How important is it for children of color to attend a school that has diversity? I ask, because our son just started kindergarten and his school is like a big ol’ slice of Wonderbread. It is really white.
How much does it matter?
“Wait until they start middle school,” my husband told me. “Wait until they get turned down for a dance because they’re black. They need to have friends who get what that feels like.” I had to fight back tears thinking about this ever happening. Is he right? I live life hoping for the best from people. But do I need to prepare for the worst?
Beverly Tatum, a researcher on racial identity development and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? (among other books), writes that kids of color often start gravitating toward one another in middle and high school, as race becomes more salient, because they benefit from having peers who “get it” and can relate to the experience of being black (or Mexican-American or Filipino-American, etc.). Fitting in is a big part of adolescence. Will my kids feel different or “other” if they are among the very few children of color in their school and, if so, how will that affect them?
And how much have things changed? Tatum’s book was written almost 10 years ago and is based on research at least that old. Is there newer research and what does it say? The number of kids being born to interracial couples is undoubtedly on the rise – being multiracial isn’t so “different” as it used to be. Then again, we live in a community with an active Klan presence less than 30 miles away and a “secret club” in town that only allows white men. And even in the absence of that kind of blatant racism, there is still stereotyping and prejudice that exists, which can be hurtful even if it comes from a place of ignorance rather than hate. So it would be naïve for me to believe race isn’t going to come up. When it does, would my boys be better off in a diverse school?
A better school?
In our case, it is a moot point. My husband is right. “Better” seems to mean “whiter.” When it comes to graduation rates, average SAT scores, and the availability of extracurricular activities, the district next door – which is 37% black/multiracial/Hispanic – is right on par with the one in which we live (with so little diversity that I couldn’t calculate a percent based on publicly available data). The areas in which the neighboring district falls behind are graduation rates for low income and special education students, so unless one of my kids ends up needing special education services, we’re just as well off in our adjoining district.
Diversity for its own sake
Aside from all of that – worries about racism and whether my kids would benefit from having black peers as they develop their racial identities – there is the simple issue of the value of diversity. For now, race may not seem to matter much in the day-to-day for my oldest son, who is only five. But I can’t help thinking about what he is missing out on – what all of the kids at his elementary school are missing out on: The chance to experience diversity early on, the chance to have friends from all backgrounds and to realize early on, when it sinks deep into their bones, that they are more alike than different, and that their differences are part of what makes them each unique and interesting.
Saturday night we went to a football game in the neighboring district. All around us were kids of color hanging out with white friends. All around us were other mixed families just like ours. This is what my sons could have. And most likely that is what my sons will have. Because when I consider all of the pieces – school quality, emotional attachment to our home and community, the opportunity for my children to experience diversity in their day-to-day – I have to agree with my husband that the benefits of moving outweigh the reasons to stay.
What do you think?