At the Bank Street School for Children’s graduation this June, no one was surprised when some of the eighth-graders used their final moments as our students to reflect on race.
A black student recounted a discussion with a black second-grader. “Does it get harder?” the younger student had asked. “Yes,” the the older student said. “Going forward there are things you’re going to have to face. But surround yourself with allies and you will be OK.”
A white student discussed affirmative action. “Racism was a system built for social and political oppression against people of color so that whites could benefit,” she said. “It is impossible to be racist toward white people — the nature of racism itself destroys any notion of such a thing.”
Students feeling confident enough to stand in front of an audience of 400 and talk about race is not something that happens without the considerable effort from teachers and staff. At Bank Street, the private school in New York City where I teach eighth grade and where I am a parent of two children who attend, we’ve learned that teaching about race requires a formal curriculum and “affinity” spaces that allow students to speak their minds.
We see this curriculum as an opportunity to create age-appropriate ways for children to engage with a topic that people too often pretend that children can’t understand. Our experience matches current research: even very young children do notice race, are able to discuss it, and are able to understand issues of inequality.
We, like educators throughout the country, feel compelled to engage our students around the complex issues facing our society, like the Black Lives Matter movement, the 2016 presidential election, and gun control. Through our Racial Justice and Advocacy program, children have opportunities to explore the complex issues of power and privilege. They develop the tools needed to understand, process, and confront injustice.
As an example, classes of 6, 7, and 8-year-olds participate in a lesson where they are asked to suggest what to do if pre-kindergarten students aren’t interested in playing with dolls of color. The students offer a range of answers: “Buy more dark skin babies.” “Have a meeting about it.” “Have the teacher also play.”
While the children’s responses seem simple, through the repetition of themes and dramatic play, our children become adept at talking about race and working toward a more equitable society.
For nearly two decades, our school leaders have also recognized that to best support our students of color, we must hold affinity meetings for those students. Students of color come together with facilitators of color to discuss topics like how to express concern regarding an issue of equity, or current events like the Black Lives Matter movement. It is vitally important for students of color to have a space in which they can interact with each other unaffected by the presence of their white peers.
While some may find the practice of allowing students to self-identify and then engage in group discussion problematic, we know that providing affinity space is an educational best practice. As a white man, I am privileged to live in a society in which I am a member of the majority; the world is my affinity group. My students of color don’t share in this. Affinity groups allow them the experience of sharing a burden rather than carrying it individually. They also allow a group to share in the joy and strength derived from a feeling of belonging.
I consider myself lucky that Bank Street considers racial identity and racial understanding as important as science and social studies. I consider myself lucky to be surrounded by colleagues who are willing to tackle complicated questions with understanding and patience.
In a world where intolerant acts and declarations have become all too common, I consider myself lucky to send my children to Bank Street. Instead of accepting the status quo, they will be empowered to change the world.