are the most important. I don't think that any student really enjoys learning about the Holocaust; yet many schools teach it to children as young as middle school. Since this class is being taught to high school seniors, I think that it’s an appropriate time to discuss the idea of race and racism. The best step would be to find out what part of the class the student found “intimidating” and change that aspect, rather than cutting the class entirely. I’m glad that they eventually reinstated the class, but disappointed that it was only because students petitioned for it and not because school officials realized their mistake.