MAXWELL:  With candor, students talk about racism

11/21/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



I must acknowledge that on most days I am pessimistic about the state of race relations in America.

So, when Joan Warrick, an English teacher at North Central High School asked novelist Beverly Coyle, who is white, and me to discuss with students our experiences growing up in Jim Crow Florida during the 1950s, I agreed to the engagement with trepidation. I assumed that North Central’s students, like most adults I know, would be in deep denial on race and race relations.

I was dead wrong.

For an hour, Beverly and I described how, because of racist attitudes and various forms of legalized segregation in Florida, we led parallel lives. (We wrote essays about our childhood experiences for the 1999 summer issue of Forum, a magazine of the Florida Humanities Council.) Born a few months apart, living within a few miles of each other and traveling the same roadways, our lives _ one white and one black _ did not intersect and could not have intersected in any meaningful way.

At the end of our talk, we invited the students to comment and ask questions. For more than 30 minutes, Beverly and I, jaded veterans of America’s culture of race, listened to the most candid discussion on race relations we have encountered during the 18 months we have been on tour.

Most remarkably, the students did not, as adults do, substitute affirmative action for race. They talked about race without recrimination, and they did so openly and eagerly.

Surveying the approximately 200 faces in the audience of sophomores, juniors and seniors, I saw real America: Most black students sat together in small groups, and most white students did the same. I was drawn, however, to the handful of white and black kids sitting together.

Because I could not take notes, I will try to paraphrase what some of the students said.

An African-American senior in the front row said that until recently, she had no white friends. Her parents and grandparents had taught her to distrust whites. Even now, she warms up to white people reluctantly, she said.

A white male, sitting next to a black male, said that Indianapolis is rife with racism. He said that he sees evidence of it every day, almost everywhere. He reminded his schoolmates and teachers that Indiana, including neighborhoods in and around Indianapolis, still has a large population of Ku Klux Klansmen. He also said he had no doubt that blacks are victims of discrimination in almost every way.

I was surprised, but heartened, when a white girl discussed her mother’s latent racism. One day, while she and her mother were stopped in their car at a busy intersection, two black males walked to the corner, and her mother automatically locked the car doors. The girl said she was appalled by her mother’s behavior, the snap judgment that the boys would rob them.

Another white male talked about restaurants that hire blacks to work in their kitchens but refuse to let them work on the serving lines and in the dining rooms.

Over and over, the students described their experiences with racism. But what impressed me most were the students’ lack of defensiveness and their refusal to blame the victim. Again, this was a new and surprising experience for me.

After the session, a white girl came to me and expressed her disappointment with the way adults handle issues of race. “Most of them don’t tell the truth about racial stuff,” she said. “My parents say they aren’t racist. But they are. They and their friends do stuff that I see as racist. Then they say blacks caused all the problems. Maybe blacks do cause some of the problems, but somebody else had to start all this stuff in the first place. I don’t believe what grown-ups say about race. I see things with my own eyes.”

Warrick, who teaches senior composition, Western Literature for seniors and sophomore composition, has spent her entire 24-year career at North Central, which has 3,200 students. Of that number, 33 percent are black. Realistic about her students and race relations in and around Indianapolis, her reason for bringing Beverly and me to campus was simple: “I want North Central’s students to have an awareness that people have different kinds of experiences, that people come to their attitudes, their ideas about life through their experiences.”

She believes North Central, like the rest of America, has racial problems and that they must be addressed honestly. As such, many of her assignments deal directly with racial issues. For example, students must read Prescott King’s essay on the Montgomery bus boycott, and they watch the movie The Long Walk Home in class. Along with the essay and the movie, they also must interview a parent or a grandparent or someone else who was alive before or during the civil rights movement. The interviewee is asked about race relations and their perceptions and personal experiences at the time.

“It’s a wonderful assignment because what happens is I always have kids who had grandparents who grew up in South,” Warrick said. “They always learn something that was never discussed before. It’s so funny. The child interviews a parent or grandparent and comes back with these huge eyes saying, “My gosh. You won’t believe what happened to my dad who happened to be traveling or what happened to my grandparents who were in Kentucky.’ It’s a real eye-opening experience for kids. It’s one thing to hear that segregation occurred, but it’s another when, man, it’s your own family. I think it makes kids aware and really brings it home to them that this kind of thing happens.”

A white student who did not get a chance to ask her question during the session, escorted me to my car. “We really thank you all for speaking to us,” she said. “Everybody wanted to talk about race. It was cool.”

Warrick’s efforts are worth emulating in every public school in the nation because school is the ideal place to start excising the cancer of racism.

“I look at North Central and I look at how large it is, and I see all the different ethnic groups,” she said. “North Central is a microcosm of society. It makes me happy that our kids are aware of the problems and that they are anxious to talk about them. These kids seem willing to do something about these problems. Their honesty is pretty wonderful. It’s the thing that makes me keep teaching after 24 years. It’s that hope, and it’s the fact that kids are not jaded like adults. They still have optimism about race and the world. It’s wonderful. My job is to help keep them hopeful.”